Not a Saint-Arnaud

Not such a Saint-Arnaud

9 August 2020 (An earlier version of this blog was published in the ‘North Central News’, in St Arnaud, 29 August 2020)

This article is about a genocidal French Crimean War hero, after whom the Victorian township of St Arnaud was named. Jaques Leroy De Saint-Arnaud, the man, is a something of a large ‘elephant’ in the bigger ‘Black Lives Matter’ reconciliation ‘room’.

None of what follows diminishes my fondness for and deep family associations with the town of St Arnaud. The suggested renaming and reconciliation options I tease out, would if implemented, only serve to enhance to the national status of this proud and vibrant town and community.

Until recently I knew very little about the origin of the St Arnaud township name. Most people might also have thought it was something to do with a French Saint. Those who stop in St Arnaud and read the present inscription on the statue erected in the Botanical Gardens in 2005 will learn that Jaques Leroy De Saint-Arnaud (b.1796, d.1854), Marshal of France:

… although ill, commanded the French Army, combined with the British forces and a Turkish contingent against Russia in the Crimean War. In 1854, seven days after leading the victorious Battle of Alma, he was stricken by fever and died three days later on a vessel taking him home to France. This was around the time of the New Bendigo gold rush when the national spirit was running high.

 This heroic narrative that lionizes the ailing Marshall and the less than decisive Battle of Alma. It goes on to claim that by 1856, ‘the residents of the goldfield had already decided on both the site and the name for a village along the St Arnaud Creek’. The inscription is at best a half or partial truth. The Battle of Alma occurred in Crimea late September 1854. Dispatches about the Battle arrived in Australia at the time of Eureka Rebellion in Ballarat two months later in December 1854. The miners at that time were actually revolting against the colonial authority and reach of the United Kingdom, including in Australia.

Saint-Arnaud, as the North Central News Editor, Sue Hynes recently revealed in the paper’s brave and timely Editorial, was no Saint. Indeed, he was a genocidal, multiple mass murderer who had absolutely nothing to do with Australia or the town. The French General Saint-Arnaud ordered the massacre of approximately 800 Moslem women, children and older people in Algeria in 1845. He boasted about herding them into a cave and asphyxiating them. He was also involved in several other later, dreadful genocidal and ethnic cleansing atrocities including burning entire villages. In the face of this evidence, the State member for Ripon, Louse Staley recently suggested that we retain the name Saint Arnaud and “learn from history, not erase it”.

My view is quite different. It is impossible to erase the past, but it is possible to learn from and acknowledge the past in order to reconcile the future. I ask whether our descendants have to live with scars like this irrelevant mass murderer (and a monument to him) in our town and landscape?

We have many options. At the very least, we need to better learn and understand who this man was and decide via enlightened and informed debate as a community what we might do about it. Closing our eyes and hoping it will go away is not an option. Might we first add the honest truth to a new inscription on the colonial-inspired brass monument in the Botanical Gardens?

Might we also approach the descendants of those massacred by Saint-Arnaud in Algeria, for example via the Northern Grampians Shire through the Algerian consulate, and apologise to the Algerian nation that we had no idea who this man was? Might we commission an appropriate memorial to those who were his victims in both Algeria and St Arnaud?

In my view, this dreadful man played no part in founding Australia or the town. His name is an obvious, unnecessary, accidental blight on our community and landscape. Changing a name does not change history, but it does change the prospects for the future.

As essential historical background, the French invaded Algeria (in north Africa) in 1830. Its brutal colonial conquest and occupation lasted over 160 years until the Algerian War of Independence in 1962. During the initial conquest, the French troops, including those led by Saint-Arnaud, were known to have looted, raped and massacred entire villages, desecrated mosques and destroyed cemeteries. In recent years this systematic organised French violence, chiefly in the form of massacres known as ‘razzias’ have come to be acknowledged not as warfare but as genocide.

My previous travels have taken me to many countries including Vietnam where Australian troops were deployed alongside US troops less than 50 years ago. Most recently in 2019 I spent one month in Iran, a proud Islamic nation demonized for its many decades of Islamic resistance to US covert military and political violence. When being unconditionally welcomed into a mosque in Shiraz in Iran, I was asked, “Why does America and Trump hate us?” All I could do was weep with shame and wonder whether Iranian Moslems would be similarly welcomed into an Australian Christian church.

In both Vietnam and Iran, I have been incredibly warmly welcomed as an Australian. Both countries respectively have had a long and deep history of enlightened Buddhist and Islamic learning and scholarship that goes back hundreds of years, well before the European enlightenment of the 17th and 18th Centuries.

Because these colonized nations and their and associated religious cultures are respectively primarily Buddhist and Islamic, and their people are largely non-white and non-Christian, they have, like Algeria, both been subject to centuries of colonial (including French) invasion, occupation, brutalization and subjugation. It is into these and other Asian and Middle Eastern wars seeking liberation and independence from colonial occupation that Australia has sometimes blundered and become hopelessly enmeshed within my lifetime.

The very recent ‘Black Lives Matter Movement’ is a moment in history where a global realization of the brutalization of non-white people has finally come to the surface. I was heartened on 11 June 2020 see the AFL football players respectfully take a knee and acknowledge that ‘Black Lives also Matter’ in Australia, particularly in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. I could never have imagined any of this would have been possible even a decade ago. We can learn and reconcile from history.

Way beyond the brutal police murder of George Floyd in the US, Australians have also come to realise that all is still not right in Australia in terms of equity and justice. St Arnaud the township may be a long way from Algeria, but it is increasingly uncomfortable to deny the Marshall’s genocide and to retain such an odious name for the town. Closing our hearts and minds and hoping it will all go away denies that black (including Moslem) lives also matter.

Might we instead find an acceptable, alternative local name for the township used by the traditional owners going back one thousand generations? For example, Kara Kara, whose local and town associations are more appropriately with gold and quartz, and whose name subsumed the local government area including the St Arnaud township from 1861 to 1994. If an acceptable name change was negotiated with the traditional Dja Dja Wurrung owners, this would also be one appropriate and very generous act towards local and national Aboriginal reconciliation. It would be an incredible win-win.

In changing the name, we would acknowledge that some genocidal deeds against humanity, and the naming of places commemorating the people responsible, whether it be Hitler in Germany, Pol Pot in Cambodia or Saint Arnaud in Algeria, are unnecessary scars on the community and the Australian landscape. Saint-Arnaud’s now well-documented act of genocide is so abominable that at the very least, there needs to be a public reexamination and reconsideration of the name, and ideally a process leading to a suitable renaming.

It is not possible to erase history. But it is possible to learn about, reconcile and change the many things that clearly need changing. Future generations will thank us for our wisdom and bravery by acknowledging that black lives do matter, including here and in Algeria. In thinking globally and acting locally, our sustainability and lives in this violently inherited Australian Dja Dja Wurrung landscape will be further reconciled and greatly enhanced.

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