Lesson 5: New Caledonia

NEW CALEDONIA, also known as Kanaky, is in many ways a very surprising place. Nicknamed “Le Caillou (The Stone),” the surface of this Melanesian archipelago’s main island, Grand Terre, is essentially composed of nickel, chromium, magnesium, and manganese, a mix that should be toxic to plants. In New Caledonia, it’s not. In New Caledonia, plants that should not technically be able to survive have developed specific mechanisms that allow them to cope with, even to thrive in, such harsh conditions. Looking at the history of New Caledonia, one may say the same about the island nation’s indigenous Kanak people. French colonization of New Caledonia was harsh. There was economic and physical exploitation, there was apartheid-like segregation and forced relocation to Kanak-only reservations…at many turns Kanak population could easily have disappeared. The fact that today the Kanaks are the main political force in potentially-soon-to-be-independent New Caledonia is a testament to their unique survival instinct.

First “discovered” by British Captain James Cook in 1774, who named the islands “New Caledonia” because they reminded him of Scotland, New Caledonia soon came under the thumb of the French. The island’s first economic success was sandalwood, and when that industry petered out the colonizers participated in the decidedly more horrendous act of “Blackbirding”– the process of enslaving people from poor islands such as New Caledonia to work in Fijian or Australian sugar cane plantations.

In 1853, under orders from Napoleon III, French troops took New Caledonia and turned it into a penal colony, shipping over 20,000 prisoners there until the transportations ended in 1897. The French didn’t just ship thieves and brigands to New Caledonia; they also sent political prisoners there, such as famous “Communards” Henri de Rochefort and Louise Michel. The French colonialists kept their economic gains in New Caledonia away from the islanders; instead of employing the Kanak people the French imposed an apartheid-like system known as “Code de l’Indégnat,” restricting their freedom of movement and forbidding them them from owning land.

During World War II New Caledonia’s fate finally changed when the U.S.-dominated Allied navy used the islands as a base. At one point there were 50,000 U.S. troops in New Caledonia, about equal to the islands’ population at the time. After the war the French finally granted New Caledonia status as an “overseas territory” and in 1953 gave all New Caledonians, no matter what their ethnicity, French citizenship.

Today there are still tensions in New Caledonia between descendants of European settlers (known as Caldoches), Polynesian immigrants and Melanesian Kanaks; as of 2009, 40% of the New Caledonian population considers itself part of the Kanak community, and about 35% claim community affiliation as “European.” In 1998, after numerous Kanak revolts and the development of increasingly power independence movement, France signed the Nouema Accord, which worked out a 20 year plan that transferred much political power from France into the hands of New Caledonians. Some time between 2013 and 2018 there will be a referendum that will allow long term residents of New Caledonia to decide if they want to become fully independent. Will they decide to go out on their own? We shall see….

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