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New Caledonia - History

New Caledonia History

Little is known about the Oceanians, who came from South-East Asia around 50,000 years ago and settled in the western Pacific, but between 7000 and 5000 BC further waves of migrants from South-East Asia brought agriculture, canoe building and pottery to the region. They left burial mounds on Grande Terre and Île des Pins and petroglyphs on Grande Terre. The islands saw further migration from present-day Polynesia and Samoa from the 11th to the 18th centuries. In the late 16th century, the Spanish began sniffing around the Pacific in search of the mythical Terra Australis, and with stories of the noble savage and Pacific paradises proliferating around Europe, the English and French weren't far behind them.

The English explorer Captain James Cook sighted Grand Terre in 1774 and named it New Caledonia, as he liked to think it reminded him of the Scottish highlands, which the Romans had called Caledonia. Fourteen years later Louis XVI sent an expedition under the Comte de La Pérouse, but the expedition was lost in a cyclone off Vanikolo in the Solomons. Admiral Bruny D'Entrecasteaux was sent to find them three years later, and the Admiral and some of his crew landed and took a month to cross the north of Grande Terre on foot. The first Europeans to stay any longer were British and American whalers, who set up an oil extraction station on Lifou in the Loyalty Islands in 1840. Sandalwood cutters followed, and tensions rose, as the whalers and lumberjacks were hardly the cream of European society. By 1853, Napoleon III was looking for a strategic military location and, concerned that the British might get there first, he annexed Grande Terre under the pretext of protecting France's missions. The French moved in and governed by military regime for the rest of the 19th century.

As the French missions became more powerful, traditional customs began to disintegrate and the islanders' way of life came under threat. 'Blackbirding', the twee (and offensive) euphemism for slavery that continued into the 20th century, and previously unknown diseases squeezed the population even more. The French saw the Pacific as a good place to dump their great unwashed masses, and they deported their first convicts in May 1864. Many were political prisoners from the Paris Commune, but others were the derelicts and petty thieves from the streets of the metropolis, who became known as 'wretches in paradise'. By the time deportation was banned in 1897, 21,000 convicts had been sent. The discovery of nickel and the arrival of free settlers from France exacerbated the race problem, as Europeans encroached on ever more tribal lands. In 1878, a seven-month revolt against French rule resulted in 200 French and 1200 Kanak deaths. The repression that followed further weakened Kanak culture.

Kanaks were recruited in large numbers during both world wars, and during WWII 40,000 American servicemen were based in New Caledonia. Those Kanaks employed on the US bases observed relatively good relations between blacks and whites and were paid real wages for the first time. After the war, the colony's status was changed to French overseas territory.

Post-war, Kanaks began making political and social demands, and Chief Naisseline of Maré prepared a 'native bill', arguing that because Kanaks had fought and died under the French flag in both wars they were entitled to the rights of French citizens. Kanaks were granted citizenship in 1946; in 1953 the first political party, the Union Calédonienne, was founded; and all Kanaks were given the right to vote in 1957. The nickel boom of the 1960s led to rapid growth in Noumea, and increased both Kanak agitation for land rights and the Caldoche's wish for greater independence from a far-flung administration. The first France-educated university students returned to New Caledonia in the late 1960s, having witnessed the Paris student protests of 1968, and political consciousness - and agitation for independence - grew.

Independence and the restoration of Kanak lands was firmly on the election agenda of 1977, but by that stage, Kanaks had become a minority in their own land. The turning point for the independence movement was 1984, which ushered in two years of widespread chaos, known simply as Les Évènements ('The Events'). Disillusioned with the French Socialist Government's empty promises for reform, several independence parties formed the FLNKS (Front de Libération National Kanak et Socialiste), with Jean-Marie Tjibaou as its first leader. The FLNKS boycotted the 1984 territorial election, and violence started to shake the country. After one of the most radical of the FLNKS leaders was shot by paramilitaries near La Foa, riots exploded all over. The French flew in paratroopers and declared a six-month state of emergency.

Election boycotts followed, and then further assassinations and bombs ripping up central Noumea; then came further accords. The French fell out with Australia and the United Nations in 1986 as the UN put New Caledonia back on their decolonisation list, an important step for the independence movement. France interpreted the move as interference in its internal affairs and expelled the Australian consul general from Noumea on the grounds that he had played a leading role in the process. Tjibaou was assassinated in 1989 by members of a splinter group of Kanaks who believed the FLNKS had sold out over the peace agreement of 1988. The violence died down during the 1990s, and buzz words today in right-wing and many pro-independence circles are 'consensus' and 'negotiated independence'.

The Noumea Accords of early 1998 were a blow to the pro-independence movement, as they put off independence for the territory until 2013 at the earliest. The reason for the delay was due to fears that the referendum could lead to a renewal of violence. It is more likely that France views New Caledonia as an ecconomic and political asset it does not wish to lose.

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