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New Caledonia - History

New Caledonia was discovered in 1774 by the British navigator James Cook, who christened the country “New Caledonia” because the mountainous scenery of the Main Island reminded him of his native Scotland (Caledonia is the Latin nomenclature for Scotland). He noted that the country was populated by Melanesians (ancestors of the Kanaks).

Alexander MacKenzie, a native of Scotland, was an important explorer and chief trader for the British North West Company. Employees of this company were known as “Nor’westers”. MacKenzie made expeditions of the area known as “New Caledonia”, now British Columbia and the Northwest Territories of Canada, in 1789 and 1792. Fortunately, the New Caledonia name for this part of the world did not stick.

On 24 September 1853, Rear Admiral Febvrier Despointes annexed New Caledonia on behalf of France to forestall any move by the British. New Caledonia has been French ever since. The city of Noumea, the present capital of New Caledonia, was founded in 1854.

From 1864 onwards, thousands of convicts were shipped to the colony. Nouméa is where the convoys of convicts were taken. The first 250 (out of an estimated total of about 21,500 convict) arrived on May 9, 1864 aboard the Iphigénie. Most of the convicts were placed in the penitentiary center on Île Nou (which became the Nouville peninsula).

New Caledonia was made a penal colony by Napoleon III; around 5,000 Communard deportees were sent there. Given New Caledonia’s location on the other side of the world, it was quickly seen as the perfect place to provide a safe prison for political opponents to the various regimes which rose to power in France following the Revolution. More than 10,000 convicts were sent here. Moreover, the authorities decided that both male and female convicts should be forced to remain in New Caledonia for a period equivalent to the duration of their prison sentence, with the aim of boosting the colony’s population. The penitentiary was abolished in 1897.

The indigenous Kanaks were confined to reservations and forced to work, which led to many revolts and deaths on both sides of the conflict. During this period, New Caledonia was the scene of several Kanak uprisings, the most famous being the rebellion led by Great Chief Ataï in 1878.

The French in New Caledonia considered that the island was their home. They liked to he called Caledonians. In this respect they were something like the Australians across the Coral Sea. Allowing for differences in language, religion, and custom, the French in New Caledonia had some of the same hearty friendliness and independence that characterized the Australians.

From the start of the Great War, France’s possessions in the Pacific were to play a significant role given their strategic position in the great ocean and due to the fact that they are not far from major sea routes for the warring parties’ trade, the traffic of their warships and notably because, starting in August 1914, the well-targeted operations carried out by Japan were to eliminate Germany from their Far East possessions in China and the Pacific.

Not long after the fall of France in 1940, the French colonials on the island revolted against their pro-Vichy governor and declared for the Free French. The Governor of New Caledonia, Mr Pélicier, decided on 20 June 1940, to "continue the fight alongside the English". The island and the harbor at Noumea, the colony’s capital, became a huge naval repair, troop transit, and logistical nexus for America’s armed forces. This cigar-shaped island lies only 750 miles across the Coral Sea from Australia. Given possession of this key spot, the Japanese might have been able to knock out Australia and certainly would have blocked the US route across the Southwest Pacific.

The U.S. military employed some 1,500 New Caledonians out of an indigenous population of about 30,000. The US presence had a huge and generally positive economic, political, and cultural impact on the Kanak population, but stimulated an almost paranoid reaction among Free French officials, who saw the American “occupation” as a threat to their colonial dominance.

The decolonization of Kanaky and of the Kanak people had along history largely because France had always declined to acceptUnited Nations principles and prosedures and continued to consider their case as falling solely within the framework of the French Constitution. In 1946, France had withdrawn New Caledonia from the list of countries to be decolonized. In 1963, France abrogated the Outline Law providing for self-determination and, following the Territory's re-inclusion in the list in 1986, had refused to cooperate with the Special Committee.

In the 1970s with the formation of the Kanak-based party Front Indépendantiste, Kanaks demanded land reform and recognition of their culture. In the mid-1980s when famous New Caledonian political figure Jean-Marie Tjibaou said Kanaks can only rely on themselves for decolonisation and four of the five independence parties of the time formed the Front de Libératíon Kanak socialiste (FLNKS), which championed the Kanak cause.

The Pisani statute, adopted in 1985, provided for the holding of a referendum by 31 December 1987. That statute had been adopted as a result ofpa demonstration organized by FLNKS on 11 November 1984 to call for a boycott of the Lemoine statute, which had resulted in 15 deaths. The pro—French parody of a referendum was organized by the Chirac—Pons Government in September 1987.

In the 1980s, the country was shaken by conflict between the opponents and supporters of independence. The strife gave rise to violent clashes which escalated into widespread insurrection. The violence culminated when a hostage situation in Ouvéa led to tragedy and the two sides were finally persuaded to take part in negotiations which led to the Matignon Accords. In 1988, the French Government, FLNKS and the Rassemblement pour la Calédonie dans la République (RPCR) signed the Matignon Accords. Tjibaou signed the Matignon Agreements, which served as a compromise between loyalists to France and separatists who wanted independence. The Accords specified a 10-year transitory status, after which a self-determination referendum would be held to allow the New Caledonian people to vote for or against independence.

Jean-Marie Tjibaou (pronounced she-BOUGH), leader of the Kanak Socialist Liberation Front, was arguably the most important post–World War II Oceanic leader. His intellectual abilities, acute understanding of both Melanesian and European civilizations, stature as a statesman, commitment to nonviolence, and vision for Melanesia’s potential contributions to the global community have all contributed to the creation of a remarkable and enduring legacy. Tjibaou was assassinated 04 May 1989. Tjibaou’s assassin, Djubelly Wéa, was killed in a gunbattle with the bodyguards of Tjibaou. Wéa was not a "crazy fanatic" but the product of a distinctive reality — with a very different cultural and political reading of New Caledonia’s destiny which favored guerrilla war to end French rule.

The FLNKS plan was not independence in 1998, but rather the establishment in 1998 of a State associated with France which could, for a certain number of years that remains to be determined, share its sovereignty with the French State and then, at the end of a period which remains to be negotiated, the State would become completely independent.

Having agreed to participate in that process, FLNKS maintained its reservations with respect to the Accords. Those reservations concerned, in particular, the population that was to participate in the referendum on the question of self-determination planned for 1998. The Matignon Accords had allowed the participation in the referendum of all people present in the Territory provided that, during the period from 1988 to 1998, they had not changed their domicile.

However, as a result of the demographic policy of the French Government from the early 1970s onwards, the Kanak people had become a minority of the population. Noting the reservations of FLNKS, the Prime Minister of France had promised to take measures against immigration which would enable the Kanaks, at the time of the referendum in 1998, to become a majority again. The French Government had not kept its promises and during the 1987-1998 period a further 20,000 settlers arrived in the Territory, mainly from France.

Between February and April 1998, talks were held between FLNKS, RPCR and the French Government as a result of which the Noumea Accord on the future status of the territory was signed. The Agreement was to run for 20 years at the end of which period a referendum would be held on the transfer of sovereign powers to New Caledonia, its access to the international status of full responsibility and the organization of citizenship by nationality. The Noumea Accord provided for a practically sovereign status and postponed the final referendum on independence to a date between 2015 and 2018.

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Page last modified: 16-11-2017 18:42:31 ZULU