New Caledonia, which entered “History” very late, has nevertheless had an eventful destiny: the shadows cast by penal servitude and colonisation, religious and geopolitical wars, the hopes of a new Eldorado, the hard labour of the pioneers and the shocks of the Evénéments, the events or troubles. The North still has the marks of this history written in its landscape and in the hearts of its people.
As is shown by the fragments of Lapita pottery (period dating from 1300-200 B.C.) discovered in Foué (near Koné), the first inhabitants of New Caledonia go back nearly 3 000 years. During the following period, Naia Oundjo, the Kanaks in turn arrived in the territory. They were masters of the art of polished stone and founded their civilisation on cultivating the land (mainly yams and taros).
On 4 September 1994, the English explorer James Cook discovered our island, and christened it New Caledonia in honour of Scotland, as apparently it reminded him of this region of Great Britain of which he was a native through his father. He landed at the locality called Balade on the north-east coast.
From the middle of the 1840s, missionaries began to come and settle. The struggle between French Catholic Marist Brothers and Protestants from the United Kingdom would prove bitter. New Caledonia was finally proclaimed a French colony, still at Balade, on 24 September 1853, by the French rear admiral Febvrier-Despointes, on orders from Napoleon III.
On 25 June 1854, French soldiers founded Port-de-France (Noumea) to serve as the administrative seat for the colony. This simple garrison would soon become a small town and would take the name of Noumea on 2 June 1866.
In 1864 New Caledonia became a penal colony and received 4 000 prisoners and political deportees. After the Paris Commune (1871), the islands served as the place of deportation for former communards condemned by the war councils set up by the Thiers Government.
Then from the end of the 19th century till the beginning of the 20th century, several attempts at colonisation were undertaken, and numerous free settlers came to settle with their families, particularly in the North, on concessions allocated by France for the cultivation of coffee, cotton, rice and other fruit-bearing trees. But success does not always come when expected.
Other ideas, such as the Ouaco corned beef canning factories, the La Crouen thermal springs or the first mining boom, mark the high points experienced by the North at the end of the 19th century.
During the Second World War, New Caledonia rallied to Free France in 1940 and from 12 March 1942 became an important American rear base in the war against Japan.
After the war, France dropped the term “colony” and abolished the Code de l’indigénat, the code covering the indigenous population. New Caledonia became a French overseas territory in 1957 and is now a unique entity in the French Republic.
In parallel, the Territory experienced rapid and substantial economic growth, thanks to the exploitation of “green gold”. The famous nickel boom took place in the 1970s, when New Caledonia became the third largest producer of nickel in the world.
But the 1980s saw tensions peak between the opponents and partisans of independence, and the confrontations soon degenerated into almost general insurrection during the period called the Événements, the events or troubles (1984-1988). The violence culminated in 1988 with the Ouvéa hostage drama. This painful episode pushed the two camps and their leaders to negotiate the signing of the Matignon Accords on 26 June 1988, providing for the establishment of a 10-year transitional status that was to end in a referendum on self-determination so that New Caledonians could decide for or against independence.
This accord was supplemented by the Noumea Accord of 5 May 1998, which provided for substantial autonomy and progressive transfer of powers from the French State to New Caledonia until a referendum on self-determination, which will take place between 2014 and 2018. If the vote is negative, a second and possibly a third referendum can be organised.
Today, all the communities live together peacefully in New Caledonia, though that doesn’t mean they have given up their convictions…