New Caledonia (Kanaky) was populated by Melanesians (Kanaki) 2,000 years ago. The islands were named by Captain Cook in 1774, as the tree-covered hills reminded him of the Scottish - Caledonian - landscape. In 1853, the main island was occupied by the French Navy which organized a local guard to suppress frequent indigenous uprisings. Nickel and chrome mining attracted thousands of French settlers. The colonizers pushed out the original inhabitants, and traditional religions, crafts and social organizations were obliterated, and many landless natives were confined to 'reservations', and the system of terraced fields were trodden over by cattle. The last armed rebellion, stifled in 1917, only accelerated European land appropriation.

After Algerian independence, in July 1962, colonization increased with the arrival of pieds-noirs, the former French colonists in Algeria. by 1946, New Caledonia had become a French Overseas Territory but the resulting political autonomy did not favour the Kanaks, reduced to a minority group in relation to the caldoches (descendants of Europeans who had settled a century ago). Most of the Kanaks actively supported independence as the bulk of them lived in poverty with high unemployment rates, and suffered educational discrimination. By the 1970s, discontent with the economic situation produced by colonial domination caused strikes, land invasions, experiments in cooperative work, and a powerful campaign to restore traditional lands to the local groups. these had been totally occupied by settlers and used mostly as cattle pastures. the rescue of coutume (cultural traditions) and the Kanak identity became a priority, and the proposed luxury tourist Club Mediterranee camps were firmly rejected.

Kanak claims were supported by other independent Melanesian countries (Fiji, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and above all Vanuatu), and were put forward at the South Pacific Forum in August 1981. A month later, pro-independence leader Pierre Dederco, a Catholic of European origin, was murdered at his home by right-wing extremists, changing the malaise to a full blown political crisis. Another strong reason why France was hesitant to grant Kanaky independence is that it has the world's second largest nickel deposits, and extensive reserves of other minerals including chrome, iron, cobalt, manganese, and polymetallic nodules, discovered recently on the ocean floor within territorial waters. Furthermore, the islands' strategic position is of great military value. Its ports, facilities and bases house 6,000 troops and a small war fleet (including a nuclear submarine), considered by the military command as a 'vital point of support' for the French nuclear-testing site on Mururoa atoll.

The election of President Mitterrand in 1981 rekindled the hopes of the pro-independence parties. The French socialist leader was supported by most Kanaks, who saw independence as a way to end the unfair income distribution on the island. This stood at $7,000 per capita (the highest in the Pacific except for Nauru) but the vast majority of the money was concentrated in the hands of European  - mostly French-business people, the metros, who enjoyed incredible fiscal benefits, and the caldoches who monopolized the most important official oppositions.

In July 1984, the French National Assembly passed special bills concerning the colony's autonomy, though it rejected amendments submitted by pro-independence parties, confirming Kanak fears that the socialist government of France had no intention of granting independence. In November, the main opposition force, the Socialist Kanak National Liberation Front (FLNKS) called for a boycott of local Territorial Assembly electors, which were sure to endorse the French government plan of postponing Kanak independence indefinitely. In December 1986, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the right of the Kanak people to self-determination and independence, proposing that the FLNKS be recognised as their legitimate representative.

One year later a referendum was held to determine whether or not ties with France should be maintained. voting was open to all residents of the island, even Europeans and immigrants who arrived as recently as three years and, for this reason, the FLNKS boycotted the referendum. According to the opposition and the Australian and New Zealand/Aotearoan governments, the high abstention rate of around 41.5 per cent invalidated by claim to legitimacy for continued colonial domination. When all attempts at negotiation failed for the Kanaks, the French attacked the island of Ouvea, killing 19 people, most of whom were apparently executed rather than killed in combat. In June 1988, FJNKS leader, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, and Jacques Lafleur (leader of the Caledonian Popular Assembly for the Republic and strongly opposed to independence) signed Section 1 of the Matignon Accord, supported by the French prime minister Michel Rocard, in Paris. From July that year direct government over Kanaky was re-established from Paris. Section II of the Accord stipulated the adoption of preparatory measures for voting on self-determination in 1998 and the freezing of electoral roll, to prevent France increasing the number of voters by sending new colonists.

The territory was divided into three regions, two with a majority of Kanak voters. One of the aims of the division was to create a Melanesian (Kanak) political and financial 'elite', taking over power from the pro-independence groups in most of the territory. Other clauses of the agreement planned greater financial support from Paris during the following ten years. In a first referendum that same year, the agreements were ratified. In May 1989, Tjibaou and another independence leader who supported the Maatignon agreements were assassinated in Ouvea. In 1991, the trade balance was affected by the fall in international prices for nickel caned fish. In the two provinces controlled by the pro-independence parties, a new generation of lead4ers appeared, but the situation worsened for most of the Melanesian population. the imbalance of income became pronounced amongst the Kanaks and greater access to material goods distanced many Melanesians from their community structures and traditions.

In the caldoche areas, mainly covering the capital Noumea, social inequalities also increased, partly due to the arrival of Melanesian farmers who built shanty towns on the outskirts of the city, but also due to the impoverishment of some caldoches. In a context of increasing social tension, disturbances like those in March 1992 became more common. the political repercussions of these new social contradictions were reflected in the 1995 provincial elections. The Palika, one of the FLNKS groups, registered separately, criticizing the leadership of the Front representatives in the two provinces controlled by the pro-independence groups. Both political sectors obtained similar results. Nickel exploitation by the pro-independence groups in the northern province gave outstanding results in the first years of their leadership, allowing them to form an association with the Canadian Falconbridge company. However, the pro-independence groups attempts to establish a processing plant with the Canadian company were complicated by similar plans in the French State mining company, SLN-Eramet. FLNKS sympathizers protested blocking access to the French-controlled installations.  

Kanaky independence negotiations changed course in April 1998. The FLNKS and Paris established the basis for a general agreement, known at the Noumea Accord. the coexistence of two different systems - one that follows Kanak traditions and the other imposed by France - proved to be the most difficult issue to resolve. The Kanaks wanted respect for their culture and their traditional civil organization. the Noumea Accord allowed for the transference of powers that would assure a 'nearly sovereign' territory within 15 to 20 years. The Kanaks and the Caldoches agreed to share a common 'citizenship', while France acknowledged the 'shadows' remaining from the colonial period. In November a referendum was held to ratify the Noumea agreements. The Yes-vote was victorious with 69.14 per cent of the vote. In December, the text of the law defined the application of the Noumea Accord. On December 23, the National Assembly voted on the new country's legal foundation, which covered the implementation of new institutions as well as a 'progressive' transfer of state powers. Thierry Lataste was appointed new High Commissioner of the island in July 1999. Two years later, J Pierre Frogier was elected Head of Government. 

Thank you so much for visiting the above four Domains. I am very pleased to be able to share with you that further limited advertising on About New Caledonia Page, along with other Web Pages within the above three Domains, are now available. Potential advertisers are cordially invited to choose from several thousand Web sites available for placement of your important advertisements.

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The territory consists of the island of New Caledonia (16,700 sq km), the Loyaute/Loyalty islands (Ouvea, Lifou, Mare and Walpole), the archipelagos of Chesterfield Avon, Huon, Beleip, and the island Noumea. The whole group is located in southern Melanesia, between the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) to the East and Australia to the West. Of volcanic origin, the islands are mountainous with central reefs. The climate is rainy, tropical, and suitable for agriculture. The vegetation is dense and the subsoil is rich in nickel deposits.


Peoples: Indigenous Kanaks/New Caledonians are of Melanesian origin (the Kanaks group) 42.5 per cent, there are French and descendants of French (known as caldoches) 37.1 per cent, as well as Wallisian, 8.6 per cent, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Chinese and Polynesian minorities.

Religions: Roughly 60 per cent Catholic, 16 per cent Protestant and around 5 per cent Muslim. Languages: French (official) and more than 30 Melanesian and Polynesian dialects. Political Parties Rally for Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS); Federation of Committees for the Co-ordination of Independentists, separatist; National Front, nationalist, Socialist Kanak Liberation/Kanaky Future, extreme left separatist. Social Organizations: The Caledonian Workers' Confederation (CTC), the Federation of New Caledonian Miners' Unions (FSMNC); the New Caledonian Federation of Laborers' and Employees' Unions (USOENC), and the Union of Exploited Kanak Workers (USTKE).


Official name: Territoire d'Outre-Mer de la Nouvelle-Caledonie et Dependances. Administrative divisions: Three Provinces Loyaute, Nord and Sud. Capital: Noumea (25,900 people (1999). Other Cities: Mont-Dore 22,700 people; Dumbea 15,200 Poindimie 4,700 (2000). Government: Head of State, French President Jacques Chirac. High Commissioner named by France, Thierry Latante, since July 1999. Head of Government, Pierre Frogier, since April 2001, Legislature: 54-member Territorial Assembly. National Holiday: 14th July, Bastille Day (1788). Armed Forces: French troops 3,700 (1993).   

Population: 224,000 (2002)
Land area: 18,280 KM
Capital: Noumea
CFP franc  
Language: French

Melanesians and Polynesians: Surviving cultures

Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia were originally inhabited by Melanesians and Polynesians. Melanesians (from the Greek melas, black and nesio, islands) live in a group of South Pacific islands which include New Guinea, Kanaky (New Caledonia), Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji, the Santa Cruz Islands and their smaller neighbors, as well as on the Bismarck and Louislade archipelagos. Because of the dark pigmentation of their skin and their hair type, Melanesians were classified in the past as a negroid group. Their physical characteristics make them a homogeneous group although recent studies link them to the Papuans and even to Aboriginal communities in Australia. Polynesians, meanwhile, stem from the same original ethnic groups, but are distinguished from the Melanesians by a more robust physical constitution, fair skin and straight hair. There are still common traits in language and physical appearance although their societies have taken different directions.

The first Melanesians arrived 40,000 years ago, probably from the south of the Asiatic continent. About 9,000 years ago, they began to domesticate indigenous root crops and organize their social life around agriculture. Later on, they also specialized in trade and maritime technology as well as fishing. They generally moved in small groups, with a stay in any one place limited by the duration of crop cycles. Polynesians, by comparison, probably descended from Austronesians, ancient seafarers who arrived on the Pacific archipelagos from South Asia around 4,000 BC, populating New Zealand/Aotearoa, the Samoan islands, French Polynesia, Tonga, Tahiti, Hawaii and other smaller islands where they still live.

The range of languages spoken by Melanesians and Polynesians clearly displays the exceptional linguistic variation of Oceania, where one quarter of all world languages are spoken. Melanesian and Polynesian languages belong to the Malayo-Polynesian family - or more precisely to the eastern branch of this group - which includes more than 800 dialects spoken by approximately five million people. Melanesians speak more than 400 of the dialects in this group in Fiji, the main dialect is spoken by nearly half the population - some 334,000 people - and it is used in official journals and publications. Other dialects include Motu, Roviana, Bambatana, Tolai and Yabem. Christianity has been gaining ground and progressively replacing traditional forms of religion, although some communities, Melanesian and Polynesian alike, continue to practice cosmic initiation rights and animism.

This great cultural, social and linguistic diversity suffered intense political upset with the arrival of the Europeans. Western culture has reached even the most remote villages where some forms of business and capitalist organization can be seen, along with an increasing dependence on imported products. Traditional culture survives in marginal areas where there is greater resistance to the dominant culture.

More About New Caledonia


The western Pacific was first populated by hunter-gatherers who came from South-East Asia at least 50,000 years ago. this was the Pleistocene period, a time when the lowered sea level open d an easy migration route through Indonesia and New guinea, ansd as far as the Solomon Islands. Without the technology and skills to cross the increasingly wide stretches of open sea, these people, known as Papuans, were restricted to their islands. Subsequent people, collectively known as Austronesians, moved into the area from the west, mingling with the Papuans and eventually becoming the highly diverse group of people we conveniently group together is 'Melanesians'. Eventually the wider seas were conquered and the Austronesians, now known as Lapita, settled over the Melanesian archipelagos. In about 1500 BC, they arrived at New Caledonia from Vanuatu.

The Lapita were hunter-gatherers and are named after a site near Kone on New Caledonia's main island, Grande Terre, where their elaborate, pin-hole incised pottery was discovered (see the boxed text 'Lapita Pottery' in the special section 'Kanak Arts') below. Other Lapita sites include tumuli (burial mounds) on Grande Terre and Ile des Pins and petroglyphs on Grande Terre (see the boxed text 'Petroglyphs'). From New Caledonia, the Lapita continued to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, and were the predecessors of Polynesians. The Lapita had an enormous influence over a vast area of the Pacific from 1500 to 500 BC. They were highly skilled sailors and navigators, able to cross hundreds of kilometres of sea, and trade and settlement were important to their culture. They were also agriculturists.

From about the 11th century AD until the 18th century, New Caledonia saw another wave of migration, this time from western Polynesian islands such as Samoa, Tonga and Wallis. Threatened overpopulation forced these islanders to set sail in long canoes, in search of small uninhabited islands, or larger islands with a population they could dominate or live with. In New Caledonia, they mainly landed on northern Grande Terre and the Loyalty Islands, where they intermarried with the Melanesian tribes.

Pre-European Times

Over the centuries, the bulk of the islands' inhabitants settled on the coast along river valleys and at mountain foothills. Clan groupings varied in size, from as few as 50 to up to 5000, depending largely on what the local environment supplied and the success of their own agriculture. They cultivated yams, taro, manioc and other crops, the terraced fields they once worked are still visible on Grande Terre. With no domesticated animals or large four-legged mammals living on the islands, the locals relied on fish, roussettes (flying foxes) and cannibalism for protein. Interclan wars were common and eating the flesh of the enemy was an important ritual believed to enhance the power of the victorious clan. Most clans were isolated from each other, leading to the evolution of the many dialects in New Caledonia. Life centred around the grande case, the clan's largest (conical) hut, where the chief lived. this hut was topped by a wooden carving known as a fleche fatiere, which symbolised the presence of the ancient and highly worshipped ancestors. Rule within the clan was by a revered tradition known in French as la coutume (custom), which is not written down but recalled y the tribal elders (see boxed text below).

European Arrival

In the late 16th century, the Spanish sent out expeditions in search of Terra Australis Incognita, the great southern continent that was believed must exist to counterbalance the landmasses of the northern hemisphere. They located the Solomon Islands, as well as islands in northern Vanuatu, but nothing farther south. Each new discovery gave rise to myths of Pacific paradise and 'the noble savage'. It wasn't until the late 18th century that the first European arrived in New Caledonia. by that time it was inhabited by Melanesians and Polynesians estimated to number at least 60,000. The English explorer James Cook spotted Grande Terre in 1774 when midway through his second scientific expedition in search of Terra Australis, Cook named this new land New Caledonia because the terrain reminded him of the highlands of Scotland (called Caledonia by the Romans).

Cook and his crew, aboard HMS Resolution, anchored off the north-east coast on 5 September 1774 and spent 10 days exploring the region. Cook was struck by the civility of the 'natives' and made the gift of a pair of dogs to his friend, the Kanak chief Ti-Pooma. He gave a pair of pigs - the island's first such creatures - to another chief. Cook later commented that the natives were 'robust and active, courteous and friendly, of honest nature and the women modest'. The Resolution then sailed down the east coast of the main island (without sighting the Loyalty Islands) until cook came across the beautiful Ile des Pins (Isle of Pines). the Island's 'fine timber', he hoped, would be suitable for shipping purposes. After some trouble negotiating the reefs encircling the island, Cook eventually landed. His carpenter declared the wood perfect for shipping, making the island one of the few places in the South Pacific where a large ship could hope for a new mast.

French interest in New Caledonia was sparked 14 years later when Louis XVI sent comte de la Perouse, Jean-Francois de Gaalup, to explore in economic potential. But La Perouse and his crew on the Astrolobe and La Boussole disappeared in a cyclone on the reefs off Wanikolo in the south-east of the Solomon Islands. A mission to find them set out from France on 28 September 1791. Led by Admiral Bruny d'Estrecasteaux and Captain Huon de Keimadeck the Esoparance and La Recherche landed at Balade on 17 April 1793, having sailed past Vanikolo where, unbeknown to them, two survivors of La Perouse's expedition were still living. Shortly after arriving in New Caledonia de Kermadec died. D'Entrecasteaux and members of his crew carried out an exploration of northern New Caledonia, crossing by foot from the east to the west coast and back again. They stayed a month but their reaction to the islanders was very different to Cook's. The admiral reported them to be aggressive thieves and cannibals, the women prepared to sell themselves.  

One theory given for the different perceptions of the English and French is that Cook was naive, although this seems unlikely given his previous extensive exploration in the Pacific. Another theory is that the French explorers had harsher and more critical attitudes. there's also the possibility that, in the two decades between the arrival of the two groups, new clans (with different practices) moved into the Balade area and these were the people the French met. D'Entrecasteaux made the first European sighting of Ouvea, the northernmost of the Loyalty Islands, and died during the return journey to France in 1793. In the same year, the English captain Raven on the Britannia sighted Mare, the southernmost of the Loyalty Islands, and reported the presence of sandalwood. But it wasn't until 1827 that the islands were correctly charted by the French explorer Dumont d'Urville.

Hunters & Traders

British and American whalers were the first commercial seafarers to make landfall on the islands. The British whalers wet out from the small Australian settlement of Port Jackson (now Sydney) and by 1840 had set uip an oil extraction station on Lifou, the largest of the Loyalty Islands. However, they were not generally welcomed by the islanders and the first skirmishes between locals and Europeans took place here. the whalers were followed y sandalwood traders, who were the first Europeans to have any real impact on the islanders. They came in search of sandalwood trees, where sweet-smelling roots and core were traditionally burnt in incense in Chinese temples. As supplies in the northern Pacific had already severely diminished, the traders' attention turned to the south. Between 1840 and 1850, traders operating out of Australia stripped first Ile des Pins, then the Loyalty Islands and finally Grande Terre's east coast. 'they also collected beche-de-mer (sea cucumbers). The traders gave the islanders metal tools such as axes, nails and fish-hooks, or tobacco and alcohol in return for the sandalwood. With their ships loaded, they sailed to china, where the fragrant wood was traded for tea for Australia. 

As the Chinese market expanded and sandalwood supplies diminished, the traders' tactics became more threatening and arrogant. Tensions developed because of cheating and the abuse of local customs. The traders also brought diseases such as smallpox, measles, dysentery, influenza, syphilis and leprosy onto the islands. the indigenous people and their medicine men had no cures for these afflictions and vast numbers of people died. Eventually, fierce confrontations broke out between the locals and the traders. In 1849 the crew of the American vessel Cutter were massacred and eaten by the Futuna clan, which lived between Balade and Pouebo. Later in the 19th century, many Kanaks were taken to work on foreign plantations as labourers blackirders (slavers; see the boxed text 'Blackbirding' in the Loyalty Islands, below).

The Missionaries

Although their aims were ultimately the same, ie, to bring Christianity to the heathen islanders, the Catholic and Protestnat missionaries were great adversaries. They personified not just two branches of faith but two highly competitive nations: France (Catholic) and England (Protestant). the battles that ensured, especially on the Loyalty Islands, wrecked havoc on their converts. Two Protestant Samoan missionaries from the London Missionary Society (LMS) were the first to arrive on Ile des Pins in 1841. The LMS had learnt elsewhere in the Pacific (at the cost of the lives of several of their European brethren) that it was safer to send Polynesian converts into unknown territory to break the ice. Though soon driven off Ile des Pins by unreceptive locals, the British missionaries successfully established themselves on Lifou in 1842. Meanwhile, seven French Marists, sent out by the Societe de la Propagation de la Foi (Society to Propagate the Faith), established a mission at Balade on the north-east coast of Grande Terre in December 1843. The mission was demolished four years later by angry locals suffering from drought, starvation and diseases inadvertently introduced by the missionaries. In retaliation the French military arrived and destroyed the tribal settlement, driving the locals into the mountains. When the missionaries attempted to re-establish themselves in 1851, they brought the French military with them for protection.

The missionaries changed Kanak culture and daily life profoundly. Their 'word of God' was the word of a dominant culture imposing its values on the local people. Nakedness was considered offensive and 'proper' clothing was introduced, while children were sometimes separated from their parents to live and attend school at the mission. the British missionaries introduced the game of cricket, and stamped out traditional games. Converts were made to sleep on beds and drink tea. Polygamy, along with cannibalism, was customary to some tribes and the missionaries staunchly campaigned for the eradication of their practices. One of the major stumbling blocks between the missionaries and the Kanaks was the concept of land ownership. the missionaries believed they had 'purchased' a block of land from the local clan and therefore what that land produced was theirs. Melanesian custom, however, did not recognise the idea of private land ownership. Communal crops were harvested and distributed among the clan. When the Melanesians tried to take yams from the missionaries' fields, the missionaries branded them as thieves and eventually used dogs to guard their stores.

The relative success of early missions is attributed in part to the threat posed by the French military. The missions offered protection to displaced tribes and, as long as they maintained their authority over the clan, local chiefs were ready to compromise with the missionaries. But as the missions became more powerful, customary life began to break down. People were forced to choose between the mission's leadership and its dualistic good-against-evil doctrine, or the rule of the clan's chief and their traditional beliefs. On top of this, tribes were soon divided along religious lines, and were soon divided among refugees lines, and wars broke out. It was not until the later part of the 19th century that these 'body wars' were suppressed by the French military.  

French Annexation

In the early 1850s, with fewer South Pacific islands for Britain and France to choose from and the LMS becoming more influential, there was growing concern in France that Britain would take possession of New Caledonia. The French were looking for a strategic military location, as well as an alternative penal settlement to the notorious Devil's Island, off French Guyana in south America, which was riddled with malaria. In 1853, Napoleon III ordered the annexation of New Caledonia, under the pretext of protecting France's floundering Catholic mission. When the French flag was raised at Balade on 24 September 1853, Britain did not react because it was too busy with newly acquired possessions in new Zealand and Australia. In 1862 the first governor was appointed and, for the second half of the 19th century, new Caledonia was governed by a military regime.

The Penal Colony

New Caledonia was founded as a penal colony and the first shiploads of convicts arrived in May 1864 at Port-de-France (present-day Noumea). It took four months to sail from France to New Caledonia around the Cape of Good Hope. Conditions were miserable. Those who survived the voyage were kept in large huts on Ile Nou, off Noumea harbour, and carried out the colony's public works, including building Noumea's Cathedrale St Joseph and most of Grande Terre's roads. The most difficult convicts were sent to Camp Brun, referred to as 'the slaughter-house', where men were put to hard labour, housed in dungeons and often beaten. The guillotine was brought to New Caledonia in 1867 and, in the next 21 years, about 80 heads rolled. Almost 21,000 male and female convicts were sent from France to New Caledona for various felonies. Political prisoners were high on the list and, in the eight years following the 1871 Paris Commune uprising, many 4300 Communards were deported.

Most Communards were sent to Ile des Pins but a few of the more 'dangerous' ones were incarcerated on the Ducos Peninsula, across the harbour from Noumea. Among the more famous of these was Henri de Rochefort, a newspaper editor who was a member of parliament in 1869. Rochefort and a few others escaped to Australia in 1874. Rochefort then went to the USA and the UK, campaigning for the release of his compatriots in New Caledonia. Another well-known deportee was the feminist and anarchist Louise Michel, who was also imprisoned at Ducos. She had earned the name 'the Red Virgin' during the Paris Commune riots and refused any special treatment on Ducos. After the general amnesty in 1879, she worked in Noumea, sympathising with the Kanaks' struggle against colonial rule, and later returned to France. She wrote a collection of Melanesian legends, titled Legendes at Chantes de Gestes Canoques.

The deportees on Ile des Pins suffered from isolation and homesickness, and many young poets and artists gave up and suicided. These artisans and intellectuals had philosophies that helped disrupt much of the zealous missionary work going on at the time. they shared a collective hatred of the bourgeoisie and especially the clergy. Also in 1871, 26,000 Arab warriors in Algeria, France's North African colony, revolted against the past 40 years' colonisation. the rebellion was crushed and the Berber leaders captured and sent to Ile des Pins and Ducos. Many sent 50 years in the colony before their sentences expired and they were able, as old men, to return to their homeland. Others simply stayed.

Once freed, the ex-convicts were encouraged to stay and settle in New Caledonia, and women prisoners were shipped out from France to find husbands among them. The experiment was not entirely successful as the women preferred the colons, free settlers who were migrating to the territory. Many of the convicts returned to France.

The Revolt of 1878

In the 1860s and 1870s, aided by the discovery of nickel in 1864, a program was set uip to bring settlers from France. Hostilities between the Kanaks and the French arose when the settlers encroached in tribal lands. The process of taking Melanesian land began in earnest when the governor, Guillain, introduced the system of contonnement, which gave him the right to sell land, with unlimited grazing rights, to French settlers at a fixed price, and to appoint or dismiss Kanak chiefs. Large tracts of land were taken over for cattle farming. This destroyed the Kanaks' taro and yam beds and wrecked their irrigation channels. As a result, in the two years leading up to the Revolt of 1878, the Kanaks were in real fear of famine. Another grievance was the settlers' deliberate desecration of tribal gurial grounds in their search for native skulls and artefacts, which were prized in Paris.

Some of the best land was taken from local leader, Chef Ataf (Chief Ataf) to be used for a women's prison farm at Ponwhary, near La Foa. To voice his dismay, Chef Ataf met the governor, Olry, at nearby Fort Teremba, Ataf produced to sacks- one filled with fertile soil, the other with rocks - and told the governor 'this is what we used to have, and here is what you are leaving us'. His words fell on deaf ears. The Revolt of 1878 broke out around La Foa on 25 June. Led by Ataf, the Kanaks attacked the gendarmerie (police station), killing the police, settler families and workers. The Kanaks then marched on Fort Teremba, unsuccessfully. In the first two days about 120 whites, including women and children, were killed. The revolt continued for seven months, involving clans all the way from Boulouparis to Poya. In all, 200 French and 1200 Kanaks, including Ataf an d several other chiefs, were killed. As a result of the rebellion, 800 Kanaks were exiled to either the Iles Belep or Ile des Pins. Others were sent to Tahiti, never to return. The repression which followed, damaged the Kanak culture and way of life forever.

Establishing the Colonial Order

Full-scale colonisation began at the end of the19th century. However, it was the indigenat system, instituted by the French soon after the 1878 revolt, that was to be the most damning aspect of colonisation. this system put Kanaks outside French common law, legally giving them a subordinate status. It subjected them to the whims of the ruling colonial administration and made segregation between Kanaks and Europeans legal. the locals were forced into reservation in the mountainous highland, which they could leave only with police permission. Inter-island trading routes among Kanaks were halted and religious or ancestral ties to sites and places were ignored. In the end, only 11% of the land on Grande Terre, mostly hilly regions in scattered areas, was left to the Kanaks. They were forced to work for settlers or the colonial authorities and a 10 CFP reward was offered to anyone capturing a 'native in an irregular situation.' When Governor Paul Feillet came to Noumea in June 1894 he initiated a rigorous campaign to recruit free settlers from France. Families with 5000 CFP and farming knowledge were given free passage and 15 to 25 hectares of coffee. As the governor hoped, coffee exports soared during the late 1890s. When the flow of convicts stopped in 1897, the settlers' free-labour supply was extinguished (although the Kanaks were soon brought in to fill the convicts' place). The metallurgical industry, whose mines had previously been worked by hundreds of convicts, faced the same labour crisis. Recruits were were sought and people from Indonesia, Vanuatu, Vietnam and Japan answered the call. the Societe Le Neckel (SLN) was established in 1910, financed by the Rothschild corporation.

The Kanak population began to decline, dropping from 42,500 in 1887 to only 28,000 in 1901. A later Kanak leader, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, described the Kanaks' demise: 'The tribes had nothing to do but die because there was nothing left to eat because there were no people left to work at growing things to eat'. The indigenat system was reviewed every decade until WWII, with the French authorities deciding on each occasion that the natives hadn't reached sufficient moral or intellectual standards to run their own affairs. Not until 1946, when the system was abolished and Kanaks received French citizenship, were they allowed to leave their reservation without permission.

The World Wars

During WWI, 5500 Caldoche and Kanak men were recruited to form the French Pacific Banalion, which fought in North Africa, Italy and southern France. the Kanaks had been forcibly recruited, unable under la coutume to disobey the command of their chief, who in turn was pressured by the colonial authorities to provide fighters. In all, 372 Kanaks died for France, leading to the 1917 revolt in the Kone-Hienghene area when Chef Noel called on Kanaks to fight the French at home as ably as they were fighting the Germans aboard. Two hundred Kanaks, including chef Noel, and 11 French died in the uprising. A reward of 1000 CFP had been offered by the colonial administration for Noel's head. The Kanak population reached to lowest level shortly after WWI. In 1923, the teaching of French in schools became compulsory and the practices of Kanak medicine men were outlawed, with the threat of jail for anyone practising 'wizardly'. During the 1920s and 1930s, the country became economically isolated, settlement slowed down and the colony stagnated, this situation did not change until WWII.

the majority of French people in New Caledonia chose to support President Charles de Gaulle and the Free French Forces as opposed to the collaborationist Vichy regime that took over France in WWII. the colony's US allies were given permission to set up a military base on Grande Terre and, in early 1942, 40,000 American and a smaller number of New Zealand personnel arrived. Under the leadership of Admiral Halsey, the Allied headquarters was set up in Noumea. From here attacks were launched against the Japanese in the Philippines and in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Kanaks have positive memories of the US presence. For the first time, they were employed for their labour and received good wages. They were also impressed by what they saw as relatively easy interaction between black and white American soldiers. this taste of a different Western culture would change the lifestyle of many Kanak families.

The Post-War Period

New Caledonia's status was changed from a colony to a French overseas territory after WWII and Kanaks immediately began to formulate their own political and social demands. Chef Naiseline of Mare prfepared a 'native bill' and argued that, as Kanaks had fought and died under the French flag during both world wars, they were entitled to the rights of French citizens. In 1946, Kanaks were given French citizenship and the more privileged, such as chiefs, priests and former soldiers, became eligible to vote the majority of Kanaks didn't receive the right to vote for another 11 years). the authorities finally abolished the demoralising indigenat syhstem. In 1953, the first political party involving Kanaks was formed. Union Caledonienne (UC) was a coalition of Kanaks, white small-scale landowners, the missions and union supporters. It was led by Maurice Lenormand, a Frenchman who had been sent to the colony for military servide3 20 years earlier. Under the banner, 'two colours one people', the UC won 25 seats in the Territorial Assembly election in that same year, becoming the majority party on the General council. Nine seat were held by Kanaks, including one by Roch Pidjot, the man who later became known as the 'grandfather of the independence struggle'. Pidjot later became the first Kanak elected to the French National Assembly.

The nickel boom of the 1950s and 1960s brought prosperity but also caused an imbalance in the country's way of life. Mines appeared everywhere, farmers became miners and Kanaks left their reservations, lured by work and money. The door was open for their entry to the mining industry; Japanese workers had been expelled from the colony following the attack on Pearl Habour, and many Vietnamese and Indonesian workers had gradually been repatriated.  By the late 1960s there was a new wave of immigrants - ni-Vanuatu (citizens of Vanuatu), Wallisians and Tahitians - who arrived on the nickel 'bandwagon', and Noumea went through its own population boom. Apartment blocks seemed to go up overnight, although in the villages there was still no running water or electricity. Schools and offices were now open to Kanaks, but segregation and discrimination continued in other areas of society. The boom harvested bitter fruits. The Kanaks wanted their land back, while the Caldoches wanted to be free from a growing state administration run by people they didn't know. he French administrators' Pacific paradise was slipping away, and the stage was set for the violent political struggles of the next two decades.

The Independence Movement

Political consciousness was raised by the first Kanak university students, who returned from France in 1969 having witnessed the student protests in Paris the year before. One such student was Nidoish Naisseline, the son of the chief of Mare, who formed the Foulards Rouges (Red Berets), a group that took pride in its Kanak culture and broke traditional taboos (such as eating at all-white cafes). Having witnessed the evolution of independence in Fiji (1970) and Papua New guinea (1975), new political groups formed and wanted more than the limited autonomy that the UC had previously aspired to. In 1975 the Caledonian Multi-Racial Union (UMNC) was the first party to demand total independence from France. Two year later, it changed its name to Front Uni de Lineration Kanak (FULK) and, with another pro-independence party, Parti de Liberation Kanak (Palika), put independence and restoration of Kanak land squarely on the agenda for the election of 1977. But by now Kanaks were a minority in their own land. Even if they were united for independence, they were still outnumbered.

With the election of Socialist Francois Mitterrand to the French presidency in 1981, Kanaks had great expectations that their right to self-determination would be respected. But the promises remained empty. Meanwhile, Mitterrand's election was largely opposed by New Caledonia's right-wing Caldoche community, who were supporters of the Rassemblement pour Caledonnie dans la Republique (RPCR), set up in 1977 and led since then by Jacques Lafteur. By this time, the Kanaks' reclamation of traditional land was well under way and had received a mixed reaction from the Caloches. some were prepared to sell out, while others simply dug in. Sporadic violence between the settlers and Kanaks broke out. In 1981`, the UC general secretary, Pierre Declercq, was assassinated. In 1983, round-table talks were held in France between the government and independence leaders, at which France accepted the 'innate and active rights to independence of Kanak people'. In turn, the movement's leaders recognised that other communities in the territory, principally the Caldoches, were 'victim of history' and had as much right to live in New Caledonia as the Kanaks.

Les Evenements

The turning point for the independence movement was 1984, the year that Les Evenements (the Events), as the French refer to the following two years of widespread chaos, began.

In 1984, several pro-independence parties merged to form a new movement, the Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste, commonly called the FLNKS including FULK, Palika and its largest single component, the UC, the FLNKS was seen as a legitimate mouthpiece for Melanesian independantistes. The UC president, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, was its first leader. The party immediately boycotted the forthcoming territorial election. The RPCR won 34 of the 42 seats. A week later, the FLNKS proclaimed the Provisional government of Kanaky, presided over by Tjibaou. Ten days later, mixed-race settlers killed 10 Kanaks near Hienghene (see the boxed text 'The Hienghene Massacre' in the Northern Grande Terre chapter). With the country on the brink of civil war, a plan that included a referendum on independence and self-government 'in association' with France was proposed in January 1985. but it was rejected by the independence movement. A few days later, once of the most radical FLNKS leaders, Eloi Machoro, was killed by paramilitary marksmen near La Foa (see the boxed text 'Eloi Machoro' in the Southern Grande Terre chapters). His death sparked street riots all over anew Caledonia. French paratroopers were flown in and a six-month state of emergency was declared.

France decided to usher in a new program of land reforms and increased autonomy for Kanaks. four regional councils were to be established at an election set for September. The main right-wing parties, the RPCR and the Front National condemned the plan. At the election, the FLNKS won the three regional seats, while the RPCR kept control of the large Noumea-based electorate. After the French legislative elections in May 1986, an uneasy calm prevailed as the new conservative minister in charge of the territory released his plan for New Caledonia's future. It stripped the territory's four regional councils of much of their autonomy and abolished the office that had been buying back land for Kanaks. A referendum on the question of independence was scheduled for late 1987. The FLNKS wanted eligible voters to consist only of Kanaks and those people who were born in the territory with at least one parent also of New Caledonisn birth. With a United Nation's resolution backing this demand, the FLNKS decided if France would not agree to it, that it would boycott the referendum. by now rifts had begun to appear in the FLNKS.

In December 1986, the UN General Assembly visited 89 to 24 in favour of New Caledonia's re-inscription on the UN's decolonisation list. It was an important step towards independence, as it gave international credence to the territory's 'inalienable right to self-determination'. Until 13 September 1987, the referendum on independence was held and boycotted by 84% of Kanaks. Of the 50% of eligible voters who cast a ballot (which included everyone who had lived in the country for more than three years, such as all the nickel-boom immigrants of the 1960s and 1970s), 98% were against independence. The referendum was trumpeted as a resounding victory by loyalists in the territory and the conservative French government. In October, the seven men charged with murdering the 10 Kanaks at Hienghene in 1984 went before the court. The magistrate ruled that they had acted in 'self-defence' and would not stand further trial. The French National Assembly approved a new plan for the territory put forward by the government in January 1987, and called an election for 24 April 1988, the same day as the first round of voting for the French presidency. The new plan redefined the four regional council boundaries so that the Kanaks were likely to lose one region and be left with the country's most underdeveloped and resourceless areas.

The Ouvea Crisis

After years of its proposals being rejected by France, the FLNKS announced its 'muscular mobilisation' campaign. Tjibaou explained the Kanaks' decision to turn to violence. 'We are on a battlefield and we are just dead people awaiting our turn to die. The balance of power is such that if we didn't have international support, the colonial power could wipe us out. In April 1988, the Ouvea crisis erupted (see the boxed text 'Death on Ouvea' in the Loyalty Islands). The Socialists were returned to power in France and a concerted effort was made to end the bloodshed in New Caledonia.

Accords de Matignon

On 26 June 1958, the newly elected French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, brokered the Accords de Matignon, an historic peace agreement signed at the Hotel Matignon, the Prime Minister's office, by the two New Caledonian leaders, Tjibaou and Lafleur. Under the accords, it was agreed that New Caledonia would be divided into three regions: the Noumea-based South Province, the North Province and the Loyalty Islands Province. The last two would both be likely to come under Kanak control in an election. Economic development would target Kanak areas and amnesty with granted for all political offences (excluding murder) carried out before the accords were signed. The accords stated that a referendum on self-determination would be held in 10 years, with all New Caledonians established in the territory by 1988, and their descendants, eligible to vote. Many in New Caledonia saw the accords as a trade-off, with the FLNKS accepting a delay in its desired timetable for independence and the RPCR almost admitting to the inevitability of New Caledonia being cut off from France.

On 4 May 1989, Tjibaou and his second in command, Yeiwene Yeiwene, were assassinated (see the boxed text 'Death on Ouvea' in the Loyalty Islands). With the loss of its leaders, the FLNKS was in turmoil and the FULK, which had continually opposed the Accords de Matignon, left the umbrella organisation.

Towards Independence

As agreed in the accords, France has been pouring money into construction and infrastructure in an attempt in 'rebalance' the territory's economy and give a greater share of resources to Kanaks. In 1988 alone, French financial assistance amounted to US$750 million. electricity and telephone have been installed in remote villages, and Melanesian public servants are being trained in France. Tourism is being expanded on the Loyalty Islands, and a new mining centre, expected to create up to 3000 new jobs and to include a nickel smelter at Kone, is mooned for the North Province.

Right-wing and many pro-independence circles are now in favour of a 'negotiated independence' and power-sharing. The idea is to increase authority while retaining links with France. A new step was taken in May 1978, when the RPCR's Jacques Lafleur, the FLNKS's Roch Wamytan and the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, signed the Accord de Noumea (Noumea Agreement). It focused on the gradual transfer of power from the French State to Ne Caledonia and on the recognition of Kanak culture, and was endorsed at a  referendum (72% in favour) in November 1998. the preamble to the accord talks about a period of colonial 'shadow' but one 'not devoid of light' (see the boxed text 'The Accord de Noumea'). Under the Accord de Noumea, New Caledonians are to agree on a name, anthem, flag and currency design for the country over the next decade. A referendum on full independence is now scheduled to take place in 15 to 20 years. 


The last census, carried out in 1996, tallied the population at 196,870. the Kanaks are the largest cultural group, making up 44.1% of the population, or 86,800 people. Europeans or those of European descent are the second-largest group at 34.3% or 67,500 (43% of these people were born overseas). Wallisians account for 9%. Indonesians 2.5%, Tahitians 2.6%, Vietnamese 1.4%, and ni-Vanuatu Indians, West Indians, Arabs and others make up the remaining 6%.

New Caledonia's population dropped dramatically soon after the European set up in the 1850s, only starting to pick up again in the 1930s. In 1887, there was estimated to be 62,500 people, comprising 65% Kanak, 30% European and 2% other. A count taken in 1921 shoed a large drop to 47,500, of which Kanaks accounted for 57%, Europeans 29% and others, mainly made up of indentured miners, 13%. This period was the all-time low for the Kanaks, their population having been decimated by disease, war and the indigenat system. By 1969, the continued tide of immigrants seeking labour, the growth in European families and the revival of the Kanaks took the total population up to 100,000, though by now Kanaks were a minority (46%) in their own land. Further rapid growth has meant that about 49% of the population is under the age of 25.

The population is largely confined to what is referred to as 'Greater Noumea', which includes the capital and nearby towns of Dumbea, Paita and Mont-Dore. This conurbation accounts for 60% of all Caledonians. those from outside here are collectively known as broussards, ie, someone who comes from la brousse. the total density for the country is 10.5 people per square kilometre.


Kanaks or Ti-Va-Ouere, meaning 'Brothers of the Earth', are Melanesians, the group of people who inhabit many of the islands in the south-western Pacirfic. Although in anthropological terms they are often referred to as Melanesians, the country's indigenous people prefer to be calld Kanaks, and some call their country Kanaky (see the boxed text 'What's in a Name?').

Generally very courteous, Kanaks also tend to be rather shy and often hesitant or even seemingly disinterested in being the the initaiator of contact. However, once you've passed the reservation facade, you'll find they are warm people filled with natural good humour. Repression and the erosion of their customs, however, have led to a general resentment towards the French. When walking through a village they tend to treat every passer-bay with 'bonjour' and, when being introduced, usually shake hands lightly.

Since 1946, Kanaks have automatically been French citizens. the large majority live in clan communities inland or along Grande Terre's cast coast, on Ile des Pins and on the Loyalty Islands, where they make up 98% of the population. Before colonisation, tribes kept mainly to the coast, but during the discriminatory indigenat system they were forcibly moved off their traditional lands. today, many tribes live in foreign areas distant from their birthplace and natural homeland.

In recent decades, Kanaks have felt compelled to forsake their tribal life in search of work and education in Noumea. Since the Accords de Matignon, the imbalance of facilities throughout the country has been recognised. Consequently, the French government has pumped substantial funds into provincial areas in an attempt to create local employment and to build secondary and technical schools so that people do not have to leave their families and communities.


New Caledonia's 'French' population has several distinct groups. The rural settlers, or Caldoches, are those who were born in New Caledonia, with ancestral ties that go back to the days of the convicts, or to the early French settlers, who were known as colons. they generally settled in rural areas along Grande Terre's west coast, where many continue to run large cattle properties. While some Caldoches also set up on the east coast in the late 1800s during the coffee boom, most sold up and left prior to or around Les Evenements, re-establishing themselves in the south or west. Fore more, see the boxed text 'What's in a Name?'. Distinct from the Caldoche are those, of French descent, who were born in New Caledonia in recent times and who live mainly in Noumea. They're variously referred to in French as les autres (the others) or les non-Kanaks or, more preferably, simply Caledonians.

The French who came to New Caledonia to work for a few years with the benefit of high wages are called metros (short for metropoles, meaning from metropolitan France). Another term sometimes used for them, although one that is not appreciated at all, is zoreilles. This name, derived from the French term les oreilles (the ears), originated in convict times when, as the story goes, the guards used to cup their hands behind their ears in order to eavesdrop on the prisoners' talk. Noumea, sometimes called the 'Paris of the Pacific', is the chosen home for most metros. There's a small community of about 2000 pieds noirs (literally, 'black feet'), as Algerian-born French colonialists are called by their fellow French. They moved to New Caledonia after the fall of Algiers in 1962.

Other New Caledonians

The other races of people now making u the country's population arrived for work reasons at various times in new Caledonia's history. At the turn of the 20th century, indentured labourers from Indonesia, Vanuatu, Vietnam and Japan arrived to work the mines. Their families now make up close-knit communities, centres mainly in Noumea, though a few of the more intrepid have set up shops and businesses elsewhere on Grande Terre.

Coinciding with the nickel boom of the 1950s, Polynesians from Tahiti and the French-controlled islands of Wallis and Futuna (located north-east of Fiji) began to arrive in Noumea. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, these Polynesians boomed again along with the nickel.

What's in a Name?

The term 'Kanak' (or canaque as the French originally spelt it) was invented by early Europeans living in Polynesia. It is probably derived from the word 'Kanakas', which was used for people from the South Pacific who were abducted by blackbirders (slavers) to work in Australia and other places in the 19th century. The word was viewed by New Caledonia's indigenous people as an insult and it eventually died out as the French colonial authorities preferred to use 'indigene' (native). It wasn't until the early 1970s, when political consciousness and cultural revival were on the agenda, that New Caledonia's indigenous people reclaimed and became proud of the name 'Kanak'.

The word 'Caldoche' originated in the 1960s and first appeared in Le Petit Larousse, a well-known French dictionary, in 1983. It was initially used as a pejorative (it's a long story... something to do with WWII and rhyming with the derogatory slang term 'Boche' used for the Germans), and there are still some people in New Caledonia who are not fond of the term. 


Kanak arts range from ancient Lapita pottery to powerful contemporary sculptures representing old spirits. Kanaks are skilled and handy craftspeople, using natural materials for a wide range of purposes. However, up until the early 1990s, Kanak arts were not big business and exhibitions were few.

All that is now changing, largely due to the promotional efforts of the Agence de Development de la Culture Kanak (ADCK - Agency for the Development of Kanak Culture), which put on a season of Kanak music, theatre, dance and art in 1995. These days, the Centre Culturel Tjibaou in Noumea organises a year-long program of arts events.


Traditional Kanak gatherings were always accompanied by dances designed to strengthen relationships within the clan and with ancestors. these dances conveyed a message or told a legend, often regarding aspects of everyday life - fishing, a turtle swimming, a case (traditional hut) being built. Dancers painted themselves to appear beautiful before the gathered clans and to please the watching ancestors. The steps were powerful and the feet pounded the earth energetically. Wooden masks adorned with local materials such as bark, feathers and leaves - physical links with the invisible world - were exhibited or worn only by le chef (the chief).

These days, dance workshops are held to help Kanaks learn traditional movements or newly created dances - usually to perform them at large events such as the Festival des Arts du Facifique (Festival of Pacific Arts), which is held every four years and was last held in Noumea in 2000. Should you happen to be in Noumea when a cruise ship docks, you may catch a performance of We Ce Ca, a troupe of 30 young dancers formed to welcome visitors and to perform at special functions.

Kanak dancer wore grass headdress

Likewise, the tribes on Ile des Pins regularly perform welcome dances for visitors from cruise ships.


The pilou is a dance that tells the stories of the clan and is unparalleled as a physical expression of Kanak culture. Although the steps may appear similar in each dance, they are in fact quite different, each telling a story about a birth or marriage, preparations for battle, or the arrival of the missionaries and the subsequent conversion to Christianity. Pilou were staged at important ceremonies, when a new chief took over or after young males had been circumcised and had to be presented to the rest of the tribe, for example. Even greater than a normal pilou was the pilou-pilou, stated to commemorate the death of a chief. Human flesh was sometimes eaten during the feast and, realisng this, the missionaries assumed these dances were cannibalistic rites and denounced them. Later, colonial authorities took it a step further by banning pilou because of their high energy and the trance-like state they induced. The last great pilou was staged in 1951.   


Music-making was an important element of traditional ceremonies such as initiation, courting or the end of mourning, and always accompanied dance and sung. Sometimes instruments were played simply for the clan's entertainment. Above all, however, Kanak music is vocal. There are no Kanak words for music or musical instrument. Rather their terminology is more appropriately translated as 'sound-producing' instruments, the classing example being the conch shell, which, when blown, represents the call of the chief or the voice of an ancestor. Many instruments were made for a specific occasion.

Wetr singers from Lifou p;erform at the Festival of Pacific Arts

String instruments died not exist. Rhythm instruments, called bwanjep, were used during ceremonies and were played by a group of men. More melodious instruments, known as hago, were played solo.

Traditional Instruments

Among the instruments used in ancient Kanak culture were (with Anglised names) the:

Jews-harp (wadohnu in the Nengone language where it originated) made from a dried piece of coconut palm leaf held between the teeth and an attached segment of soft nerve leaf. When the harp is struck, the musician's mouth acts as an amplifying chamber, producing a soft, low sound.

Coconut-leaf whizzer (maguk-in Pije): a piece of coconut leaf attached to a string and twirled, producing a noise like a humming bee.

Oboe: made from hollow grass stems or bamboo.

End-blown flute: made from a 50cm-long hollowed pawpaw leaf stem. The pitch varies depending on the position of the lips and how forcefully the air is blown through the flute.

Bamboo stamping tubes: struck vertically against the ground and played at main events.

Percussion instruments: These included hitting sticks, palm sheaths that were strummed to hit, and clappers made from a hard bark filled with dried grass and soft niaouli bark, tied together and hit against each other.

Rattles: worn around the legs and made from coconut leaves, shells and certain fruits.

Conch or Triton's shell: used like a trumpet on special occasions and played by a special appointee. 

Contemporary Music

Most modern Kanak music is labelled 'Kaneka', a term coined at a Kanak music seminar held in the town of Canala (on Grande Terre) in 1986. Born out of the Kanak struggle for independence, politics was one of its main driving forces. At the time, local musicians saw a need to develop a musical concept that incorporated both current techniques and Kanak heritage. so they blended modern instruments with ancestral harmonies and rhythms, and married traditional stories and legends with lyrics that call for an end to repression. Most songs are sung in Kanak languages. Immensely popular with young people throughout the country Kaneka's chief exponents are bands such as Mexem (from Lifou), Gurejele (Mare) and Vamaley (Voh). A contemporary Kanak group that's big with teenagers is OK! Ryos, a young trio from Mare headed by Edouard Wamejo. Compilation CDs and cassettes by these and other groups are sold in large stores for about 3000 CFP.

In order to listen to some of the above contemporary music, you are invited to Jane Resture's Pacific Islands Radio at:

Pacific Islands Radio
www.pacificislandsradio.com and click on Jane Resture's flagship station at the following URL:

Pacific Islands Radio


Pottery dates back to New Caledonia's earliest known civilisation. the Lapita culture of around 1500 BC Lapita pottery was traded deep into the south-west Pacific and remnants 3000 years old have been found in Papua New Guinea. Later, it was essentially a woman's craft, and finished pots were traded with other clans for more desirable goods. Locally made traditional pottery is no longer produced. Made from clay deposits found around the islands, the pottery was simple. the clay was kneaded and rolled into strips, which were joined by beating the clay with a wooden spatula. the pots were then wrapped in grass and baked in an open fire. While still hot, they were covered with kauri-gum varnish for waterproofing. For more information, see the boxed text below:

Lapita Pottery

The pottery found at Lapita, as the site near Kone became known, formed the basis of the Lapita culture theory. compared with other archaeological findings elsewhere in the Pacific, it allowed researchers to better understand the original Melanesian migration patterns. Having its origin in the late Neolithic cultures of the Philippines and east Indonesia, Lapita culture penetrated the west Pacific between 2000 BC and 100 BC. The people were highly mobile Austronesian-speaking voyagers with advanced maritime technology. They lived on fish, pigs and domestic fowl.

In New Caledonia the pottery styles differed in the north and south, varying from simply decorated objects to those showing a more elaborate approach using handles and glazes. Geometric patterns and stylised human faces were sometimes used as decoration, however better known are the pinhole-incised designs which were carried out using tooth combs.

The Lapita site near Kone was discovered by geologist Piroutet in 1917. First excavated in 1952 by two American archaeologists, it's still being worked on, although there's little time for visitors to see in 1995, two large pots were uncovered on the beach here. These pots, and others, were shown for the first time in 1999 at an exhibition in Noumea. At the time of writing, the Musee Neo-Caledonien in Noumea was attempting to secure a permanent exhibition of Lapita pottery. If this is successful, it will be the only place in New Caledonia where this ancient art can be viewed. Around AD 300, Lapita pottery disappeared throughout Melanesia as a result of historical evolution

For information about Lapita Pottery, please visit Jane Resture's Polynesian Voyaging Web site at the following URL:


Painting is a relatively recent form of artistic expression for Kanaks. Around Grande Terre, but-stop shelters are the favoured 'canvas' of local artists. At a commercial level, painting has been adopted mainly by women. some well-known names to look out for include Yvette Bouquet from Koumac, who concentrates on Pacific and and Oceania themes, and Paula Boi, whose scenes are more abstract. Both women are the subject of small books published (in French by the ADCK. Also known are Denise Tuvouane, and Maryline Thydjepache, a young Noumean-born artist who uses mixed media.


Coming from an oral tradition, Kanaks were masters of speech, while the written word was nonexistent. Writing, therefore, has never been a recognised art form. Since the establishment of the ADCK, several books on Kanak culture, written by Kanaks, have been published. Female writer Dewe Gorodey specialises in poetic interpretation of history (such as repression during the colonial system and destruction of Kanak identity), while Pierre Gope is a recognised scriptwriter.


In older times, spirits were carved in wood, and today the art of sculpture embodies the spirit of Kanak culture. The most important wooden sculpture is the fleche faitiere, which resembles a small totem pole with symbolic shapes (see boxed text below).

Traditional woodcarving

Other wooden carvings resembled hawks, ancient gods, serpents and turtles. They were often carved from free trunks and placed as a palisade or fence around important objects such as the grande case (chef's hut). An interesting example of these carvings - which looks vaguely like a mini Stonehenge - surrounds a religious memorial near the village of Van on Ile des Pins. War clubs were carved from the strongest trees and were fashioned with a phallic head, known in French as casse-tete (head-breaker), or as an equally lethal bird's beak club or bec d'oiseau. In conflicts, spears made from niaouli trees were used, these were often lit and thrown into the enemy's hut to set it alight.

These days, the art of wood sculpture is alive and well in new Caledonia. Sculptures can be bought in Noumea (see Shopping in Noumea), and from roadside stalls along the north-east coast. Prices are considerably cheaper at these stalls than in Noumea. 

Fleche faitiere atop the grand case, near la Foa

The Fleche Faitiere

The fleche faitiere home of the ancestral spirits, is the spear-like carving that adorns the top of the grande case. The fleche faitiere has three main parts. In the centre is a flat, crowned face that represents the ancestor. Above this is a long, rounded pole run through by conch shells; this symbolises the ancestor's voice. The base is planted into the central pole of the case, which connects it with the clan through the chief. At either end of the central face are pieces of wood that fan out to sharp points - these tips are barriers that prevent bad spirits from going up or down into the ancestor.


The most important stone artefact in new Caledonia is the ceremonial axe, a symbol of the clan's strength and power,. It was generally used to decapitate enemies during a battle or to honour ancestors during pilou celebrations. The stone of this axe, usually green jade or serpentine, is polished smooth until it resembles a disk. Two holes like eyes are drilled into the central area of the stone, and a handle made of flying-fox fur is woven through these holes and fastened. The bottom of the handle is adorned with stones and shells, with each pendant serving as a symbolic reference to a particular clan.

Soapstone carvings are commonly made, and are sold from curio shops in Noumea, as well as from roadside stalls along the north-east coast. Prices for a small piece depicting an ancestor's face range from about 700 CF in la brousse, to 2000 CFP from a shop in the capital.

Bamboo Engraving

Between 1850 and 1920, anthropologists collected intricately engraved bamboo canes from Kanak communities. As most of these canes date from around the arrival of Europeans, it's unclear whether cane engraving was a form of traditional art dating back many centuries or simply a fad of the time. The canes averaged a metre in length and were used by Kanaks in dance ceremonies or when entering a village. They contained magic herbs that warded off evil spirits and were covered with designs. the designs were mostly geometrical, although real images - ranging from the pilou dance to agricultural motifs and village scenes such as fishing or building a case - were also often portrayed. The canes were held over fire to give the engraved areas a black patina.

The Musee Neo-Caledonian in Noumea has a good collection of these old canes on display. Contemporary Kanak artist Micheline Neporon is well-known in this field. She has held exhibitions in New Caledonia and has participated in international arts festivals.

Kanak Money

Kanak ancient bead money was not a currency in the common sense of the word, for it was never used for buying or exchanging. Instead it was given as a customary exchange of respect at a birth, marriage, funeral or other ceremonial event, and as a seal to support and maintain relationships and alliances that had somehow been previously damaged. the money needed long and careful preparation. It was made in the form of the ancestors, with a carved or woven 'head' from which hung a string of pendants, either of bone, shell or herbs, resembling the 'spinal cord'. It was always presented wrapped in tapa (bark cloth) pouch. Several examples of old Kanak money (and contemporary versions using plastic beads and wood) can be seen at the Musee Neo Caledonien in Noumea.


Tapa, or bark cloth, is made in many Pacific countries and is produced by pounding bark. Compared with other cultures, Kanaks were not traditionally big tapa producers. They made small pieces, often from banyan trees, mainly to wrap up bead money.


Canoes made from hollowed-out trunks and huge double-hulled outriggers with triangular sails, known as pirogues, were the traditional transport for tribes living on the islands. In these, the tribes - especially those from Lifou and Ile des Pins - explored and conquered or simply brought in the daily catch. the art of building these ships has declined, although there are still people on Ile des Pins and around Yate, on the east coast of Grande Terre, who have the expertise. 

Arts Festivals

While there are very few Kanak arts festivals at grass-roots level, two international events held early in the 1990s have lifted the awareness of Kanak arts. The first was Ko i Neva, an exhibition of modern-day wood sculptors and painters that travelled around New Caledonia and from which the first book on contemporary Kanak arts was produced. Then came De Jade et de Nacre - Patrimoine Artistique Kanak (Jade and Mother of Pearl - Kanak Artistic Heritage). Held in Paris, it was the largest exhibition of Kanak arts ever staged in Europe. A tribute to the Kanaks' past, it was also an expression of hope that the ancient culture would continue to flourish.

The Centre Cultural Tjibaou stages occasional art exhibitions - consult its annual program or visit its Web site at www.adck.nc

A huge quadrennial event is the Festival of Pacific Arts, which gives the indigenous people of all Pacific nations and people from many other places an increased awareness of the Pacific's cultural heritage. New Caledonia hosted the 8th edition of this event.


Postcode 98800 * Population 76,000

Noumea is the nerve center of New Caledonia. Most of the country's wealth is focused here, and 40% of the population have made it their home. It is also the top tourist destination, largely due to the fact that, as the capital, Noumea has long monopolised services and the attention of the outside world. Sitting on a peninsula in the south-western region of Grande Terre, Noumea is made up of hills and sloping valleys that have gradually been integrated into the growing metropolis. Bay after bay carves the coastline, giving it the charm of a city that opens and to the sea; it is said to have a thousand views. Noumea is believed to mean 'sunrise' in one Kanak language.

Noumea is home to the majority of the country's Europeans, as well as nearly the entire Wallisian, Indonesian, Tahitian and Vietnamese populations. Europeans aside, many of these people originally came to New Caledonia to work in the mines and at the huge nickel smelter just north of the city centre; the smelter has made Noumea the South Pacific's most industrialised city. Those same jobs are largely taken these days by Kanaks who have come to the capital in search of employment. The result of all this is a dichotomous city, where low-paid workers live in slum conditions while well-off residents celebrate the city's chic nature through sister-city status with Nice (France) and Australia's Gold Coast. For tourists, Noumea is an ideal starting point for exploring New Caledonia. It has all the facilities of a modern city, minus the frenetic pace. Its restaurants offer superb gourmet cuisine, while close to hand are long, white beaches lapped by aqua waters.


The English trader James Paddon was the first European to settle in the vicini8ty of Noumea. In 1851 he set up on Ile Nou, an island just west of the present city, where there was a deep, sheltered harbour providing excellent anchorage. In 1854 a French naval officer, Tardy de Montravel, wanting to seal France's recent possession of New Caledonia, chose Noumea as the site for the colony's administrative centre. While Melanesian clan groupings in this area were relatively sparse, the new capital occasionally found itself under attack, such offensives were easily thwarted.

In the early 1860s, the French chose Ile Nou as the site for a convict prison. Paddon was given a large tract of land at Palta in exchange for the island and, in 1864, the first ship, Iphigenie, arrived with 248 convicts from France. From then on, convict labour slowly developed this small military airport. Hillocks were levelled, wetlands reclaimed and macadam streets were laid. Within a decade, the peninsula of Ducos to the north had also been established as a convict penitentiary. It was reserved for 'dangerous' political prisoners, and later became the home of the territory's leper colony. The town economy and lifestyle were transformed from 1875, when gold and nickel started to be mined and Noumea's industrial revolution began. However, it was to be many years before the provincial atmosphere of a colonial town was lost. According to folklore, this was a time when the colony (early French settlers) came into town on horseback and swaggered into Le Saint Hubert cafe for a drink just like cowboys from the American West. but not everyone had such romanticised images of the town. When Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson visited in 1890, he described Noumea as an unimpressive place 'built from vermouth cases'. 

In WWII the city was the USA's military headquarters during its Pacific operations. Soon after, it became the permanent seat of the south Pacific commission (SPC; recently renamed Secretariat of the Pacific Community), an organisation involving all countries in the region, set up to promote research throughout the South Pacific. With the nickel boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Noumea's population grew rapidly. Apartment blocks were erected and the city began to resemble a sprawling metropolis. Then came Les Evenements (the Events) and an abrupt end to the tourist trade as violent confrontations erupted in Noumea. Since the signing of the Accords de Matignon in 1988, peace has returned to Noumea. Street marches are not uncommon, but nowadays they're staged to demand a better standards for teachers and health workers rather than to fire up the independence issue. In recent years the city has been going through a building spree unparalleled since the nickel-boom era.  

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