New Caledonia: a Crisis Full of Irony

Times Staff Writer

The Pacific territory of New Caledonia has played a troubled and ironic role in French colonial history.

Some of the roots of the present violence, in fact, go back to 1871, when leftists, idealists and republicans led the Paris Commune in a losing battle against the French army. For three months, the Commune ruled Paris, but its fall was swift and bloody.

The repression killed almost 25,000 people, and on top of this the authorities punished 5,000 other followers of the Commune by deporting them to New Caledonia, 12,500 miles away.

These exiles made up the first large group of white settlers in New Caledonia. There is a great irony in this. The rise and fall of the Paris Commune has a romantic place in the mythology of leftist movements throughout the world. Exaggerating what happened, leftists look on the Commune as a symbol of socialism, social justice and revolution.

Oppose Independence

Yet the descendants of the deported followers of the Commune are now among the 54,000 whites on New Caledonia who vote rightist, oppose any form of independence, and show their disdain, almost every night on French television, for the native Kanakas.

The struggle between the whites and Kanakas is at the heart of the problem France now faces in trying to deal with the future of the territory.

French President Francois Mitterrand dramatized the problem by suddenly deciding to fly there in the hope of encouraging a compromise between the Kanakas' demand for total independence and the whites' demand to remain a part of France.

It is difficult to see a clear and peaceful way ahead. Several years ago, Jean-Claude Guillebaud, a French journalist, said after visiting New Caledonia, "Here surely vibrates the most tragic note in all of Oceania. . . . It is the last and farthest agony of the colonial idea." Most French analysts would agree with that today.

New Caledonia was discovered in 1774 by Captain James Cook, the English explorer, but it seemed too dangerous and worthless for settlement. The British never bothered to colonize it. Missionaries arrived in the early 19th Century to try to convert the native Kanakas. In 1853, a French admiral hoisted the French flag over a French Catholic mission and annexed the territory--an archipelago of one large island and several small ones--for France.

Fortune Hunters, Convicts

Aside from the missionaries, the whites who came to the island were either settlers trying to make their fortune or convicts forced into exile. The followers of the Commune were the most prominent among the latter. The Commune exiles lived at first under guard in villages on one of the smaller islands. They gave the name of "Deportopolis" to the villages.

With some exceptions, like writer Louise Michel, who opened a school for Kanaka children, most of these whites had poor relations with the native inhabitants. When the Kanakas rebelled against the French authorities, the Commune followers, the symbols of rebellion against French authority, sided with the government.

Over the years, the whites, who became known as Caldoches, tried their hand at growing grapes, cotton, sugar cane, fruit, vegetables, rice, coffee and wheat, using naked Melanesian Kanakas as their laborers. These crops failed.

Finally, after the turn of the century, the whites shifted from agriculture to raising cattle. That and the discovery later of nickel deposits set what continues to be the economy of the territory. A boom in nickel prices brought prosperity to the islands in the 1970s. The boom has ended, but nickel mining is still vital.

The whites, according to many reports in France, have an Australian pioneer-American cowboy manner and do not like to talk about their ancestry. They know many of the French back home have stereotyped the territory as a penal colony. According to a 1976 census, more than 60% of the whites were born in New Caledonia, and look on themselves as Caldoches or native-born Caledonians and not as French colonials.

Diseases From Europe

For the Kanakas, the arrival of so many whites in the 19th Century amounted to a physical shock, for the Europeans brought European diseases with them. In the years between 1860 and 1925, the population of the Melanesians was reduced by one-half. Only recently have the Kanakas increased their numbers to a higher level than when the French arrived; today they total 62,000.

The Kanakas rebelled twice against French rule. The first rebellion broke out in 1878 and lasted a year, leaving 1,000 Kanakas and 200 whites dead. The second, which started in a nickel mine, came in 1917.

The modern story of the Kanakas is a familiar one in the Third World, of a tribal people caught between the pull of their tradition and all the pressures of modernization. The rich nickel deposits brought even more whites to New Caledonia, along with many other people from Asia and the South Pacific. The Asians and Polynesians now total 28,000.

Modernization was accelerated during World War II.

After the war, France decreed compulsory education for all. Kanaka women began leaving the tribal areas to work in the capital, Noumea, breaking out of the extreme inferiority imposed on them by tradition. Men became skilled workers and gendarmes.

As the Kanakas strove to become more and more like whites, a reaction set in, particularly among leaders like Jean-Marie Tjibaou, a former Catholic priest who now leads the Kanaka independence movement. Kanakas were urged to go back to their roots, especially their traditional feeling that they belong to the land, that they had a mystical attachment to it. As they felt this, they also realized that they were now outnumbered in their own land.

According to the 1983 census, the Kanakas made up only 43% of the population of 145,000 in the territory. Yet they felt that New Caledonia, by tradition, was truly theirs. They began to demand total independence from France, but they envisioned a form of independence in which they would run the islands.

That is the main reason why the Kanaka independence party boycotted the elections for a territorial assembly last November and then declared their leaders as the provisional government of an independent Kanaka state. This government disbanded after France, recognizing the seriousness of the problem, sent a special representative, Edgard Pisani, to try to work out a compromise solution to the problem of racial conflict.

'Privileged Status'

In early December, Pisani, on behalf of the French government, offered independence in 1986, with the islands continued to be legally associated with France. New Caledonia would have a seat in the United Nations, but France would run its foreign affairs, defense and internal security. The white-dominated capital of Noumea would have a special status: Whites living there could keep French citizenship while holding a "privileged residence status" in New Caledonia.

The French hoped they could put together a majority for the proposal in a referendum this July by persuading several thousand whites and others to join the Kanakas in voting for it. But this idea has foundered both on a solid white front against independence of any kind and Kanaka bitterness over the killing of Kanaka dissident Eloi Machoro recently by French gendarmes.

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