New Caledonia has been part of France for about 150 years. Despite adverse conditions during this period, the Kanaks' tribal customs are still alive, and in recent years their culture has been going through a mini renaissance. On the flip side, French traditions are also quite strong, brought to this far-flung island first by convicts and later by French settlers. Their present-day descendants, many of whom have never seen metropolitan France, are known as Caldoches. They are a unique people, having retained certain aspects of the distinct culture of their forebears, while also forging their own folkways.
New Caledonia was also the unlikely home of some 4,000 déportés, political exiles of the 1871 uprising of the Paris Commune, but few of the survivors stayed after being granted amnesty. Most of the free white settlers were either former members of the French administration and armed forces, settlers from Australia and New Zealand, or former sugar planters from Réunion. The government encouraged two later waves of free settlers in the 1890s and 1920s to migrate to help establish coffee and cotton industries, respectively, but Europeans remained in the minority. After World War II the European population gradually increased by migration, but the main influx of white and Polynesian settlers occurred in the years leading up to and including the nickel boom of 1969–72. For the first time, the Melanesians became a minority in their own country, although they still were the largest single ethnic group.
French, the official language, is spoken by most residents; Indonesian, Vietnamese, Tahitian, Wallisian, and Chinese are among the twenty-eight languages spoken by Kanaks. Apart from the population of French origin, all the inhabitants are at least bilingual. Command of the French language varies with the academic and social status of individuals. Languages spoken by Kanaks, which are classified as Austronesian, belong to the linguistic family spoken by the Oceanians who progressively peopled the Pacific islands over ten centuries. Contact with the Anglo-Saxon navigators and traders who reached the archipelago in the nineteenth century led to the formation of a pidgin English, Bichelamar, that disappeared when French was established. For two decades Kanaks requested that their languages be recognized and taught. Four of those languages now can be studied to earn a Bachelor's degree, and in 1988 the French state authorized the study of regional languages in elementary schools. French, whose use has been protested by Kanak nationalists, is used in politics; vernacular languages are reserved for private life.
The entire west coast of New Caledonia is an interminable labyrinth, or network of promontories, peninsulas, bays and islets, with circumjacent reefs of coral, while its eastern shore line is, figuratively speaking, edged with a submarine fringe of coral rocks, extending for many leagues oceanward, with sand islets at intervals.
To this day New Caledonia remains on the UN list of territories to be decolonised. Agitation by the Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak Socialiste (FLNKS) for independence began in 1985. The FLNKS (led by the late Jean Marie Tjibaou, assassinated in 1989) advocated the creation of an independent state of 'Kanaky'. The troubles culminated in 1988 with a bloody hostage taking in Ouvéa. The unrest led to agreement on increased autonomy in the Matignon Accords of 1988 and the Nouméa Accord of 1998.
New Caledonia participated in its own way in World War II, becoming one of the major American bases in the Pacific. From 1943, a million American soldiers were stationed on the island. Welcome chewing gum, Coca-Cola and other extravagant products offered by Uncle Sam! ... This leap into modernity left a deep imprint in the culture and identity of New Caledonia. The Second World War also marked the beginning of the decolonization process. The code of rights of citizenship was abolished in April 1946, and universal suffrage became a reality in 1957.
In 1843 French missionaries arrived at the island, and it was claimed for France, but on British representations the claim was renounced. In 1851 a landing party from a French vessel lying at Balade was attacked by the natives, and massacred with the exception of a single member. France was now determined on the annexation, and the flag was raised at the same spot in 1853, but simultaneously the commanderof a British vessel was in negotiation with the native chief of the Isle of Pines, and the British flag was hoisted there. The chief, however, subsequently sided with the French, and the British claim was finally withdrawn.
Although the prime concern of the early colonial administration was the reception and control of about 22,000 French convicts sent to New Caledonia between 1864 and 1897, the French also attempted to attract free settlers and obtain a supply of cheap labour. In addition, between 1864 and 1939 some 60,000 indentured labourers were imported to construct public works and to work on plantations, ships, wharves, and mines and in commerce and domestic service. These included ni-Vanuatu (the indigenous population of Vanuatu) and Solomon Islanders (1865–1920), Vietnamese (1891–1939), Javanese (1896–1939), and Japanese (1892–1921). Only a small percentage of the survivors of these workers remained in the colony after their contracts expired, and, although few ex-convicts left the territory, not many established families.
New Caledonia was discovered by Captain Cook in 1774. He touched at the haven of Balade (the original name of the island) near the north-western extremity, as did d'Entrecasteaux in 1793, who closely explored the coast and surrounding seas. They subsequently became known to sealers and traders in sandalwood, who, however, established no friendly relations with the natives.
Europeans first sighted New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands in the late 18th century. The British explorer James Cook sighted Grande Terre in 1774 and named it New Caledonia, after the Scottish highlands, which the Romans had called Caledonia. British and North American whalers and sandalwood traders became interested in New Caledonia and tensions developed as their approach became increasingly dishonest (an arrogant attitude and cheating became commonplace). Europeans used alcohol and tobacco amongst other things to barter for commodities. Contact with Europeans brought new diseases such as smallpox, measles, dysentery, influenza, syphilis and leprosy. Many people died as a result of these diseases. Tensions developed into hostilities and in 1849 CE the crew of the Cutter were killed and eaten by the Pouma clan.