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New Caledonia

New Caledonia (French: Nouvelle-Calédonie; popular names: Kanaky, Le caillou) is a French territory of 18,575 km² (7,172 sq. miles) made up of a main island and several smaller islands, in the southwest Pacific. Population in 2004 is about 220,000 inhabitants (Projection from the 1996 census). It has an Internet country code top-level domain (ccTLD) of .nc.



The name Caledonia derives from the Latin name of a region corresponding approximately to modern Scotland. The name Kanaky is also in common usage in French, English and the indigenous languages. This name is favored by Melanesian nationalists. The word comes from kanaka, a Polynesian word meaning human used by Polynesians to call themselves. The word was later used by the French to call all the native inhabitants of the South Pacific Ocean, including the Melanesian (non-Polynesian) native inhabitants of New Caledonia. The word, turned into Canaque in French, became derogative. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the Melanesian native inhabitants started to organize themselves into political parties and ask for independence, this derogative word was turned into a symbol of political emancipation and pride.


Main article: Geography of New Caledonia

New Caledonia is located in the southwest Pacific Ocean approximately 1,200 km east of Australia and 1,500 km northeast of New Zealand. The island nation of Vanuatu lies to the northeast.

New Caledonia is made up of a main island, the Grande Terre, and several smaller islands, the Belep archipelago to the north of the Grande Terre, the Loyalty Islands to the east of the Grande Terre, the Ile des Pins to the south of the Grande Terre, and the Chesterfield Islands and Bellona Reefs further to the west.

The Grande Terre is by far the largest of the islands, and the only mountainous island. It has an area of 16,372 sq km, and is enlongated northwest-southeast, 350 km in length and from 50-70 km wide. A mountain range runs the length of the island, with five peaks over 1500 meters. The highest point is Mont Panie at 1,628 meters elevation (5,341 ft).


New Caledonia lies astride the Tropic of Capricorn, between 19º and 23º south latitude. The climate of the islands is tropical, and rainfall is highly seasonal, brought by trade winds that usually come from the east. Rainfall averages about 1,500 mm yearly on the Loyalty Islands, 2,000 mm at low elevations on eastern the Grande Terre, and 2,000-4,000 mm at high elevations on the Grande Terre. The western side of the Grande Terre lies in the rain shadow of the central mountains, and rainfall averages 1200 mm per year.


Unlike many of the Pacific islands which are of relatively recent volcanic origin, New Caledonia is an ancient fragment of the Gondwana supercontinent. New Caledonia and New Zealand separated from Australia 85 million years ago, and from one another 55 million years ago, and New Caledonia still carries many unique and endemic plants and animals of Gondwanan origin. (see Biodiversity of New Caledonia). The best known is a hen-sized bird, the Cagou or Kagu, which cannot fly, has a large crest, and a funny cooing, and whose song and image serves as an emblem. The Niaouli tree, which also grows in Australia and New Guinea, is of medical interest, as its sap gives gomenol, which smells like camphor and is used to treat head colds.

Before the Europeans arrived, there was no mammal other than the roussette (aka flying fox), a big vegetarian bat, a local delicacy.

The islands make up two terrestrial ecoregions, the New Caledonia rain forests on the Loyalty Islands, Ile des Pins, and the eastern side of Grand Terre, and the New Caledonia dry forests in the rain shadow on the western side of Grand Terre. As the Europeans settled on the dry west coast and left the east to Kanaks, the political division maps the natural one.

New Caledonia's freshwater ecology also evolved in long isolation, and the New Caledonia rivers and streams are home to many endemic species.

The New Caledonia Barrier Reef, which surrounds the Grande Terre and the Ile des Pins, is the second-largest coral reef in the world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef, reaching a length of 1500 km. The reef has great species diversity, is home to endangered dugongs (Dugong dugon), and is an important nesting site for Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas).


Along with other Pacific Ocean's territories of French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna, New Caledonia is part of the French Republic. Its official status is that of a sui generis collectivity (collectivité sui generis ), a status unique in the French Republic. New Caledonia was a colony until 1946, then an overseas territory (territoire d'outre-mer, or TOM) from 1946 to 1999. The capital is Nouméa.


The western Pacific was first populated about 50,000 years ago. The Austronesians moved into the area later. The diverse group of people that settled over the Melanesian archipelagos are known as the Lapita. They arrived in the archipelago now commonly known as New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands around 1500 BCE. The Lapita were highly skilled navigators and agriculturists with influence over a large area of the Pacific.

From about the 11th century CE Polynesians also arrived and mixed with the populations of the archipelago.

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.

As trade in sandalwood declined it was replaced by a new form of trade. Blackbirding involved enslaving people from New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to work in sugar cane plantations in Fiji and Queensland. The trade ceased at the start of the 20th century.

Catholic and Protestant missionaries first arrived in the 19th century. They had a profound effect on indigenous culture. They insisted people should wear clothes to cover themselves and introduced cricket and tea. They eradicated many local practices and traditions.

Settled by France during the first half of the 19th century, the island was made a French possession in 1853. It served as a penal colony for four decades after 1864.

Since 1986 New Caledonia is on a United Nations list of non-self-governing territories, a list that also includes such places as the American Samoa, the British Falkland Islands, or the New Zealand territory of Tokelau, but which noticeably does not include places like Tibet or Irian Jaya. Agitation by the Front de Libération 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.


Main article: Politics of New Caledonia

The unique status of New Caledonia is in between that of an independent country and a regular overseas département of France. On the one hand, a territorial Congress (Congrès du territoire ) and a government of the territory have been established, and a devolution of powers is organized by the 1998 Nouméa Accord . Key areas such as taxation, labor law, health and hygiene and foreign trade are already in the hands of the territorial Congress. Further competence will supposedly be given to the territorial Congress in the near future. Eventually, the French Republic should only remain competent for foreign affairs, justice, defence, public order, and treasury.

A New Caledonian "citizenship" has also been introduced: only New Caledonian "citizens" have the right to vote in the local elections. This measure has been criticized, because it creates a second-class status for French citizens living in New Caledonia who do not possess New Caledonian "citizenship" (because they settled in the territory recently). New Caledonia is also allowed to engage in international cooperation with independent countries of the Pacific Ocean. Finally, the territorial Congress is allowed to pass statutes that are derogatory to French law in a certain number of areas.

On the other hand, New Caledonia remains an integral part of the French Republic. Inhabitants of New Caledonia are French citizens and carry French passports. They take part in the legislative and presidential French elections. New Caledonia sends two representatives to the French National Assembly and one senator to the French Senate. The representative of the French central state in New Caledonia is the High Commissioner of the Republic (Haut-Commissaire de la République , locally known as "haussaire"), who is the head of civil services, and who seats in the government of the territory.

It was decided in the Nouméa Accord that the territorial Congress will have the right to call for a referendum on independence after 2014, at a time of its choosing.

The current president of the government elected by the territorial Congress is Marie-Noëlle Thémereau , from the loyalist (i.e. anti-independence) Avenir ensemble party ("Future together"), which toppled the long-time ruling RPCR (Rally for Caledonia inside the Republic) in May 2004. "Future Together" is a party of mostly Caucasian and Polynesian New Caledonians opposed to independence but tired of the hegemonic and allegedly corrupt anti-independence RPCR. Their toppling of the RPCR (that was until then seen as the only voice of New Caledonian whites) was a surprise to many, and a sign that the society of New Caledonia is undergoing changes. "Future together", as the name implies, is opposed to a racial vision of New Caledonian society, opposing Melanesians native inhabitants and European settlers, and is in favor of a multicultural New Caledonia, better reflecting the existence of large populations of Polynesians, Indonesians, Chinese, and other immigrants. Some members of "Future Together" are even in favor of independence, though not necessarily on the same basis as the Melanesian independence parties.


Main article: Demographics of New Caledonia

Political life is complicated by the fact that the indigenous Melanesian Kanak community is now a minority of some 44% (at 1996 census) following earlier population decline and immigration under French rule. The rest of the population is made up of whites (34%), Polynesians (Wallisians, Futunians, Tahitians) (11.5%), Indonesians (2.5%), Vietnamese (1.4%), ni-Vanuatu (1.1%), and others (5.5%). Whites that have lived in New Caledonia for several generations are locally known as "Caldoches". There is a significant contingent of people that arrive from France to work for a year or two and others that have come to retire.

Censuses are extremely critical to the balance of power in the territory, and the organization of a new census has been regularly postponed since 1996. It is estimated that the population has considerably increased since 1996, notably due to arrivals of people from metropolitan (i.e. European) France. Current population could be as high as 300,000 inhabitants (from 196,836 in 1996, a figure allegedly 10-15% below reality at the time). According to police and airport data, there would be between 1,000 and 5,000 people from metropolitan France arriving in New Caledonia every year. This is extremely controversial, especially among the indigenous community. A new census was finally carried out in August 2004, and results are expected soon. However, due to an intervention by French president Jacques Chirac, questions asking for the ethnicity of people have been deleted, officially because they were deemed to contravene the French Constitution, which states that no distinction based on ethnicity or religion should be made among French citizens. Consequently, it will be impossible to know the current ethnic balance. Many people have called for a boycott of the referendum, due to the lack of questions on ethnicity, threatening to derail the current census campaign.


See also

External links and references

Last updated: 10-18-2005 18:29:59
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