The history of New Caledonia centers around existing Kanak heritage and traditions being interrupted by European colonization and resource exploitation activities. The island has seen much conflict and environmental change, but still retains much of its natural beauty. Today’s New Caledonia is an exciting blend of European and Kanak architecture, cuisine, arts, music, beliefs, and traditions.
New Caledonia was first settled by the agricultural and seafaring Lapita people who were there as far back as 1350 BC. The Lapita are thought to be relatives of modern day Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians.
Captain Cook first sighted and named New Caledonia in 1774, but Europe showed little interest in the area until about 1840, when sandalwood traders came to harvest trees. Missionaries began arriving in New Caledonia during this time, some of whom were killed by the indigenous inhabitants.
Slavery replaced the sandalwood trade around 1842 and continued until 1904. People, mainly men, from New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands, and other South Pacific islands were kidnapped or tricked into working as slaves, mainly on the sugar plantations of Queensland, Australia. This practice continued until about 1904 with indentured servants being called Kanakas, after the Hawaiian word for "man."
Admiral Febvrier Despointes captured New Caledonia on behalf of Napoleon in 1853.The town of Port-de-France, now known as Nouméa, was founded in 1854, after which time a small number of free settlers arrived. However, France mainly used New Caledonia as a penal colony, which was established in the 1860s. About 22,000 convicts and political prisoners were transported over a period of about 35 years..
Nickel was discovered in 1864 which prompted the establishment of mines, importation of laborers from neighboring islands, Southeast Asia, and Japan, and increased efforts by the French government to encourage Europeans to migrate to New Caledonia. The indigenous population was relegated to reservations and excluded from economic activities which led to a united uprising and civil war.
During WWII, New Caledonia voted to support Charles De Gaulle and the Free French Government, and became an important base for the Allies in 1942. The US set up its South Pacific headquarters in Nouméa, bringing in 50,000 troops, equivalent to the entire existing population of the island. New Caledonia became an overseas territory of France in 1946 with citizenship granted to New Caledonians of all ethnicities.
After the war, New Caledonia enjoyed a nickel boom from 1969-1972. Tensions between pro-French loyalists and pro-independent groups erupted in 1988, resulting in the Matignon agreement which laid out provisions for a period of economic and institutional development for the Kanak community, culminating with a vote for freedom in 1998. This agreement ushered in a time of relative stability and the groundwork was set for an independent New Caledonia. The signing of the Nouméa Accord transferred responsibility to local government over a 20-year period.
New Caledonia’s original residents, known collectively as Kanaks, were a number of different Melanesian tribes with distinct crafts, hunting traditions, clothing, arts, beliefs, building styles, and languages. Despite invasion and colonization by the British and French, and the decimation of tribal populations through slavery and introduced diseases, a great deal of Kanak culture has been preserved over the years. 33 different native languages are still spoken in New Caledonia with traditional crafts, festivals and rituals being practiced today.
Despite the resilience of the Kanak culture, New Caledonia is still a French territory and the European influence can be seen all over the island, particularly in Nouméa, which is even called as the "Paris of the Pacific."
Christianity, European cafes and architecture abound and French is more commonly understood than any other language. The combination of Melanesian and European makes for a colorful and energetic culture with particularly delicious food.