New Caledonia Flag

New Caledonia Travel Guide

Kuto Peninsula
This stone wall protected the Kuto Peninsula during the penal colony period.

Early Colonialism

In 1864, Jules Garnier, a French mining engineer, discovered nickel on the banks of the Diahot River. Copper was found at Balade in 1872, cobalt in 1875. The Société le Nickel (SLN) was established in 1876, and mining began in earnest. This lead to an increase in the land seizures already underway, causing food shortages and the destruction of the Kanak way of life.

In 1878, High Chief Atai of La Foa managed to unite many of the central tribes and launched a guerrilla war that cost 200 Frenchmen and 1,200 Kanaks their lives. Eventually Atai was betrayed by a rival tribe and assassinated.

The French government used the revolt as an excuse to establish a series of "indigenous reservations" for the confinement of the natives in areas the French miners and settlers didn't want, opening the rest of Grande Terre to mining and stock raising. Many clans were forced off their own lands onto that of other clans, leading to further rivalry and disruption.

Most of the French political prisoners on the island, who had fought for their own freedom just a few years previously, assisted the colonial regime in repressing the "savages" (Louise Michel was an exception).

The French government assumed title to two-thirds of Grande Terre, another quarter was eventually given or sold to white settlers, and only 10 percent of the main island (in scattered, hilly areas) was left to the original inhabitants. Title to even these crowded holdings was uncertain.

The colons (settlers) brought in cattle and sheep, and occupied the river valleys and coastal plains. Tribes were relocated in 150 villages under puppet chiefs and were easily controlled by French gendarmes. To obtain cheap labor, the French imposed a heavy poll tax on the Kanaks, effectively forcing them to work for the colons in order to obtain the money to pay. With their traditional way of life disrupted, the Kanak population declined from around 60,000 in 1878 to 42,500 in 1887, and 27,000 in 1926. Only during the 1930s did their numbers again increase.

Continue to   History: 20th Century   »