New Caledonia Flag

New Caledonia Travel Guide

A 19th century engraving of
a man spearing a bird in front of a case.

Contact and Conquest

Cook landed at Balade, on the northeast coast of Grande Terre, and gave New Caledonia its name—the mountainous island reminded him of the Scottish Highlands (Caledonia was the Romans' name for Scotland). After more navigators (d'Entrecasteaux and Huon de Kermadec), traders arrived looking for sandalwood and bêche-de-mer.

The first missionaries were Protestants from the London Missionary Society, who established themselves on Maré (1841) and Lifou (1842) islands. French Catholic missionaries arrived at Balade in 1843, but Kanak hostility and British protests caused them to withdraw four years later.

At this time France was enviously observing the establishment of successful British colonies in Australia and New Zealand. So in 1853, with the idea of creating a penal colony similar to that in New South Wales, Emperor Napoléon III ordered the annexation of New Caledonia. The Loyalties were claimed in 1866. Île Nou, an island in Nouméa Bay, never attained the notoriety of its contemporary, Devil's Island off South America, but between 1864 and 1897 some 20,000 French convicts sentenced to more than eight years hard labor were transported there, although no more than 8,000 were present at any one time. They were used for public works and construction projects in the early days.

Some 3,900 political prisoners from the Paris Commune were held at Ducos near Nouméa and on the Isle of Pines during 1871-1879. Unlike the common criminals who had preceded them, many of the communards were cultured individuals. For example, Louise Michel, the "red virgin," taught Kanak children in Nouméa and took an active interest in the indigenous way of life. In her memoirs, Michel compared the freedom struggle of the Kanaks to that of Paris in 1871.

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