Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - New Caledonia
New Caledonia is located just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, midway between Fiji and Australia. It consists of the main island, Grand Terre, the Isle of Pines, the Loyalty Islands, the small Belep Islands and other uninhabited islands, reefs and atolls.
Although most people immediately think of the French when you mention New Caledonia, the islands have a long anthropological history that rivals the Australian Aborigines. The documented archaeology of New Caledonia indicates that it was occupied at least as early as 1000 BC and recent finds may date back to 6000 BC. These people are believed to have come from Papua as early as 30,000 years ago.
In early September 1774, Captain James Cook, RN, "discovered" New Caledonia and landed on the north east coast of Grande Terre (the sixth largest island in the South Pacific) and gave New Caledonia its name. The mountainous island reminded him of the Scottish Highlands so he named it New Caledonia after the Scottish word for Scotland, Caledonia. He also visited the Isle of Pines and named it after its huge pine trees.
It is proba the next European visitor was Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de Laperouse, after he left Botany Bay in late February 1788 and before he and his crew were lost on the island of Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands.
On 16 June 1792 the French explorers General Bruny d'Entrecasteaux and Captain Huon Kermadec sighted the Isle of Pines in their vessels Recherche (Research) and Esperance (Hope) and then passed by the main island of New Caledonia during their search for Laperouse. From 18 April to 10 May 1793, d'Entrecasteaux and Kermadec visited and explored Grande Terre. Kermedec died on 6 May and was the first European buried in New Caledonia.
Traders arrived soon after looking for sandalwood and beche-de-mer (sea-cucumber). In 1841/2 Protestant missionaries from London arrived in the Loyalty Islands and French Catholics followed. In 1853, Napoleon III annexed New Caledonia to establish a penal colony. Ile Nou in Noumea Bay had 20,000 convicts sent there between 1864 and 1897 and some 3,900 political prisoners were sent to the Isle of Pines during 1872-9. Nowadays, the prison where they were kept can still be seen adjacent to the island's main road.
In 1864 a French mining engineer, Jules Garnier, discovered nickel. By 1876 mining had begun in earnest and today, 44% of the world's known nickel reserves are in New Caledonia.
In 1878 and 1917 uprisings by the local Kanaks (Hawaiian for human) cost thousands of lives. The Kanak population declined from 60,000 to 27,100 over this time due mainly to the repressive policies of the French.
During World War II, Noumea was an important resupply base for the Pacific and only San Fransisco handled more cargo (the SS President Coolidge left from Noumea). After the war France had a more enlightened attitude to the indigenous population and in 1951 finally gave Kanaks citizenship and the right to vote (well before Australia gave these to Aborigines).
Despite a few problems in 1958, things were fairly quiet in the country until the early 1980s when the growing aspirations of the indigenous Kanaks led to calls for the independence of New Caledonia. The formation of the Front de Liberation Nationale Kanake Socialiste (FLNKS) followed. They were intent on the ultimate independence of New Caledonia from France but, as is the case with France, this was not taken lightly and the might of the French Army was brought into battle. In 1984-89 there were some episodes that even outranked the Rainbow Warrior episode for lowness. Hundreds of indigenes were wounded or killed by the French over this period with blatant cases of murder going unpunished. Tourism, particularly in the north, disappeared. The Australian Government generally supported the FLNKS and this led to relations between the Australian and French Governments falling to an all time low. On my previous two visits to Noumea in 1986 and 1987, the attitude of the French residents to English speakers, especially Australians, was extremely hostile.
However, I am happy to say that the signing of the Matignon Accord in 1988 led to a period of stability. As one of our nearest neighbours (Noumea is closer to Brisbane than Christchurch is to Sydney), New Caledonia is a popular tourist destination for Australians. Recognising the importance of tourism to their economy, especially from Australia, the attitude of the French residents to Australians changed markedly. No longer are we treated as dirt.
On my web site I have a few articles on the diving and travel in New Caledonia based on my trip to the Isle of Pines, Noumea and North Grand Terre (in the north of New Caledonia). On this visit I dived some of the best this little piece of France has to offer.