20 January 2019
The Australian Jesuits

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New Caledonia: Indigenous resistance in Australia's nearest Pacific neighbour

Cecily McNeill |  11 December 2018

Last month’s referendum has introduced a glimmer of hope that New Caledonia, one of the last bastions of colonialism in the Pacific, may yet be returned to the Indigenous Kanak people. But this hint at victory some time in the future is not without price. Long after Fiji (1970), Samoa (1962) and Vanuatu (1980) gained their independence, France was doing all in its power to hold the territory with its strategic importance and lucrative nickel.

150 years of bloody land struggles

The story of New Caledonia is one of bloody insurrection from the time the French took control of the territory in 1853.

“The extent of land alienation, the bitterness of the dispossessed and mutual incomprehension between Melanesians and Europeans provoked a sustained and bloody revolt in 1878, the longest and most violent reaction to European colonization in the island Pacific (Minority Rights Group).

A surprisingly close vote

On Sunday November 4, 2018 the people of New Caledonia voted against cutting loose from the country’s colonial master, France, some 16,800 kilometres away. However, the margin of difference was slight – 56 percent against, and 43 percent pro-independence.

The vote was promised in the Matignon Accords of 1988 that ended a 1980s campaign of violent insurrection. Territorial elections next May look promising for a new, more conciliatory group of young Kanak leaders to take control of the country and this will be followed by another referendum in 2020.

The French had begun settling in New Caledonia some 15 years earlier than 1853. Pacific journalist David Robie writes that France needed to establish a penal colony after an 1848 Paris insurrection. In 1865 the first fleet of 250 deportees arrived – this figure would swell to 20,000 over the next three decades.
Cattle became the backbone of the next industry with European stockmen seizing “extensive landholdings (to) let their cattle run free, destroying Kanak crops and damaging traditional burial grounds. A decree by Governor Guillain in 1868, (and subsequent decrees in 1876 and 1897) legalised the wholesale alienation of Kanak land (David Robie: Blood on their Banner 1989 p 85.)

The Church's social teaching

Catholic social teaching condemns such hegemonic domination of one country over another. More than 50 years ago, Pope John XXIII wrote in his encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) that nations are not entitled “to exert unjust political domination over other nations. It means that they have to make a greater contribution to the common cause of social progress” (Pacem in Terris #88).

As with most stories of colonisation, the Indigenous people rapidly became marginalised, their livelihood damaged with the alienation from their land and culture. Repressive laws aimed to keep the Indigenous population under strict control, for example, Kanak children were barred from public schools until 1953 when Kanak leaders gained a foothold in the parliament and opened the schools, introducing improved health and economic conditions and a progressive land tax.

This was not enough to appease the Kanaks and resentment against the French colonisers, exploded, particularly as a nickel boom in 1969 brought massive immigration, rendering the Kanaks a minority. The Indigenous population had fallen to 41.7 percent of the total and in 2014 stood at 39 percent. The Kanaks still remained excluded from the territory’s prosperity. There had already been two major revolts, in 1878 and 1917 and a third was brewing with the emergence of a young politicised group of Kanaks who formed pro-independence parties and contested territorial elections in 1977.

Pro-independence leaders assassinated

The assassinations of two key leaders in the Kanak pro-independence political movement, the FLNKS, shook the movement to its foundations. The death of Eloi Machoro, arguably the Kanaks’ most charismatic and influential leader, occurred at the hands of French police snipers on 12 January 1985.
Australian journalist Helen Fraser reported that Machoro and his aides did not realise what was about to happen despite French marksmen being flown into the farm at La Foa where the assassination took place. 

“Machoro appears to have had good reason to believe that a truce was possible, since on two previous occasions, at the request of the High Commission, he had agreed to free captured gendarmes leaving all guns at the scene. The message was phoned from La Foa to a FLNKS official in Nouméa. He, in turn, gave it to a French public servant to transmit to (High Commissioner Edgard) Pisani since, at the time, it would have been impossible for a Kanak messenger to have got through the rioting in Nouméa and reach the High Commissioner’s office. The French public servant has made a statement saying he gave Pisani the message which said: ‘Give us a truce or the FLNKS will move into the third phase (armed insurrection)’” (Robie: Blood, p.122).

Machoro saw Australia and New Zealand as satellites of the United States. At the beginning of the Pacific Islands Forum, he says, the two western powers in the Pacific were pro-independence. They wanted the Kanak people to help them get France out of the Pacific. Later, as the Kanak demands became more clearly defined, Australia and New Zealand became fearful that a victory for the Kanak people would stir unrest among their own Indigenous peoples.

Assassination or neutralisation?

The pro-independence movement called Machoro’s death an assassination but the commander of the paramilitary gendarmerie in New Caledonia, General Deiber, reportedly confirmed that the gendarmes were ordered to “neutralise” him. Later that year France would use this term in its command to sabotage the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland.

The second great leader of the Kanaks to be killed was Jean-Marie Tjibaou who was elected the first president of the FLNKS. His grandmother was shot and killed by a French soldier during the 1917 rebellion and his political consciousness is said to have been sparked by that event. He rose to prominence in 1975 as the organiser of the Melanesia 2000 festival. He believed the French had a serious flaw in their national psyche which impaired their ability to understand the South Pacific. 

Tjibaou and fellow FLNKS leader Yéiwene Yéiwene were shot at point-blank range by a young Kanak militant representing a group who regarded the Matignon accord as a sellout. When New Zealand prime minister David Lange visited Nouméa in October 1984, he described the political atmosphere as "explosive", a word Fr Walter Lini of Vanuatu had also used. Some 32 people died in clashes that year most of them Melanesian.

Referendum brings hope

In the past 34 years, the French have continued to encourage immigration to weaken the Kanak base while a new generation of Kanaks has brought renewed vigour to calls for independence. On last month’s referendum, David Robie writes of a certain optimism for the future of the territory based on the large turnout of particularly youthful voters.

“With a 56.4 percent “no” vote and a 43.6 percent yes vote, the supporters of independence rocked the French establishment with their strong turnout (80 percent) and this has in turn forced a more collaborative negotiation about the future."

David Robie, a New Zealander who has spent the past 40 years reporting on and teaching journalism in the Pacific, was optimistic about the emergence of an new, cross-cultural generation which is "far less polarised than in the past. 

“The big question is whether these changes can happen fast enough to catapult the pro-independence Kanaks into power in the territorial elections next May and in time for the new independence referendum due in 2020.”

The Church's unequivocal condemnation of colonialism has always been tempered with the need for decolonisation to take place in the context of fair and peaceful negotiation. Writing Pacem in Terris, John XXIII may well have been thinking of any one of the colonies in which blood has been shed over land, mineral wealth and strategic position. He writes, States have the right to existence, to self development, and to the means necessary to achieve this. They have the right to play the leading part in the process of their own development, and the right to their good name and due honors. Consequently, States are likewise in duty bound to safeguard all such rights effectively, and to avoid any action that could violate them (PT #92).

The message is as clear today as it was to imperial powers in the 1960s many of whom withdrew from their territories in the 1960s and 1970s – Nauru in 1968, Fiji and Tonga in 1970, Papua New Guinea in 1975. Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands achieved a smooth and bloodless decolonisation in 1978 and Kiribati in 1979. France, for its part, regards its colonies as part of the motherland. But the Matignon Accords signed by Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Jacques Lafleur in 1988 indicates some wilingness to listen to the voices of the Kanak people even if some of the local military actions would seem to show a will to upset the Kanak people. This new breed of more conciliatory Kanaks may yet persuade France to relinquish its nickel-rich territory so that they can achieve the aspirations of 150 years of Indigenous people.

Photos: Main image: The Kanak flag with its central yellow orb signifying new hope
second image: Sign outside police stations in New Caledonia.