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New Caledonia

The western Pacific was first populated about 50,000 years ago. The Austronesians moved into the area later. The diverse group of people that settled over the Melanesian archipelagos are known as the Lapita.

Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea. 1826.
Adrien Hubert Brue

Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea. 1826. Adrien Hubert Brue.

They arrived in the archipelago now commonly known as New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands around 1500 BC. The Lapita were highly skilled navigators and agriculturists with influence over a large area of the Pacific.

From about the 11th century Polynesians also arrived and mixed with the populations of the archipelago.

Europeans first sighted New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands in the late 18th century. The British explorer James Cook sighted Grande Terre in 1774 and named it New Caledonia, Caledonia being the Latin name for Scotland. During the same voyage he also named the islands to the north of New Caledonia the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), after the islands north of Scotland.

New Caledonia natives. 1880.

The first American whaler to come in New Caledonia waters was the Britannia in November 1793. This ship would have discovered the island named then Britania, and today known as Mar (Loyalty Is.). In 1806, this 300 tons ship grounded on the " Elisabeth reef " located North of Lord Howe.

Whalers operated off New Caledonia during the 19th century. Sandalwood traders were welcome but as supplies diminished, the traders became abusive. The Europeans brought new diseases such as smallpox, measles, dysentery, influenza, syphilis and leprosy. Many people died as a result of these diseases. Tensions developed into hostilities and in 1849 the crew of the Cutter were killed and eaten by the Pouma clan. American whalers were dominant in the South Pacific until France annexed New Caledonia in the 1840s. Whaling was mostly concentrated around the Chesterfield reefs West of New Caledonia and, to a lesser extent to the North of Grande Terre and Loyalty islands.

About fifty American whalers (identified by Robert Langsom from their log books) have been recorded in the region (Grande Terre, Loyalty Is., Walpole and Hunter) between 1793 and 1887. They were particularly hunting there between 1835 and 1860. The Chesterfield reefs are not explicitly mentioned in the records but perhaps they were not considered as being French (France annexed them on 15th June 1878).

Pacific New Caledonia.

In general, whalers were in New Caledonia seas between July and December with the peak season in August and September. However the William Hamilton, which came in 1839 and 1841, was there in February and March. This whaler rescued some European sailors and Father Channel assistants after this priest murder in Futuna, on 27th April 1840.

French whalers started hunting in Oceania in 1835 when the Gustave, a 480 tons ship armed in the Havre in 1835, hunted in New Caledonia in the late 1800s in the Arama area, hoping to find whales between Balabio island and the Grande Terre, without success.

The Winslow worked together with the Gustave during several weeks in 1863. The Gustave was badly damaged in the Okhotsk sea and had to be sunk in Tahiti on 15th January 1866. The Winslow caught 21 whales in three months NW of New Caledonia. A 637 tons ship, she was built in Paimboeuf and launched on 12th April 1852. She was not the biggest whaler built in France but probably the one receiving the most numerous improvements.

American whaling ships ceased to come in 1887.

Papuan Village, New Caledonia.

Papuan Village, New Caledonia.

As trade in sandalwood declined it was replaced by a new form of trade, Blackbirding, which was a euphemism for enslaving people from New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to work in sugar cane plantations in Fiji and Queensland. The trade ceased at the start of the 20th century. The victims of this trade were called Kanakas, a label later shortened to Kanak and adopted by the indigenous population after French annexation.

Settled by both Britain and France during the first half of the 19th century, the island was made a French possession in 1853 in an attempt by Napoleon III to rival the British colonies in Australia and New Zealand.

It served as a penal colony for four decades after 1864. Following the example set by the British in nearby Australia, between 1864 and 1922 France sent a total of 22,000 convicted felons to penal colonies along the south-west coast of the island; this number includes regular criminals as well as political prisoners such as Parisian socialists and Kabyle nationalists.

Convicted Female Prisoners being sent to a French Penal Colony in New Caledonia.

April 1, 1876, The Colonies, London, Middlesex, United Kingdom

The French in the Pacific

The success which has from the outset attended the formation of a French penal settlement on the island of New Caledonia, one of the least fertile of the Pacific islands, has no doubt acted as an incentive to the French to set about acquiring before it is too late a further extension of territory in the Pacific, and in the annexation of the New Hebrides they will secure a country which not only presents every natural advantage for the formation of an extensive Colony, but which will at the same time, by its unrivalled situation, secure to them a very powerful addition to their already strong strategic position in the South Seas.

1790-1900: Exile to Paradise:
Savagery and Civilization in Paris and the South Pacific

Exile to Paradise. Savagery and Civilization in Paris and the South Pacific, 1790-1900.

The extensive island of New Caledonia, which may be considered as the centre of French occupation in the Pacific, lies between the parallels of 20 and 23 south, and is traversed by the meridian of 165 east, is about two hundred miles long in a northwesterly and south-easterly direction, with an average breadth of thirty miles, and has an area of a little over six thousand square miles. The island throughout is of volcanic formation, and a central range of mountains, which in some places attains to an elevation of over four thousand feet, traverses its entire length. The mountains are for the most part covered with a thick tropical vegetation, which is relieved here and there with extensive plains of open pasture land. The soil of the lowlands, which is composod of a rich vegetable mould and decomposed coral rock, is of great fertility; but when the area of the island is considered, the alluvial districts capable of cultivation are of comparatively small extent. Lying just within the tropics, subject to the healthy breezes of the south-east trade winds, and with abundant rains, it would long ago have been a desirable possession for any European Power had not the warlike and savage fierceness of its inhabitants discouraged for a long time all attempts at settlement.

Like most of the islands of the Pacific, New Caledonia is encircled with a barrier reef, which rises perpendicularly from the water a considerable distance from the shore, from which it is separated by a navigable channel, affording a secure haven for shipping. This immense reef, which is in many places as much as three or four miles in width, forms a natural barrier to the great waves and violent storms of the ocean. There are various channels in the reef, which usually correspond with the mouths of rivers on the coast of the island, but many of these opeuings are often narrow and tortuous, and the passage of a ship through them is always attended with a considerable degree of danger, especially in rough weather, and when the wind blows on the shore. A large system of coral reefs extends a considerable distance, both from tho northern and southern end of the island ; from the latter point they run nearly in an unbroken line for twenty-eight miles to the Isle of Pines, where they take a south-westerly course, and stretch for many miles out to sea.

Louis XVI Giving Instructions to 
French Navigator Jean Francois La Perouse.

Louis XVI Giving Instructions to French Navigator Jean Francois La Perouse

Captain Cook is the first European who is known to have visited New Caledonia. He landed at Balade, on the north-east coast, on his second voyage round the world in 1774, and gave the island the name it still bears. Cook attempted to circumnavigate the island, but, being baffled by the numerous coral reefs, he sailed to the southward, and discovered the small island of Kunaie, to which he gave the name of Isle of Pines, from the number of pines (araucarias) he found growing there.

The gallant French navigator La Perouse, on that fatal voyage from which he and his companions never returned, had intended to visit New Caledonia; but no trace of his having done so was ever found.

Voyage de La Perouse.

A few years later, in 1792, D'Entrecastreaux, who had gone out in search of La Perouse, explored the island, but with these exceptions, it remained for years unvisited, save by whalers and small coasters, who went there for cargoes of sandal-wood for the Chinese market, the large profit they realised fully indemnifying them for the dangers and risks incurred. In 1843 some French missionaries landed at Balade, and in time obtained a good deal of influence throughout the country, notwithstanding the constant resistance and opposition they had to encounter from the natives.

In 1851 the French ship Acmene was despatched to the north-east end of the island for the purpose of exploring that part of the country with a view to the formation of a settlement, and at first the natives manifested every token of friendship towards the new arrivals.

La Perouse's Voyage. 1799.

The French, however, were not allowed to remain long unmolested in their new home. With that versatility of humour which forms one of the marked characteristics of the natives of New Caledonia, and which was inspired no doubt by the prospect of a banquet of human flesh, eleven out of the small party of French were decoyed into an ambush skilfully laid for them and cruelly massacred. After this horrible butchery the bodies were stuffed with yams and placed before a large fire, around which the natives, probably intoxicated by the smell of blood and a savage feeling of revenge, executed their barbarous war dances during the cooking.

Pacific Ocean Chart. 1799. Jean Francois de Galaup La Perouse.

It was not until two years after this catastrophe that two French men-of-war, sent out to punish the natives under the command of Rear-Admiral Febrier Despointes, took formal possession of the island and planted the French flag there on September 24, 1853. A military port was at once established at Balade, and in 1855 the first troops took up their quarters there, and shortly after another settlement, destined to become the centre of the Colony, and called Port de France, was formed at the extremity of the promontory of Noumea.

The settlement of Balade was abandoned in 1859, and a new station called Napoleonville established in the Bay of Kanala, and a regular postal service established between it and Noumea. The natives themselves were employed in this service, and carried the letters to and fro in tin cases. Great disturbance was occasioned in 1860 by the murder of a number of these messengers.

Native of Maré, Loyalty Isles.
New Caledonia. 1885

New Caledonian.

An epidemic of small-pox had broken out, and was raging in one of the villages through which the road lay, the inhabitants attributing the fatal disease to the mysterious influence of these despatch boxes, and believing that they contained the cause of all their misfortunes, killed them, and according to their barbarous custom, devoured their bodies. The tribe of Waitoo, to which the murdered men belonged, came to Noumea to demand vengeance for the death of their comrades, and a serious outbreak occurred between the infuriated natives and the soldiery. At the first the disturbance threatened to spread throughout the island, and it was found necessary to despatch a number of troops to the village of Ahoui', where the crime had been committed; but the murderers all succeeded in escaping, and took refuge in the mountains oLthe interior. Port de France, the small settlement made in 1854, is now the capital of the Colony, and is at present known by the more distinctive name of Noumea, from the peninsula on which it is situated; and considered from a strategic point of view, it could not have been more favourably placed.

The deep bay on the shores of which the town lies is almost enclosed by the island of Nou, and forms a first-rate harbour completely sheltered from all winds. The small extent of flat land in the vicinity of the bay is backed by ranges of hills which stretch far into the interior of the country, and are covered with coarse grass, which imparts to them during the dry season of the year a very desolate appearance. In fact, those who have heard of the rich soil and fine vegetation of New Caledonia and land at Noumea will be greatly disappointed with the aspect of the country. The grass on the hills is usually dry and yellow, the trees have a weird and dead look, and nothing seems to flourish, owing to the want of water; but after passing Pont des Franoais only a short distance from the town, the scene changes, and beautiful forests of green trees, alive with birds, and rich pasture lands watered by innumerable brooks and mountain springs, justify all that can be said of the fertility of this picturesque and beautiful island. Once inland and the eye is everywhere charmed with the most attractive landscapes. High mountains rise boldly up from level plains, quaint looking masses of coral rock cleft and weather beaten into the most iantastic shapes, now forming long and high walls rent and torn asunder by the force of volcanic action, now standing out in bold relief in the form of castellated ruins, and jutting promontories are seen at every turn, while in the broad valleys and deep ravines the villages of the natives and white homesteads of the settlers lie scattered about amidst a rich tropical vegetation, which spreads itself like a green mantle over the land.

On the north side of the island there is some fine wild mountain scenery; especially is this the case in the vicinity of the Tihouaka and Ba rivers, and also around the fine open bay of St. Louis, the shores of which are clothed with fine timber, greatly sought after for shipbuilding purposes. The falls of Tihouaka rush through a wild gorge, and plunge with a roaring sound into the rocky bed of the Tihouaka river, which winds on its way to the bay through a rich and fertile country.

New Caledonia.

Towards the end of the penal colony era, free European settlers (including former convicts) and Asian contract workers by far out-numbered the population of forced workers.

The indigenous Kanak populations declined drastically in that same period due to introduced diseases and an apartheid-like system called Code de l'Indig nat which imposed severe restrictions on their livelihood, freedom of movement and land ownership.

During World War II, US and Allies forces built a major position in New Caledonia to combat the advance of Japan in South-East Asia and toward Australia. Noumea served as a headquarters for the United States military in the Pacific. The proximity of the territory with the South Pacific operations permitted also quick repairs in Noumea of damaged US ships. The American 23rd Infantry Division is still unofficially named Americal, the name being a contraction of "America" and "New Caledonia."

Isle of Pines

November 4, 1858, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California, USA

French Colonization in the South Pacific

The right of discovery, which was made by Captain Cook, in those regions, belonged to the British domain. But the far seeing Napoleon first established a squatter's right, and then annexed the Isle of Pines and New Caledonia.

Traditional Wood Carving at the Ile Des Pins
New Caledonia, Melanesia, South Pacific

Wood Carving. Isle des Pins, New Calendonia.

The extraordinary sensitiveness of our English cousins in reference to French channel fortifications, appears in the Australian portions of Victoria's dominions to be heightened by the progress of the French colony at the Isle of Pines.

With wonderful forbearance, there was not even a growl from the British Lion, although colonial commerce by this movement lost a goodly trade, and an an ancient foe secured a point where he could at will play the deuce with their South American and China trade, or interfere with all their straits or whaling traffic.

The point is aptly chosen for a naval station or penal settlement. For the last, it has the advantage of beign so so situated in regard to the trade winds, there is slight hope of convicts escaping by boat or canoe, while ample employment will be afforded them in the mines and sandalwood forests, with which the Island abounds.

As a naval depot, it would in time of war exercise a serious damage on all Australian commerce, while giving excellent shelter to merchant or other prize vessels. The intricacy of passage along its reef-bound coast will render attack futile when these narrow channels are once defended.

The Isle of Pines rightly named is the only place ia the South Pacific which furnishes spars for shipping, which is not already colonized by Great Britain. It is evident the French, Government, in the selection of this point, used great care and judgment under the guise of missionary efforts, its coasts were completely surveyed, and its interior prospected by intelligent priests, so far as the jealousy of the native would permit.

Danduran's Diving Apparatus. Leslie's Weekly. 1857

Danduran's Diving Apparatus. Leslie's Weekly. 1857.

Unless it becomes necessary to have "dog eat dog," there will not be the importation into that colony of other blacks, as our Australian friends appear to expect. If the natives of the Island, stalwart savages, do not serve all working purposes, the natives of the Britannia, and other groups adjacent to the New Caledonia coast, will serve the purpose, and, it seems to us, Australia should not object to this, when they have already tried a few ship loads of the same material. True, they were only "apprentices," of whom French masters may make experts and with them not only build fortifications, but create sugar and coffee plantations in the fertile western slopes of New Caledonia adding one more point to the world's commerce, and eventually be to the South Pacific what the Isle of France once was to the commerce of the Indian Ocean.

1899. World's Fleet. Boston Daily Globe

Lloyds Register of Shipping gives the entire fleet of the world as 28,180 steamers and sailing vessels, with a total tonnage of 27,673,628, of which 39 perent are British.

Great Britain10,990 vessels, total tonnage of 10,792,714
United States 3,010 vessels, total tonnage of 2,405,887
Norway 2,528 vessels, tonnage of 1,604,230
Germany 1,676 vessels, with a tonnage of 2,453,334, in which are included her particularly large ships.
Sweden 1,408 vessels with a tonnage of 643, 527
Italy1,150 vessels
France 1,182 vessels

For Historical Comparison
Top 10 Maritime Nations Ranked by Value (2017)

  Country # of Vessels







1 Greece 4,453 206.47 $88.0
2 Japan 4,317 150.26 $79.8
3 China 4,938 159.71 $71.7
4 USA 2,399 55.92 $46.5
5 Singapore 2,662 64.03 $41.7
6 Norway 1,668 39.68 $41.1
7 Germany 2,923 81.17 $30.3
8 UK 883 28.78 $24.3
9 Denmark 1,040 36.17 $23.4
10 South Korea 1,484 49.88 $20.1
Total 26,767 87.21 $466.9

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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