The first humans to get here, were skilled navigators that came from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands around 1500 BC. Their distinctive culture was characterized by an elaborate pinhole incised pottery that was first discovered at the "Lapita" site near the town of Koné on the northwest coast of Grande Terre, the main island.
Subsequent research has identified the presence of the Lapita culture on the coasts of New Guinea as early as 2000 B.C. Their forebears had migrated south from Asia through the Indonesian archipelago bringing with them at the Austronesian languages whose roots have been traced to Taiwan. Some interbred with the earlier Papuan populations but most of these remarkable navigators continued their eastward expansion to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and beyond, giving rise to the Polynesian nations and also migrated north to populate Micronesia.
New Caledonia was given its name in 1774 by James Cook because the terrain reminded him of Scotland that was called Caledonia by the Romans. The French explored it in 1793 but the first to settle there were Samoan Protestant missionaries in the south in 1841 and French Catholic missionaries in the north in 1843. The French took possession of the island in 1853 and used it as a penal colony until full-scale colonization began at the end of the 19th century. The indigenous "Kanaks" were given French citizenship in 1946.
The nickel boom of the '60s brought prosperity but also growing conflicts between the Kanaks and the Caldoches (island born French colonists). The independence of Fiji in 1970 and of Papua New Guinea in 1975, inspired a Kanak movement for independence led by Jean-Marie Tjibaou. Violence between Kanaks and whites increased through the '80s culminating in the assassination of Tjibaou in May 1989 by Kanak extremists opposed to the Matignon accords he had brokered with France. In 1998, a new "Accord de Noumea" was signed stipulating a gradual transfer of power to Kanaks and a referendum on full independence in 15 years or so. Now, the situation is quiet for the time being.
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Tontouta airport is only two hours from Sydney but it is 45 kilometers from the capital Noumea. An excellent shuttle service brought me directly to the "Auberge de Jeunesse" on the hill behind the Cathedral, for 20 $US which is a reasonable price for expensive New Caledonia. You can also get to and from the airport on the blue bus for 3 $US.
The modern and comfortable youth hostel was also an excellent value for the money at 10 $US a night in a 6 bed dorm.
More than anything, I appreciated the great bunch of people that happened to be there when I arrived. In the usual order,Thomas Dutour (who was going around the world on his bicycle), Antoine Guilard, me, Rachel Boulez, André Moreau (almost my age, who has been almost everywhere I've been) and Fabrice Fouquet.
We had a ball in spite of a mean boss lady who objected loudly to our nightly parties. This hostel had the best kitchen facilities that I had ever seen, with a walk-in refrigerator and individual food lockers.
The only problem with the Noumea Youth Hostel is that all food and drink has to be purchased at the foot of the hill and carried back up the 110 step stairs seen here at the end of Jean Jaurès street.
That was a problem for me with my short wind and bad knee but the daily climb was rewarded by the great view of the city from the top. The panoramic picture below was patched together from 4 photos with Adobe's excellent Photoshop software (move the slider bar of your browser to see the rest on the right).
The town of Noumea is, of course, very French. Rue de Sébastopol at the foot of the hill has a lot of restaurants and expensive boutiques.
This building, on rue de Sébastopol, houses the fashionable Café de Paris and three cinemas.
Noumea's large central park is called "Place des Cocotiers". Public concerts are staged periodically in this pavilion at the northern end.
And this nice fountain with a shapely nymph decorates the southern end.
Here is the City Hall.
The local market is not far from the marina and the museum...
Noumea's marina called "Port Moselle".
I don't have a photo of the large New Caledonia Museum on Maréchal Foch Avenue in the city centre but it is an excellent place to start learning about Melanesian history and traditions.
This picture shows the remarkable Tjibaou Cultural Center that celebrates the Kanak way of life with dance and music shows, about 10 km from town. Its extensive library and documentation center also covers all of Oceania. I can recommend a visit to the "links" page of their excellent website.
It was unfortunately forbidden to take pictures inside but nobody stop me from taking these outside.
I am sure that not all the traditional family huts in New Caledonia are as nice as this one but that's normal, after all this is a museum!
I guess this is a community hall. It would have been more interesting if there had been a poster telling us something about this structure.
Anyway, here is what it looks like inside.
My remarks about an explanatory poster also apply to this fine structure which I imagined to be a chief's house because of its impressive height that you can see below.
Noumea also has fine beaches easily reached by the city bus. This is the "Anse aux Citrons" beach looking south towards the "Rocher à la Voile".
And this is the same beach looking north toward the city.
A little further is the long "Anse Vata" beach bordering the "Promenade Roger Laroque".
Now that the sightseeing is over I have to show this picture of an angry crowd of Wallis Islanders holding a manifestation to express their frustration with the situation in which communal land ownership places them.
For decades islanders have come to work in New Caledonia from the small overcrowded French island colony of Wallis 1500 km north east of here. There are now twice as many Wallisians in New Caledonia than on Wallis island and today, they constitute almost 10% of the population here.
The problem is that most of the land in New Caledonia is communally owned by one of the 300 Kanak clans who will rent but not sell it. Thus, the Wallisian 10 percent of the population is barred from owning land. According to what I've heard, today's manifestation resulted from the violent expulsion of several Wallisian families from communal lands where they had previously been tolerated by the local chief. Shots had been fired and there had been one dead and 19 wounded. After three months of fruitless negotiations these people were demanding that the government take decisive action to settle their problem one way or another
Colective ownership of land is a source of conflict not only here, it's a problem maker all over the Pacific. A similar conflict is raging in the Solomon islands between Guadalcanal and Malaitan Islanders. In Fiji the refusal of traditional tribal landowners to sell land to Indian farmers sorely warps the economic reality and creates tensions pregnant of violence. In Chuuk, it is the source of friction between the people of Weno and those of the outer islands. Everywhere, communal land ownership can be a source of injustice inside the tribes as it often gives hereditary chiefs excessive power when they can decide who gets the use of the best land.
I mention this because we generally don't think of the virtues of individual ownership; we just take it for granted.