Karolina Kania, Mikołaj Góralik


The Isle of Pines (New Caledonia) has been a tourist attraction for many decades due to the most beautiful beaches in the world, lush flora consisting of 75% of endemic species, the Coral Sea and a warm tropical climate. The life of Kanak people – indigenous inhabitants of the island – is still ancillary to traditions and customs. However with the economic development of New Caledonia, the last French colony in the Pacific Ocean, the Kanak people are gradually opening to a Globalized World. Undoubtedly, the development of tourism – a critical sector of the island economy – plays an essential role in this process. It is estimated that its share in the New Caledonia GDP is 4%.

Its significance is even higher in the islands, where there are no other branches of industry. The schedule of Australian cruise ships organises the life of islanders living on this small island. They arrive at the island one hundred times a year. On the one hand, hosting tourists allows gaining a significant income. On the other, tourists' visits last short enough – usually from 8 am to 3 pm – for the locals to have enough time for traditional activities such as farming, fishing or taking part in local customs.

The Isle of Pines (New Caledonia) is one of the islands in the New Caledonia archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean. It is a special collectivity of France that was colonized in the first half of the 19th century. Missionaries first visited the islands, both Catholic and Protestant, who prepared the Kanak people – the natives – for the white people. Colonization, colonial oppression, and the migrations of people from Asia or other Oceania islands led to a change in the ethnic structure of New Caledonia. Today it is a multicultural country.

According to the census, which took place in 2014, the Kanak people constitute only 39% of the 268,767 people living in the archipelago. Other ethnic groups are Caldoches [descendants of free settlers or prisoners born in New Caledonia] and Metropolitan French [Zoreilles] who arrived from mainland France. They are both of European descent. Then there are Asians [Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese], Polynesians [residents of Wallis, Futuna and French Polynesia] and Métis, which is the result of large ethnic diversity. Although the primary language spoken by the inhabitants of the islands is French, the Kanak people themselves speak 28 languages and 11 dialects.

The fundamental pillar of the economy is the mining industry – about 25% of the world's nickel deposits are located in New Caledonia. However, the extraction of “Caledonian gold” strongly affects the environment. Our mountains are hurt by money and by the mines” – you can hear from the Kanak people. Nickel mining is a very invasive procedure for the environment – enough to say that the mountain peaks hiding that raw material are merely cut down. The environmental and social costs of nickel mining are enormous, but it is hard to imagine a New Caledonian economy without the mining sector – its share in the GDP is 10%.

There are three nickel smelting plants on the main island. One of them, once built on the outskirts of Nouméa, has become a part of the city and unexpectedly towers above the buildings of the capital. The residents of nearby properties complain the most. They have to keep on cleaning the windows of their homes from dirt several times a week. You will not find such information in the tourist folders advertising New Caledonia as a paradise island.

From colonisation to pursuit for independence

France and the French government have ruled New Caledonia since 1853. It was colonised by settling, that is, bringing free settlers from France to the islands, as well as prisoners. At the other end of the world, they began to build the South of France”. One of the prisoners sent to New Caledonia was a Pole – Antoni Berezowski.

Agricultural and industrial development of this territory required occupying large areas of land, which involved the displacement of the Kanak people from the most fertile areas. Segregation led to the closing the autochthons in reservations and pushing them to the margins of the newly emerging society. They were deprived of civil rights and at the same time, a codex of indigenous people  was imposed on them. According to the regulations, the Kanak people could not leave the reservation without the permission of the colonial administration; they had to work for colonisers and pay special taxes.

Antoni Berezowski was born in 1847 in Avratyn and grew up during the partitions of Poland. In 1863, at the age of 16, he took part in the January Uprising. After the collapse of it, he emigrated to France. Living in Paris, he learned that the Tsar of Russia would visit the capital of France. To liberate his country, Berezovsky planned an attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II Romanov. He shot in the direction of the carriage carrying Alexander II in the Bois de Boulogne, but he missed the target. He was handed over to the police and had a trial at court. Berezowski managed to avoid the death penalty, but he was sent to prison in New Caledonia. In 1884, Berezowski was given a piece of land in the village of Bourail, where he lived for over 20 years, isolated from the world, 17.000 km from the homeland. He died on October 22, 1916, at the age of 69. He spent 49 years in exile in New Caledonia.



The figure of Antoni Berezowski is still present in culture. He became the main character of two novels by Jan Józef Szczepański: “Wyspa’ and “Ikar”. The French artist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux painted the attempt to murder Alexander II. His painting “Berezowski's Assault Against Czar Alexander II (6 June 1867)” is in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. In New Caledonia, when leaving the village of Bourail in the direction of Koné, one can see the surrounding hill called by the locals as the Hill of the Pole. There is a parcel at the foot of the hill, formerly inhabited by Berezowski.



Thus defined colonial order lasted continuously until 1946, when the autochthons regained civil rights and the possibility of education. It was not until the end of the next decade (in 1957) that the Kanak people gained full rights to vote. Due to the policy of the French state and the conservatism of local White Elites, the Kanak people access to full rights has not changed the hierarchical relationship between them and the Europeans.

Today, complicated relations between indigenous people and the visitors are the result of a painful colonial past that is not so distant. The old divisions imposed by the colonisation are still visible in Caledonian society.

For decades, the Melanesian population was discriminated against, and the word Kanak [canaque] was a synonym for a savage. According to the French mission civilisatrice, or the mission of civilisation of less developed communities, the French – as a more developed society – had the right to colonise others just to serve the idea of civilisation. Today, many Europeans living on the island hesitate to use the word "Kanak".  Speaking of autochthons, they often use the term "Melanesians", and whether or not someone belongs to their criterion of the civilised world is decided by the level of its Europeanisation.

The Kanak people stayed in the shadows of the European community for a long time. The aspirations for independence in New Caledonia appeared late in relation to other South Pacific countries. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that the first Kanak people graduated in France and started returning to the island [the first Kanak person passed his maturity diploma only in 1962]. It was they who began cultural and independence recovery, playing an increasingly important role in Caledonian society. However, at the same time, there was a new wave of settlement, strongly supported by Prime Minister Pierre Messmer himself in a letter dated July 19, 1972, sent to the Secretary of State responsible for overseas territories of France.

Pierre Messmer implemented his colonization project – the Kanak people became a minority in their own country. And this is so till today.

“New Caledonia, a colony settlement, although it has become multiracial, is probably the last overseas tropical territory in the world, where a developed country can send its citizens.

So one has to take this last chance to create an additional French country. The presence of France in Caledonia may be threatened, only except world war, by the nationalist claims of the local population, supported by several potential allies from other ethnic communities in the Pacific.

In the short-term, mass immigration of French citizens from the metropolis or the overseas departments (Réunion), by improving and maintaining the number ratio of the community, should be a way to avoid this danger.

In the long term, the claims of indigenous people will be avoidable only if non-Pacific communities become a demographic majority. There is no doubt that without systematic immigration of women and children, a long-term demographic effect will not be achieved.

In order to correct the gender imbalance in the incoming population, workplaces in private enterprises for immigrants should be reserved. The ideal state of affairs would be if any work a woman is capable of doing, were reserved for women.”

* A letter cited in the book by Claude Gabriel and Vincent Kermel "Nouvelle-Calédonie La révolte kanake" (La Brèche, 1985).

Kastom and tranquillity

Unlike Grande Terre, the largest and principal island of New Caledonia, Isle of Pines has remained almost entirely isolated for a long time and cut off from European influence. However, it was a unit of the French colonial empire, so the island was indirectly subordinate to the colonial administration. The Grand Chef [the Great Chief of all tribes inhabiting the island] cooperated with it. Today, only a few colonial buildings remind us of the past. The island is inhabited by approximately 2,000 people, mainly Kanak people, divided into eight tribes. There is a Little Chief at the head of each tribe. In turn, all the islanders are subjected to the Great Chief, who is also the mayor of the island community.

The colonial past could suggest that indigenous people should unanimously strive for independence. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. The Great Chief is one of the main Caledonian politicians of the right-wing anti-independence party Le Rassemblement-UMP so it is largely up to his political preferences how the Islanders vote. As one of the inhabitants of the Kéré tribe stated – We demand to stand by France. Our grandparents always underlined that living here, on the Isle of Pines, we are already independent. No white person rules here. We do not need independence. We have our tranquillity.

The tranquillity mentioned by one of the Chiefs stems, among other things, from the special status and the custom of the Kanak people, as well as the land they inhabit. The custom – which is of great importance for the life of Kanak people – is also an oral code [a set of rules, practices and rituals], a Melanesian way of life, and a gesture of a customary exchange of words and gifts. The term “custom” refers to both practices and national symbols and has several fundamental meanings. The custom is at the same time everything that is opposed to colonialism and the West, it is a traditional social and political order, and a variety of local practices.

“Kastom” [a word that derives from Melanesian pidgin], “la coutume” [in French], is a way of life and rules regarding social relations in Melanesia. Recognizing the custom as the foundation of the Caledonian society and respecting the principles it defines, are still very important for the Kanak people. The custom is associated with the everyday life of the Kanak people, as well as with the most important moments in their lives, such as the Festival of the yam, weddings, births and funerals. Long speeches are given, and people mention their ancestors and their stories on the occasion of these holidays. People exchange words and gifts.

Listening to conversations in New Caledonia, you can often hear the phrase “faire la coutume” which means “to follow the custom”. It is an inseparable part of everyday life on the islands of the archipelago. The custom is followed not only by the Kanak people, but also by Caldoches [descendants of colonizers], Polynesians, arrivals from mainland France [called metros], and in some situations even by tourists. “Faire la coutume” means entering into a relationship with another human being or a group of people at a given time and place, thus showing respect for culture and tradition. The customary gesture is carried out in specific situations: on the occasion of arrival or departure, a visit to a tribe or a Caledonian family, during visits to places which are considered special by the Kanak people: caves, islets and waterfalls located on the territories belonging to the tribes. Performing a gesture is the condition for entering the community of the Kanak people. The simpler and more honest the gesture will be, the more it will be appreciated. The customary gesture among the Kanak people is performed with respect for the hierarchy. It usually takes place between two people, the representatives of groups. Each group chooses one representative, who is a “porte-parole” – a spokesperson for the whole community.

The customary gesture can be compared to a polite gift that we give to the hosts during the visit. In New Caledonia, it has a much more formal character. The short speech, prepared for this occasion, is accompanied by an exchange of gifts, especially yam, tobacco, pieces of material and coins. The expression “monnaie kanak” [the Kanak people currency] specifies items used in customary ceremonies. However, they have nothing to do with traditional money. Such currency has a symbolic, not commercial value. A yam [dioscorea] is the basis of custom, a symbol of fertility and honour. It allows joining the clans together. The Kanak people distinguish real yam that is the basis of all important exchanges, from the usual yam that can be found at the market and is a part of the daily diet of the Islanders.

How to perform a customary gesture? That is how we show our respect. It reminds us that one does not enter someone's home without introducing oneself and expressing respect for the hosts. Similar rules apply to arrival at the territory of the tribe. To establish a relationship with our hosts, a customary gesture should be made – giving a small souvenir for the hosts to show them our gratefulness. The Kanak people, while accepting the gift, put their hand on the object received. The gesture and the words that we speak are more valuable than the gift's original value. The words spoken by the Kanak people confirm that the guest is now under their protection. While speaking, the person that is performing a customary gesture should not be interrupted, and no one should take pictures of her without asking for permission first. The host has his eyes often lowered, to show respect to the guest. An appropriate outfit is a sign of respect from the side of the guest. Performing a gesture by visitors is very much appreciated by the Kanak people because it confirms that the tourists know the culture and the custom of the indigenous people. The locals take care of their guests who become part of the local community through participation in the custom.

The most important annual holiday of the Kanak people is the Festival of Yam, which is celebrated on the Isle of Pines on March 19. It not only sets the beginning of the harvest but also sets the date of the main events in the Melanesian community [for example weddings]. The everyday life of the islanders is subordinated to the preparation of the event. One week before the ceremony, the cruises of cruise ships coming from Australia are suspended, thanks to which the Kanak people can concentrate on working in the field. They work manually using basic tools. To collect a dozen or so yams, one has to dig a hole one meter deep using his hands. It is important not to harm the vegetables because the damaged ones cannot be used in the customary ceremony. On the eve of the Festival of Yam, members of eight tribes inhabiting the island perform a customary gesture between the clans. Then everybody meets in a in Grande Chefferie village – in the headquarters of the Great Chief.

The day of the Festival of Yam is a great event for the local community. The ceremony begins with a solemn mass in the church in the village of Vao. During the mass, the priest blesses yams laid on a massive pile in front of the altar. When the mass finishes, people go to the headquarters of the Great Chief taking the yams with them. Then the yams are divided into smaller piles assigned to all tribes and the Europeans living on the island: police officers, teachers, nurses, doctors or hotel employees. The domain of men is the customary work. Women dressed in robes de mission [missionary dresses] sit nearby waiting for the division of yams to begin. Long and wide dresses in various colours were introduced in Oceania by Christian missionaries and replaced traditional dresses of Kanak women, which clergy considered as shameless. The ceremony is organised in Kwenyii language by two spokespersons of the Great Chief and the Chief of the island who speaks French. When the division of yams finishes all the Islanders go to the St. Maurice Bay, where the ceremony of turtles division takes place. When the New Caledonian barrier reef was inscribed on UNESCO world heritage list, the catch of turtles was banned. However, there are some exceptions. One of them is The Festival of Yam. The ceremonial division of yams and turtles does not end the celebration. Each clan celebrates on its own till late at night.

In the early morning it gets more and more crowded in the Kuto Bay on the Isle of Pines. There are more and more boats with Australian tourists coming to the shore. Usually, a musical group of the Kanak people waits for them and presents traditional dances to visitors. Today, however, the bay is exceptionally empty – some Europeans sell souvenirs, and the Kanak people can be counted on one hand.

 It is all because of the funeral ceremonies that have been going on in the village for several days. Although tourism is the primary source of income for the residents of Isle of Pines, customary ceremonies lasting up to several weeks are still more important. When the time of the wedding or funeral comes, the inhabitants choose to participate in these celebrations. They are less eager to work in tourism then.

– We spend too much time on doing business on the Isle of Pines. Youngsters no longer know how to weave baskets or mats. It is vital not to forget our customs – Johanna is worried.

Preparations for the customary wedding last many months and involve all members of the bride and groom's clans. Fields are grown one year in advance, and whole families take part in the organization of the celebrations. They offer young parents gifts, such as yams, fabrics, rice, sugar and money. 

Special huts are built, where gifts are kept until the day of the wedding. Wedding ceremonies are a key moment not only for the relationship of a young couple but above all for their clans. The customary marriage takes place in the groom's home and is overseen by his uncle – the mother's brother – who is the master of a ceremony. Then, there is an exchange of gifts between the clans of spouses. 

From then on, the bride enters the groom's clan and the children she will give birth to will belong to his clan. The meal prepared by the clan of the groom ends the ceremony lasting many hours. Only the family of the bride and the tribal elders take part in that feast. The groom's family helps in preparing and serving the meals. As the customary weddings are not governed by the state and are recorded only in the customary register, the next day a civil marriage takes place, called by the Kanak people “the White people's wedding”.

The de-colonization of consciousness

Almost three weeks before the referendum in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia, there was virtually no indication that a historic vote would take place soon. There was no visible sign of political campaign on the streets; no one was openly expressing his views. However, it was enough to start the conversation, and the subject of the referendum would appear sooner or later.

Marie, a resident of the capital from Maré Island, did not decide how to vote yet.

If it was possible to simplify the results of the referendum as the media present it, Marie  – a French bank employee graduated at a French university, in relation with a Frenchman from a metropolis – would undoubtedly vote for New Caledonia remaining with France. However, nothing is as visible here as it seems from a European point of view. The further away from the capital, the situation becomes even less obvious.

The independence referendum, which was scheduled for November 4, 2018, was the next step in the ongoing process of decolonization of New Caledonia and gaining independence of this Melanesian territory from France. To understand its outcome, one should take into account the uniqueness of this diverse archipelago. When visiting the villages on the main island before the referendum, pre-election moods could be guessed by flags, inscriptions on the roads and many banners. Where the Kanak people prevail, the blue-red-green colours of Kanaky, an independent state, dominate.

“Independence is de-colonization of consciousness” – one can read on one of the roadside banners. However, even in the north, which is considered to support independence, there are places such as the Ouégoa village, where the writing “Vive la France” welcomes the visitors on the main road.

In the capital, where even a few days earlier it was difficult to find information about the upcoming referendum, the day of voting resembles the atmosphere of the holiday.  Passers-by carrying the Kanaky flag are welcomed by the passing cars with the sound of the horns, and excitement is felt in the polling stations. You can see the pride on the faces of the autochthons. Regardless of the final result – many of them realize that no one will be able to change the results of the polls – they can finally decide their own destiny.

Late in the evening, after the final results were announced, several cars were burned in one of the most radical neighbourhoods in Nouméa. No other incidents were reported. However, there was a much larger revolution in the hearts and minds of the Kanak people, and the hope grew, that another referendum would bring them independence. Independence defined differently by each of our interlocutors.


Hopes that were awaken

Voulez-vous que la Nouvelle-Calédonie accède à la pleine souveraineté et devienne indépendante? [Do you want New Caledonia to achieve full sovereignty and become independent?]

That was the question the voters were answering. They expressed their response by putting one of the two cards into the ballot box: there was a writing OUI on one of the cards and the writing NON on the other.

During the preparations for the referendum, the case of how the question should be formulated was discussed for a very long time. The decision was made in March in... Paris, which best describes the attitude of France to its overseas territory. Dozens of politicians representing Caledonian political groups went to Paris so that the French Prime Minister would not have to bother to travel to Melanesia. The text of the question, which had been discussed for weeks in New Caledonia, was formulated in Paris within a few-hour meeting.

The right to vote

280 460 people live in New Caledonia. However, not all adults could vote. The question of who has the right to vote was a problematic issue. What about those Kanak people who originate from customary (and not civil) status, are subject to customary law, never actively participated in elections, and therefore are not on the list of voters of their commune? What about the Kanak people who spent many years in France, studying, for example?

What about the French who have lived in the Pacific for many years? It was another discussed question. Discussions and disputes lasted for many months, especially since “France” [French politicians and people of European descent living in New Caledonia] wanted the largest number of people born in France to be able to vote. It was supposed to increase the number of votes against independence.

The final number of people entitled to vote was 174 154. It was the number of voters registered on a special list prepared for those elections. The Kanak people constituted less than half of the voters (80 120 people, 46%). The Frenchmen from mainland France, who started to live in New Caledonia after December 31, 1993, did not have the right to vote. Moreover, over 11 000 Kanak people were registered “ex officio” on the electoral lists.

The referendum took place under the control of the committee responsible for ensuring the proper conduct of voting. The commissions were supported by an additional 250 delegates from mainland France. Their task was to observe and record any irregularities, and intervene in case of any need. More than 300 gendarmes came from France to watch over the security of the referendum.

A Pyrrhic victory

On Sunday, 4 November 2018, New Caledonia did not become the youngest country in the world. The victory of people, who did not want independence, was clear, but the result was certainly not expected. Pre-election polls anticipated 66% to 72% of votes against gaining independence. Meanwhile, 56.67% (78,734 votes) were against and 43.33% (60 199 votes) in favour of full sovereignty.

The second important aspect of these elections was the high turnout: 81.01% of voters took part in the vote. However, participation in the polls on the islands was very diverse. Especially in the Loyalty Islands Province [Ouvéa, Lifou, Maré and Tiga], belonging to New Caledonia, the Kanak people were less willing to participate in the referendum (61.17%). In John's opinion, who comes from the island of Lifou, tiny islands remain a “private homeland” of the Kanak people, who are convinced that the result of the referendum will not change their life. That's why they do not vote.

However, there is a place in New Caledonia where not only the turnout was 100%, but also all citizens voted for independence. The Tiendanite tribe, living at the foot of the mountains in the northeast of Grande Terre, is one of the most famous in New Caledonia. The tribe is known because of sad and important story that happened in that mountain valley years ago. Bernard Maépas, a chairman of tribal elders, was one of the few who survived the attack oon December 5, 1984, organized by the members of an anti-independence movement. He still has visible scars on his body left by bullets fired by assassins who, after the massacre, burned down the house of Jean-Marie Tjibaou – the leading independence activist from Tiendanite tribe. According to Maépas, the trap he and his cousins ​​found themselves in, was prepared just for Jean-Marie Tjibaou, who was murdered in 1989 by the Kanak Djubelly Wéa. Wéa was against the politics of the party leader for independence. That is why all eligible residents vote, unanimously advocating independence and paying tribute to Tjibaou, a symbol of aspirations of independence.

Among the smaller islands of the archipelago, the result on the Isle of Pines was a surprise. The Great Chief, an opponent of New Caledonia independence, has for years been the head of that commune most distant from France. The Islanders most often vote in local elections for the party supported by the Chief. However, in such a small community, the result does not always reflect the political beliefs of voters. You vote for a person, not for a political party. It might seem that in the referendum, the Islanders would vote against independence, according to their Great Chief. And in the case of the Isle of Pines, the results turned out to be unexpected. Only 32.68% of the voters opted to stay in France.

Although this time the inhabitants of New Caledonia decided to stay with France, it is not a final decision. The Nouméa Accord provides for two more referendums. The local authorities will decide when they will be organized, in agreement with the politicians from mainland France. Nevertheless, for now, New Caledonia remains a special collectivity of France. First of all, it means that billions of euros from Europe will continue to flow there. For many – especially the for French from the metropolis – it was one of the key arguments to vote for staying with the mother-France.

However, it is not the end of the Kanak people independence efforts. 

“If someone told you that Donald Trump would become president, you would not believe it. Cards have not been dealt yet. Hope keeps us alive”, says John.

How would their life look like in an independent country? Will there be a symbolic breakup of colonial relations with France, full of oppression, violence and discrimination? Will it happen already in 2020?

Let’s wait.