NEW Caledonia is going to the polls for an independence referendum next week – and it would important to talk about the rich diversity of populations so often found in French overseas territories, for which New Caledonia is an amazing example.
These populations reflect the history of the territory and that of France’s.
The purpose of the island’s colonization in the late 19th century was to provide France with a penal colony, to which to send its “undesirables” like it already had done with French Guyana.
The prisoners sent there were usually petty criminals, robbers, thieves, and murderers, of both genders.
But France also sent away political prisoners, most notably the Paris communard.
It also sent away many Algerian Kabyles, then a part of France, who still live there to this day.
Other political exiles included the first members of the now thriving Vietnamese community, which was later reinforced by refugees from the turmoil shaking the newly independent French Indochinese countries.
The European population was also complemented by free French citizens going to the island out of their own volition.
This included many French Alsatians, inscribing themselves in a wider movement of relocation, following French defeat during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and the annexation of their homes into the newly formed German Empire.
Though they mostly went to French Africa and Algeria, some opted for New Caledonia.
These were also joined by French adventurers and businessmen, aiming to make their fortune by exploiting the islands’ natural resources and founding plantations (cattle, mining with up to 30 per cent of the world’s nickel located there, coffee, sugar, vanilla, and tropical fruits).
These entrepreneurs came from France, French Reunion (Creoles) but also from Australia (second migration for some). As such, New Caledonia also sports a community of people with Anglo-Saxon roots.
These businessmen will import other populations as indentured workers, a practice used in Reunion island.
These workers came from India, the French Pacific islands, China, French Indochina, and the wider Pacific.
They have left their mark on the local cuisine, culture, and population.
The Indians, mostly from the South of India, and locally nicknamed “Malabars”, came to work the sugar plantations, which proved to be unsuccessful, leading to their abandonment and marginalization.
A very different situation, when compared to their success in Reunion island and French Indochina.
The Chinese (Hokkien, Hakkas, and Teochew) were also imported in a similar manner but later developed into a thriving business community, which can be found all over the French overseas territories.
An important Javanese and Japanese community also came to call New Caledonia their home.
They eventually became full French citizens with all the privileges and duties it entailed, such as military service, often with distinction.
The best example being the French Vietnamese, a hero of Free France and Bir-Hakeim, Jean Tranape.
Consequently, it would be foolish to view the question of independence as a binary.
The island is a puzzle of different communities reflecting its political and economic history.
It is, therefore, likely that should the process of independence be engaged, this cultural question will likely haunt the negotiation table.
Darshan Singh Brar is a writer covering political and international affairs relating to France.
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