New Caledonia History and Economy

Want to learn about how the New Caledonia we all know and love came to be? Brush up on your New Caledonia history and discover how the region has evolved through the centuries.

The essentials

  • Discovery of New Caledonia
  • A penal colony
  • World War II
  • Conflits and events
  • A cultural heritage
  • The economy of New Caledonia

New Caledonia prior to European settlement

New Caledonia history dates back thousands of years. The first people are thought to have arrived in New Caledonia around 3,500 years ago. Known as the Lapita, this seafaring group explored the remote islands of the South Pacific and are considered to be part of the same group who are the forebears of Polynesian and Micronesian culture.

Over time, people from across Polynesia made their way to the archipelago, helping to shape New Caledonia’s unique Indigenous culture.

European discovery of New Caledonia

Captain James Cook, a British navigator credited with the first European contact with Australia’s east coast, was the first European explorer to encounter New Caledonia. Landing in the archipelago in 1774, the mountainous scenery of the main island reminded him of his native Scotland (referred to as Caledonia in Latin), leading him to christen it as New Caledonia. In the years that followed Cook’s sighting, the region was visited by a number of other famed explorers and mariners, including Lapérouse, who approached the west coast of the main island prior to his mysterious disappearance.

Following initial European contact, the region became well known for its whaling prospects and abundance of sandalwood, which could, once harvested, be traded with merchants in China for coveted goods such as tea. Although interest in the archipelago remained largely resource-based in the first few decades after European discovery, missionaries from France and Britain also began to arrive in the years following 1840.

On the 24th of September, 1853, Admiral Febvrier Despointes, at the command of Napoleon III, annexed New Caledonia from Britain on behalf of France. Searching for a strategic military position in the South Pacific and an alternative to South America’s French Guyana penal settlement, New Caledonia served as the perfect solution.

In the following year, the city of Noumea, the present capital of New Caledonia, was founded.

Time as a French penal colony

From May 1864, thousands of French convicts, including close to 5,000 Communard members (supporters of the Paris Commune), were shipped to New Caledonia. Given its location on the other side of the world, New Caledonia was seen as the perfect place to house opponents to the political regimes that rose to power following several tumultuous periods in French history. 

With the aim of boosting the colony’s population, authorities decided that convicts should be forced to remain in New Caledonia for a period equivalent to the length of their prison sentence. For many convicts who completed longer sentences of more than eight years, there was an obligation to settle in the colony, but some lucky prisoners were pardoned and were able to eventually return home to France.

Male and female convicts continued to arrive in New Caledonia until 1897. At this point in time, between 22,000 and 25,000 convicts had arrived in the colony.

During this early period of European settlement, New Caledonia was the scene of several Kanak uprisings, the most famous of which was the rebellion led by Great Chief Ataï in 1878.

New Caledonia during World War II

Following the occupation of France by German forces in mid-1940, the New Caledonian departmental councils voted to support the French government that was now in exile, allowing the colony to support the Allied forces. In early 1942, New Caledonia became an important Allied base in the Pacific, hosting around 50,000 American troops and the main South Pacific fleet of the United States Navy.

In 1946, following the conclusion of World War II, New Caledonia become a French Overseas Territory. In the same year, the local Kanak people finally achieved French citizenship.

Conflicts and events in New Caledonia

In the 1980s, New Caledonia was shaken by conflict between the opponents and supporters of independence. The strife gave rise to violent clashes, which escalated into widespread insurrection. The violence reached its peak when a hostage situation in Ouvéa led to tragedy, and the two sides were finally persuaded to take part in negotiations which led to the Matignon Accords in 1988. The Accords specified a 10 year transitory status, after which a self-determination referendum would be held to allow the New Caledonian people to vote for or against independence. The Noumea Accord, which was concluded in 1998, provided for a practically sovereign status and postponed the final referendum on independence to a date between 2015 and 2018. In late 2018, the independence referendum was held, with 56.4% of those who voted wanting New Caledonia to remain a French territory.

New Caledonia’s cultural heritage

Present-day New Caledonia is a Melanesian land with a vibrantly diverse cultural heritage. Forged by all the different groups that make up the archipelago’s population, from the native Kanak people to the many communities originating from across Europe, Asia, Polynesia and beyond, New Caledonia’s culture is quite unlike any other.

The New Caledonia economy

Home to a large portion of the world’s nickel (some estimate that around 25% of global deposits), it comes as no surprise that the natural resource has made a large contribution to the New Caledonia economy. Nickel mineral ore started to be mined in 1894, but it was only from 1960 onwards that the boom years of nickel production played a major role in boosting New Caledonia's economic development.

Today, the New Caledonia economy is driven by three key sectors: the mining industry - nickel (around 20% of GDP), magnesium, iron, cobalt, chromium and manganese, fiscal transfers from France (around 15% of GDP), and tourism.