History and economy

Just 1,500 km off the Eastern coast of Australia lies the 3rd largest island in the Pacific Ocean after Papua New Guinea and New Zealand: New Caledonia.

The essential

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

Discovery of New Caledonia

New Caledonia was discovered in 1774 by the British navigator James Cook, who christened the country “New Caledonia” because the mountainous scenery of the Main Island reminded him of his native Scotland.

He noted that the country was populated by Melanesians (ancestors of the Kanaks).

On 24 September 1853, Rear Admiral Febvrier Despointes annexed New Caledonia on behalf of France to forestall any move by the British.

New Caledonia has been French ever since. The city of Noumea, the present capital of New Caledonia, was founded in 1854.

A penal colony

From 1864 onwards, thousands of convicts were shipped to the colony. New Caledonia was made a penal colony by Napoleon III; around 5,000 Communard deportees were sent there. Given New Caledonia’s location on the other side of the world, it was quickly seen as the perfect place to provide a safe prison for political opponents to the various regimes which rose to power in France following the Revolution. Moreover, the authorities decided that both male and female convicts should be forced to remain in New Caledonia for a period equivalent to the duration of their prison sentence, with the aim of boosting the colony’s population. The penitentiary was abolished in 1897.

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

World War II

In World War II, New Caledonia became an Allied Base, welcoming over 50,000 American troops fighting in the Pacific.

New Caledonia was made a French Overseas Territory in 1946.

Conflits and events

In the 1980s, the country 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 culminated 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.

A cultural heritage

Present-day New Caledonia is a Melanesian land with a vibrantly diverse cultural heritage forged by all the peoples who have played a role in the country’s history: the native Kanak people and the many communities from Europe, Asia, Polynesia and Reunion Island... a diverse, multicultural mix.

The economy of New Caledonia

On the economic front, engineer Jules Garnier began mining nickel mineral ore in 1894. 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, New Caledonia’s 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.