It is difficult to imagine that the Isle of Pines, one of the gems of Caledonian tourism and often touted as the closest island to paradise (just like Ouvéa…), could have been renowned in the 19th century as a penal colony! However, vestiges continue to attest to this period.
It was in 1872 that France decided to establish a penal colony in the south-western part of the island. In fact, New Caledonia acquired the status of penal colony starting in 1864, when the first ‘convicts’ arrived at Port-de-France (today's Nouméa), aboard the Iphigénie.
Vestiges of the penal colonyVoir plus
21,000 convicts from 1864 to 1897
More than 21,000 people would join these 250 first detainees by 1897, coming in 75 convoys, who would be registered in the various penitential centres on the archipelago. To understand the historical importance of this period, we can tell you that in 1877, two thirds of the inhabitants of New Caledonia of European origin were convicts (around 11,000 out of 17,000). Among these ‘convicts’ we must distinguish between the ‘transportees’, essentially common-law convicts, by far the most numerous, the ‘deportees’ who were political prisoners (Communards, Kabylians) and the ‘relegated’ or recidivists.
Communard and Kabylian deportees
While, among the thousands of convicts moved to ‘the New’ (as the Caledonian penal colonies were generically known), many were transported through the Isle of Pines. The island's local history has mainly held onto the destiny of the Communard deportees. These people were convicted following a revolutionary period of history known as the ‘Commune of Paris’, in 1871. Among the most famous of these was Louise Michel, even if she never stayed on the Isle of Pines. A large number of these political prisoners were nevertheless transferred through the island. The island finally received convicted Algerian insurgents after the Kabylian revolt of 1871.
Vestiges of the past
Very little still remains of this distant past. In Ouro, one of the five communes on the island to have received these deportees, a few ruins overrun with plants are still visible, as well as the water tower, built in 1874/1875 and still in operation. Lastly, the deportees’ cemetery, still maintained, is a place of memory that is worthwhile visiting. Here, 230 anonymous graves (except two) remind us that many convicts died in this place.