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New Caledonia is a collection of islands in the Melanesia region of the Southwest Pacific Ocean. The archipelago includes Grande Terre, its main island, as well as the Belep Islands, the Chesterfield Islands, the Loyalty Islands, the Isle of Pines, and some smaller islets. The Chesterfield Islands are situated in the Coral Sea. Its closest neighbor is Vanuatu, to the north. Administratively, New Caledonia is an overseas territory of France.

The islands of New Caledonia have been inhabited for more than three thousand years. Known as the Lapita, the first settlers of New Caledonia arrived around 1500 BC, probably from Vanuatu. The Lapita lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but also practiced agriculture. Beginning in the 11th-century AD, other Polynesian groups migrated to New Caledonia. The early settlers of the islands cultivated yams, taro, manioc, and other crops. Their terraced fields can still be found in places on Grande Terre.

When the first Europeans arrived, the islands already had a population that is estimated to have been in excess of sixty-thousand. Captain James Cook, the British explorer, was the first to arrive, naming the islands. Cook anchored the HMS Resolution off the northeast coast of Grande Terre in 1774, spending ten days exploring the island without any conflict from resident islanders. He then sailed along the east coast of Grande Terre, coming to the Isle of Pines, but without discovering the Loyalty Islands. The French explorer, Jean-Francoise de Galaup La Perouse, approached the west coast of Grande Terre, but he and his crew disappeared in a cyclone before returning to France. Another French crew discovered the Loyalty Islands in 1793, but the captain of that ship died on the return journey to France. That same year, a British sea captain came upon Maré, the southernmost of the Loyalty Islands, and reported the presence of sandalwood on the island. Although the islands were visited by British and American whalers from time to time, it was the sandalwood traders who had the greatest impact on the islands. Sandalwood was valuable because it was burned as incense in Chinese temples. Between 1840 and 1850, Australian traders completely stripped L'Île-des-Pins of its sandalwood, then the Loyalty Islands, and finally the east coast of Grande Terre. During the 1800s, French Catholic and English Protestant missionaries arrived in New Caledonia, and two Samoan Protestant missionaries came to L'Île-des-Pins in 1841. A French Marist mission was established on the northeast coast of Grande Terre in 1843. The introduction of Christianity eventually brought a stop to the practice of polygamy and cannibalism.

New Caledonia was annexed to France by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1853 without effective British opposition. As the importation of convicts to Australia was abolished in 1852, France established a penal colony on New Caledonia in 1864. Convicts were put to work building the island's infrastructure, including the construction of a Catholic cathedral in Noumea. Conditions at Camp Brun, as the penal colony was known, were so harsh that it began to be referred to as the slaughterhouse. France sent convicts to New Caledonia until 1897, and they were generally required to remain on the islands after their sentences were up. In 1871, a group of Communards, members of a French political group known as the Paris Commune, were sent to live on L'Île-des-Pins. They were not imprisoned but restricted to the island. Most of them were eventually permitted to return to France, however. In the 1860s and 1870s, the French practice of taking land from native islanders for cattle grazing and other purposes led to a revolt in 1878. It continued for seven months but was eventually quashed by the French military. In response to the revolt, France created a system that gave subordinate status to native islanders, known as Kanaks, forcing them to live on assigned reservations in the mountainous areas of the island. Inter-island trading between Kanaks was forbidden. They were also forced to work for settlers or colonial authorities as requested. This system continued until 1946. During World War I, several islanders were sent to the French and Turkish war fronts, where many of them died. Another uprising in 1917 was put down by the French.

During World War II, the United States set up a military base on Grande Terre, and the influence of the Americans brought about a modern era for New Caledonia. The status of the islands was changed from a colony to a French overseas territory after World War II. Since the 1960s, an active but non-violent independence movement has been active in New Caledonia. A reference on self-determination is scheduled for 2018, but not all Islanders are in favor. There is a wide divide between New Caledonia's native Kanak population and its Caldoche population, who are descendants of European settlers. Only about 40% of the population are Kanak.

 

 

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