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The Kanak Awakening

The Rise of Nationalism in New Caledonia

David Chappell

Publication Year: 2013

In 1853, France annexed the Melanesian islands of New Caledonia to establish a convict colony and strategic port of call. Unlike other European settler–dominated countries in the Pacific, the territory’s indigenous people remained more numerous than immigrants for over a century. Despite military conquest, land dispossession, and epidemics, its thirty language groups survived on tribal reserves and nurtured customary traditions and identities. In addition, colonial segregation into the racial category of canaques helped them to find new unity. When neighboring anglophone colonies began to decolonize in the 1960s, France retained tight control of New Caledonia for its nickel reserves, reversing earlier policies that had granted greater autonomy for the islands. Anticolonial protest movements culminated in the 1980s Kanak revolt, after which two negotiated peace accords resulted in autonomy in a progressive form and officially recognized Kanak identity for the first time. But the near-parity of settlers and Kanak continues to make nation-building a challenging task, despite a 1998 agreement among Kanak and settlers to seek a “common destiny.”

This study examines the rise in New Caledonia of rival identity formations that became increasingly polarized in the 1970s and examines in particular the emergence of activist discourses in favor of Kanak cultural nationalism and land reform, multiracial progressive sovereignty, or a combination of both aspirations. Most studies of modern New Caledonia focus on the violent 1980s uprising, which left deep scars on local memories and identities. Yet the genesis of that rebellion began with a handful of university students who painted graffiti on public buildings in 1969, and such activists discussed many of the same issues that face the country’s leadership today. After examining the historical, cultural, and intellectual background of that movement, this work draws on new research in public and private archives and interviews with participants to trace the rise of a nationalist movement that ultimately restored self-government and legalized indigenous aspirations for sovereignty in a local citizenship with its own symbols. Kanak now govern two out of three provinces and have an important voice in the Congress of New Caledonia, but they are a slight demographic minority. Their quest for nationhood must achieve consensus with the immigrant communities, much as the founders of the independence movement in the 1970s recommended.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-x


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pp. xi-xii


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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. xv-xviii

When I first visited Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, an old caldoche (settler) in Vallée du Tir told me, “Politics? There’s too much politics here for a small country.” The prospect of complexity appealed to the academic historian in me, but I was not on a simple treasure hunt for research data. I recognized a familiar pattern in human behavior. In 1968, I had joined the US Peace Corps to teach English in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), a former ...


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pp. xix-xxii

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pp. 1-23

Assassinations, ambushes, massacres, gunfights at roadblocks and rural homesteads, destruction of property, the influx of thousands of French riot police and paratroopers to defend white settlers and mining firms from armed blacks in Rastafarian dreadlocks—such dramatic news images typified reporting on the Kanak uprising in New Caledonia in the 1980s....

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Chapter 1 Self-Determination Interrupted

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pp. 24-55

In September 1853, at the request of Marist Catholic missionaries at Balade, Rear Admiral Fébvrier des Pointes arrived in a French warship to annex New Caledonia. He came ashore with twenty armed men and entered the wooden-walled mission station, where Christian villagers had crowded to see the white “high chief.” The admiral read a proclamation: “I officially...

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Chapter 2 Building Castles in China

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pp. 56-85

In spring 1968, New Caledonia’s Territorial Assembly sent a delegation to Paris to explain that they wanted autonomy restored to their country. But no one in the government would listen, most notably Overseas Minister Pierre Billotte. The May student and worker uprising was disrupting the capital. One evening on Rue Gay-Lussac, young protesters asked Gaby Paita ...

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Chapter 3 The Kanak Awakening

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pp. 86-116

On Sunday morning, 13 July 1969, the day before Bastille Day (the annual festival of national identity that commemorated France’s revolution against absolute monarchy in 1789), residents of Noumea awoke to radical slogans painted on their public buildings. It was not the first time those walls had displayed political posters or inscriptions; they had done so in 1961 during...

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Chapter 4 Visions of Sovereignty

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pp. 117-148

The political status of New Caledonia remained unstable after the loss of self-government. What would follow? More metropolitan interventions and decrees without constitutional clarity in the era of decolonization? In 1958, New Caledonian voters had chosen overwhelmingly (98 percent) to approve the new constitution of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic. The Territorial ...

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Chapter 5 Two Nations, One Country?

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pp. 149-175

In the 1970s, Michel Foucault elaborated on his ideas of power and resistance, borrowing from Mao’s dictum that where there is repression, there is rebellion. Foucault advocated a critical study of concrete situations and dominant thinking, including assumptions embedded in “modern” legal systems: “Power is what says no. And the challenging of power as thus conceived...

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Chapter 6 The Kanak Revolt

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pp. 176-205

The main focus of this study has been the emergence of the Kanak “awakening,” which would culminate in the 1980s uprising. The latter awaits scholarly analysis, despite the wide array of writings about it, because of the intense feelings it aroused, as the controversy of the recent release of a film about the Ouvea hostage crisis in 1988 shows. It was a decade of violent...

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Chapter 7 Kanaky New Caledonia?

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pp. 206-233

The strong stand taken by Kanak leaders in the 1980s had brought official recognition for the indigenous identity and political control of two out of three provinces. Unlike other countries in culturally diverse Melanesia, the FLNKS confrontation with France and the settlers had “created a nation where one had never existed before,” that is, Kanaky (Connell 1988a, 243). ...

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Chapter 8 Nation Building in Perspective

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pp. 234-252

The decolonization struggle of New Caledonia since World War II has been portrayed in various ways, from a strategic French delaying action pushed forward only by protests, through French efforts to maintain law and order while expanding local participation in political decision making, to a conundrum of polarized ethnic communities who are so different they can...


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pp. 253-280


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pp. 281-289

Further Reading, About the Author, Production Notes, Back Cover

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pp. 290-299

E-ISBN-13: 9780824838201
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824838188

Publication Year: 2013