- Rock of Contention: Free French and Americans at War in New Caledonia, 1940–1945, and: Nouvelle-Calédonie 1945–1968: La Confiance Trahie
These two books offer important perspectives and details on aspects of modern New Caledonian history that had been relatively neglected, apart from Ismet Kurtovitch’s excellent doctoral dissertation on the 1940–1953 period in local politics, which came out in print in French in 2000, or more briefly in the volume published on the French Pacific Islands by Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff back in 1971. Most publications in English about New Caledonia were inspired by the Kanak-French violence of the 1980s or its aftermath, but these two recent books probe into the wartime and postwar roots of the political tensions that ultimately led to that tragic explosion. Both studies are done by professional historians yet are also very readable for a wider audience.
Dr Kim Munholland teaches modern European and French history at the University of Minnesota. His book opens with the propagandistic cinematic image of Humphrey Bogart [End Page 487] and Claude Rains walking off as friends into the mist at the end of the film Casablanca and then proceeds to debunk that portrayal of wartime comradeship. Instead, he argues, relations between US President Franklin Roosevelt and General Charles De Gaulle of the Free French were often less than cordial, representing more of a mésentente (political disagreement) than an alliance, a dissidence that would endure in various ways throughout de Gaulle’s political career as he deeply resented American hegemony in his quest to recover the grandeur of France. In particular, this tension manifested itself in New Caledonia, which had a large US military presence during World War Two. First, the local population had to choose between the puppet Vichy regime and the Free French in exile, and some French settlers saw the 1940 defeat by the Nazis as an opportunity to throw off control by Paris entirely. Munholland examines the complexity of that situation, which ended with the Vichy supporters being put on a ship bound for Indochina, but even de Gaulle’s new agent was chased out, after presenting a xenophobic attitude toward the arrival of the Americans under General Alexander Patch in 1942. The US military base would transform New Caledonia economically and help to pave the way for postwar reforms in the territory, which, sadly, opened up new tensions between the indigenous Melanesians, long marginalized on tribal reserves but now suddenly made citizens, and the more conservative settlers who wanted their own form of hierarchical autonomy.
Jean Le Borgne is doubly qualified to write his long, detailed history of the postwar period, because he not only has a doctorate but also was a teacher in New Caledonia for fourteen years, when he served as a government minister for six years under the reformist Union Calédonienne (uc) party until Paris took away the autonomy of the 1950s and reassigned (read expelled) him to France. While his own bitterness over the collusion between local conservatives and metropolitan Gaullists is obvious, he still provides a clearly organized, well-documented narrative of the “recolonization” of the territory by Paris from 1959 to 1968. Imagine if Hawai‘i had had its statehood (1959) unilaterally revoked by the US Congress, so that it became a territory again? That is what France did to New Caledonia, primarily for strategic reasons (nickel mining, combined with nuclear testing in French Polynesia), which provoked an anticolonialist reaction from 1969 on. Local political demands then escalated from restored autonomy to Kanak independence and thus ultimately polarized the territory to the point of violence. Le Borgne provides a multitude of citations and quotations from...