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Reviewed by:
  • Jean-Marie Tjibaou, Kanak Witness to the World: An Intellectual Biography
  • Harold Brookfield
Jean-Marie Tjibaou, Kanak Witness to the World: An Intellectual Biography, by Eric Waddell. Pacific Islands Monograph Series 23. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008. ISBN cloth, 978-0-8248-3256-8; paper, 978-0-8248-3314-5; xx + 231 pages, photos and maps. Cloth, US$55.00; paper, US$25.00.

This is a remarkable book about a remarkable man who emerged to prominence at a critical time in the modern history of New Caledonia, and whose violent death at the age of fifty-three was a defining moment in that history. Eric Waddell has written what he terms an "intellectual biography," light on the personal and workaday details of Tjibaou's life, but very strong on the forces that shaped the man. Tjibaou's murder, and that of his lieutenant, Yeiwéné Yeiwéné, on Ouvéa in May 1989, and the death of their assassin, Djubelly Wéa, immediately afterwards at the hand of one of Tjibaou's bodyguards, brought a desperate period to an end. The movement for Kanak-led independence of a colony in which settler Europeans were as numerous as the Kanaks began in the 1970s and reached an important stage in 1984 with the formation of the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak Socialiste (FLNKS). Though he had just entered national politics in 1977, Tjibaou, already leader of the multiethnic Union Calédonienne (UC), was appointed president of the FLNKS. Events quickly moved toward crisis.

In 1986, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's new French government was determined to clamp down on the FLNKS, a decision that sent several thousand French conscripts to New Caledonia and reversed progress toward realization of Kanak demands. Sharp differences emerged among the independence supporters. Some, such as Wéa, saw growing confrontation as the only way forward; others, especially Tjibaou, were aware of their lack of arms and power and instead sought dialogue. A bungled confrontation on Ouvéa in 1988 led to a fierce military intervention in which nineteen young Kanaks were killed on the land of Wéa's village. Three days later, in France, socialist François Mitterand was reelected president, and Chirac's "cohabitation" government lost power. The new prime minister, Michel Rocard, took immediate steps to reopen dialogue in New Caledonia. He brought delegations of both Kanaks and Europeans to Paris, where they were sat down in the Hôtel Matignon until they reached an agreement, which they did very swiftly. It included new constitutional arrangements in New Caledonia, strong measures to strengthen the economy of the Kanak regions, and a referendum on independence, but only in ten years' time. Not all the FLNKS representatives signed, and Tjibaou and Yeiwéné had to work very hard to convince their people at home that they had done the right thing. Many thought they had been betrayed, and among them was Djubelly Wéa.

All this and much more is recounted in Waddell's major book, but his main purpose is to show how Tjibaou reached the position he finally took in Paris. Born into a chiefly family, Tjibaou first learned the importance of tradition and the land to Melanesian identity, and of his own [End Page 206] responsibilities to his people. From the age of nine until well into his twenties, he was educated in the theology of the Catholic Church, leading to his ordination as a priest in 1965. He never saw a conflict between Christianity and the Melanesian cause but, like many of his fellow seminarians, found himself confronted by an inflexible colonial Church. He escaped first into study in France at the time of the 1968 upheavals. Then, in the 1970s, he engaged in social and cultural action back in New Caledonia, leading to his organizing of the Melanésia 2000 festival in 1975. This festival was a major attempt to present the Kanak world as a civilization in its own right, in parallel with that of the Europeans. It was from this initiative that he was drawn into politics.

Waddell's hardest task is to show how the ever-pragmatic Tjibaou sustained his belief...