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  • Specters of Violence in a Colonial Context: New Caledonia, 1917 by Adrian Muckle
  • David Chappell
Specters of Violence in a Colonial Context: New Caledonia, 1917 By Adrian Muckle. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2012.

Studies of anti-colonial resistance have broadened the concept to include everything from armed conflict to everyday noncompliance on the part of subaltern subjects, and critical analysis has deconstructed ideological metanarratives of heroic protonationalism or of primitive violence into historical contingencies and mutable representations. As Adrian Muckle ably demonstrates, the Kanak revolt of 1917 against French colonial rule in New Caledonia, amid the recruiting of both settlers and indigenous men for combat on the western front in World War I, contains many layers of competing interpretations that nuance official colonial or modern nationalist explanations. Yet he also shows that like strange attractors in fractals, patterns do emerge about behavior on colonial frontiers.

New Caledonia was annexed by France in 1853 in a decree by Napoleon III that was read aloud by a French naval commander at a mission station at Balade on the northeast coast of Grande Terre, the main island. As in Australia, colonists initially arrived as convicts guarded by marines, while pastoralists provided them with food. The indigenous people, divided into many language groups, were not accorded citizenship rights and lost lands to the intruders, who used divide-and-rule tactics to establish their fragile presence. To the early prisoners, police and ranchers, France added Algerian rebels, Paris communards, some free small farmers and Asian indentured laborers (who often became shopkeepers). Muckle reveals how thin on the ground the colonial regime was in the bush, where the penitentiary, mission stations, farms or mines were scattered among complex arrays of indigenous alliances and rivalries. A handful of rural gendarmes and forts relied on appointed chiefs to validate tax collection, labor recruitment and gradual confinement of indigenous clans in reserves, while unfenced cattle became the true "pioneers." The mix created complex webs of resistance and collaboration, to use presentist categories.

Muckle discusses the simmering distrust that existed among settlers, missionaries, indigenous groups and the administration, based on previous conflicts, broken promises and rumors of danger, hence his title, "Specters of Violence." Military recruitment for World War I ran up against fears by both settlers and Kanak of sending away their able-bodied fighters to Europe when they might need them against each other, and troops home on leave were employed in the repression sporadically. Various participants and their descendants disagreed about how or why the 1917 war started, or whether it should be called a police action or an insurrection (the governor himself vacillated depending on the fluctuating political situation), or who the enemy was exactly and whether the war was the last Kanak revolt or caused colonial reforms or was won by anyone. The actual fighting is covered in one chapter, but Muckle's superb research into both written documents (including trial testimonies) and oral traditions (as well as interviews with descendants) patiently presents richly detailed contexts and follows with analysis of how inhabitants readjusted their agendas and power relations afterwards, including competing local memories over time of the significance of "1917." He deploys insights from Michel Foucault and Ann Laura Stoler among others, as well as a solid familiarity with writings in French and English about New Caledonia. His study, based on his dissertation, reads at times like a detective novel, whose main characters are traceable in the index.

As the author peels away the layers of varying perceptions, agency and interpretations, one is left with an impression of how precarious the colonial project was in the northeast part of Grande Terre, not far from where the first decree of annexation was read aloud. Settlers received assurances that as they moved into remote rural areas inhabited by Melanesian villagers and gardens, they would be secure, and coerced labor would be available through prestations of Kanak, convicts, prisoners and indentured Asians. But if trouble arose, the administration relied on importations of troops (sometimes from Tahiti) and ships, locally recruited armed settlers with horses, and indigenous "auxiliaries" who often did most of the fighting and inflicted scorched earth tactics on suspected "rebels." Colonial...

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