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  • Conjurer la guerre: Violence et pouvoir à Houaïlou (Nouvelle-Calédonie) by Michel Naepels
  • Louis Bousquet
Conjurer la guerre: Violence et pouvoir à Houaïlou (Nouvelle-Calédonie), by Michel Naepels. Paris: Édition de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2013. isbn 978-2-7132-2376-1, 287 pages, maps, tables, photographs, notes, bibliography, notes. Paper, €23.00.

Drawing on Michel Foucault, Michel Naepels opens his stimulating work with the question: “Does war have any value as an analytical tool for power relationships?” (11). Naepels’s ambitious anthropology uses violence as a principle to decipher the complex web of social interdependencies in the commune of Houaïlou, New Caledonia, with sensitivity to the minute mechanisms at play within societies. In an engaged examination of archival materials and testimonies, Naepels seeks new means to reintroduce an anthropological politics “at the center of the field of empirical science” (12).

Naepels’s keen awareness of the Kanaks’ ambivalence regarding social and political relations is underscored by the book’s title, Conjurer la guerre, which carries a dual meaning in French, suggesting both the control and harnessing of violence through sovereignty and chieftaincy, and the preparation of war in secrecy following the veiled lives of frondeurs (political rebels) and dissenters. These two strategies lead Naepels to the study of martial customs, to the use of physical violence throughout the nineteenth century until the 2000s, and to the social modalities that aggregate and structure collective experiences and actions such as elders’ council and political parties. The author deliberately [End Page 565] centers his research on precise historical periods of indecision and change when new forms of government and self-government emerge from within indigenous populations. He proposes a thematic chronological panorama detailing the social interactions and conflicting interests in the Houaïlou province between the French administration and the Kanaks.

The first three chapters of Naepels’s book deal mainly with precolonial and colonial wars. The author starts with the French colonial repression of 1856 and 1867 in Houaïlou. He multiplies the voices and perspectives to better expose the intricate mechanisms leading to a repressive doctrine of control. Notably Naepels inscribes this violence in a longer history of conflict predating European arrival. Detailed research examining the nomination of four important chiefs in 1912 allows the author to trace the interaction between Houaïlou’s main chiefs and the colonial administration. He reveals the ambiguous status of the Kanaks’ chieftaincy, which was mainly a French fabrication. Naepels shows the evolution of colonial warfare and repression in all its facets, including mobilization for the First World War and the “sanitary order” imposed on Houaïlou during that period. According to the author, the tactics used by the French powers to contain and fight against epidemic diseases such as leprosy and plague exemplify another form of colonial warfare from the standpoint of the indigenous population.

The last three chapters deal with more recent history. In chapter four, the 1955 witch hunt allows the anthropologist to differentiate between natural and ethical phenomena through the concept of “Justice Kanake.” Following a group of protagonists linked to those events, Naepels analyzes the multifarious stakes ranging from the religious to the political, the economic to the educational. Chapter five concerns the “indépendantiste” movement and the events that shook New Caledonia between 1984 and 1988. Naepels highlights the recent ideological “break-up,” after more than a century of constant exchanges, between the French colonial powers and the Kanaks. The last chapter draws some conclusions about the history of conflicts in Houaïlou and underlines the ongoing collective memory of violence and warfare through ceremonial aspects. To restrain this violence and “conjurer la guerre” remains Houaïlou’s most important and constitutive element. Those strategies of control protected the fragile balance between indigenous populations and French in New Caledonia.

The opening of Naepels’s investigation best illustrates the writer’s multifaceted, multilayered approach. The anthropologist describes the coastal town of Houaïlou in the midst of rapid change and at the center of powerful global economic interest. The indigenous populations in the 1800s developed contacts first with neighboring groups and then with European traders, sailors, adventurers, and settlers looking...


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