The earliest traces of human presence in New Caledonia date back to the Lapita period c. 1600 BCE to c. 500 BCE. The Lapita were highly skilled navigators and agriculturists with influence over a large area of the Pacific.
Two Kanak warriors posing with penis gourds
and spears, around 1880
British explorer Captain James Cook was the first European to sight New Caledonia, on 4 September 1774, during his second voyage. He named it "New Caledonia", as the northeast of the island reminded him of Scotland. The west coast of Grande Terre was approached by Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse in 1788, shortly before his disappearance, and the Loyalty Islands were first visited between 1793 and 1796 when Mare, Lifou, Tiga, and Ouvea were mapped by William Raven. The American whaler encountered the island named then Britania, and today known as Mar (Loyalty Is.) in November 1793. From 1796 until 1840, only a few sporadic contacts with the archipelago were recorded. About fifty American whalers (identified by Robert Langsom from their log books) have been recorded in the region (Grande Terre, Loyalty Is., Walpole and Hunter) between 1793 and 1887. Contacts became more frequent after 1840, because of the interest in sandalwood.
As trade in sandalwood declined, it was replaced by a new business enterprise, "blackbirding", a euphemism for taking Melanesian or Western Pacific Islanders from New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands, New Hebrides, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands into indentured or forced labour in the sugar cane plantations in Fiji and Queensland by various methods of trickery and deception. Blackbirding was practiced by both French and British-Australian traders, but in New Caledonia's case, the trade in the early decades of the twentieth century involved relocating children from the Loyalty islands to the Grand Terre for labour in plantation agriculture. New Caledonia's primary experience with blackbirding revolved around a trade from the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) to the Grand Terre for labour in plantation agriculture, mines, as well as guards over convicts and in some public works. The historian Dorothy Shineberg's milestone study, The People Trade, discusses this 'migration'. In the early years of the trade, coercion was used to lure Melanesian islanders onto ships. In later years indenture systems were developed; however, when it came to the French slave trade, which took place between its Melanesian colonies of the New Hebrides and New Caledonia, very few regulations were implemented. This represented a departure from the British experience, since increased regulations were developed to mitigate the abuses of blackbirding and 'recruitment' strategies on the coast lines.
The first missionaries from the London Missionary Society and the Marist Brothers arrived in the 1840s. In 1849, the crew of the American ship Cutter was killed and eaten by the Pouma clan. Cannibalism was widespread throughout New Caledonia.
On 24 September 1853, under orders from Napoleon III, Admiral Febvrier Despointes took formal possession of New Caledonia, and Port-de-France (Nouméa) was founded on 25 June 1854. A few dozen free settlers settled on the west coast in the following years. New Caledonia became a penal colony, and from the 1860s until the end of the transportations in 1897, about 22,000 criminals and political prisoners were sent to New Caledonia. The Bulletin de la Société générale des prisons for 1888 indicates that 10,428 convicts, including 2,329 freed ones, were on the island as of 1 May 1888, by far the largest number of convicts detained in overseas penitentiaries. Among the convicts were many Communards, arrested after the failed Paris Commune, including Henri de Rochefort and Louise Michel. Between 1873 and 1876, 4,200 political prisoners were "relegated" to New Caledonia. Only 40 of them settled in the colony; the rest returned to France after being granted amnesty in 1879 and 1880.
Chief "King Jacques" and his Queen
In 1864, nickel was discovered on the banks of the Diahot River; with the establishment of the Société Le Nickel in 1876, mining began in earnest. The French imported labourers to work in the mines from neighbouring islands and the New Hebrides, and later from Japan, the Dutch East Indies, and French Indochina. The French government also attempted to encourage European immigration, without much success.
The indigenous population or Kanak were excluded from the French economy and from mining work, ultimately confined to reservations. This sparked a violent reaction in 1878 as High Chief Atal of La Foa managed to unite many of the central tribes and launched a guerrilla war which cost 200 Frenchmen and 1,000 Kanaks their lives. A second guerrilla war took place in 1917, with Catholic missionaries like Maurice Leenhardt functioning as witnesses to the events of this war. Leenhardt would pen a number of ethnographic works on the Kanak of New Caledonia. Noel of Tiamou led the 1917 rebellion, which created a number of orphans, one of whom was taken into the care of Protestant Missionary Alphonse Rouel—Wenceslas Thi who would become the father of Jean-Marie Tjibaou.
Europeans brought new diseases such as smallpox and measles, of which many natives died. The Kanak population declined from around 60,000 in 1878 to 27,100 in 1921, and their numbers did not increase again until the 1930s.
In June 1940, after the fall of France, the Conseil General of New Caledonia voted unanimously to support the Free French government, and in September the pro-Vichy governor was forced to leave for Indochina. In March 1942, with the assistance of Australia, the territory became an important Allied base, and Nouméa the headquarters of the United States Navy and Army in the South Pacific. The fleet that turned back the Japanese navy in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 was based at Nouméa. American troops numbered as many as 50,000, the equivalent of the contemporary population.
French overseas territory
In 1946, New Caledonia became an overseas territory. By 1953, French citizenship had been granted to all New Caledonians, regardless of ethnicity.
The European and Polynesian populations gradually increased in the years leading to the nickel boom of 1969–1972, and the Melanesians became a minority, though they were still the largest ethnic group.
Between 1976 and 1988, conflicts between French government actions and the Kanak independence movement saw periods of serious violence and disorder, culminating in 1988 with a bloody hostage-taking in Ouvéa. In 1983 a statute of "enlarged autonomy" for the territory, proposed a five-year transition period and a referendum in 1989. In March 1984, the Kanak resistance, Front Indépendantiste, seized farms and the Front de Libératíon Kanak Socialiste (FLNKS) formed a provisional government. In January 1985 the French Socialist government offered sovereignty to the Kanaks and legal protection for European settlers. The plan faltered as violence escalated. The government declared a state of emergency, however regional elections went ahead, and the FLNKS won control of three out of four provinces. The centre-right government elected in France in March 1986 began eroding the arrangements established under the Socialists, redistributing lands mostly without consideration of native land claims, resulting in over two thirds going to Europeans and less than a third to the Kanaks. By the end of 1987 roadblocks, gun battles, and the destruction of property culminated in a dramatic hostage crisis on the eve of the presidential elections in France. Pro-independence militants on Ouvea killed four gendarmes and took 27 hostage. The military response resulted in nineteen Kanak deaths and another three deaths in custody.
The Matignon Agreements, signed on 26 June 1988, ensured a decade of stability. The Nouméa Accord signed 5 May 1998, set the groundwork for a 20-year transition that will gradually transfer competences to the local government.
Following the timeline set by the Nouméa Accord that stated a vote must take place by the end of 2018, the groundwork was laid for a referendum on full independence from France at a meeting chaired by the French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe on 2 November 2017, to be held by November 2018. Voter list eligibility had been a subject of a long dispute, but the details have since been resolved. On 20 March 2018, it was announced that the independence referendum will be held on 4 November 2018.