“Ce souffle venu des ancêtres”
[This breath came from ancestors]
— Jean-Marie Tjibaou
In August 1975, I visited an island in the Pacific called Ouvea which is part of the Loyalty Islands group to the east of New Caledonia. Australia was in turmoil with the Whitlam government under severe attack from the right. A constitutional coup was in train. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was the conservative president of France at the time. His pictures adorned the walls of the Mayoralty building in Fayoue in Ouvea.
Ouvea was a small island under French occupation to the east of New Caledonia; just before I arrived, there had been a demonstration that surrounded the local gendarme’s building at Fayoue, with french authorities locking themselves inside. People on the island were opposed to French laws, specifically La Loi Debré. Their objective was to have their children learn their own language first at school and to learn French as a secondary language. The French tricolour would hear no word of it.
Ouvea’s main industries were copra and tourism. I remember a general store at Fayoue being run by an arab man and his family, I think they were from one of the French colonies in North Africa (Algeria?). There was a tourist resort for the ‘metropoles’ (Parisians) come out to the tropical paradise (colony) on their August ‘vacances’. Some seemed afraid of the local men because, being copra workers, they carried machetes dangling from their wrists to cut coconuts (not tourists). But tourists did not seem to realise that or if they did the metropoles confined themselves to the chlorinated swimming pool in the resort when only a few metres away there was the most heavenly beach and sea that one could imagine. Fear kept them from the salt water.
I stayed on the island with local indigenous people; they provided a simple thatched roof hut for accommodation. We slept on grass mats. I will always remember their openness and generosity to two young Australians who had arrived at their island by chance on a ship carrying drums of asphalt for the aerodrome landing strip being constructed.
Their teenage boys were taken away for compulsory military service. One afternoon a French naval ship appeared on the horizon and a landing barge brought naval officers ashore. They showed two films that night on the wall of a church in Fayoue. One was a Danny Kaye movie about a mad scientist. It was subtitled in French.
The next morning I saw young men on the beach being corralled into a barge and asked a local what was going on. He said that they were being taken for military service.
The people worked on copra plantations and in nickel mines whose profits were repatriated to Paris. Down through the years the Melanesian people on the island (the Kanak) formed resistance to the occupation.
In 1988, 19 pro-independence fighters were summarily executed by French paratroopers in caves nearby where I stayed. I was taken to that part of island in 1975 to see the copra being cut. Transport was in the back of a Peugeot ute (the most common form of transport on the island) with a canvas roof on the back.
I was really on a holiday and only came across the Kanak struggle by this chance voyage on a ship from New Caledonia (because my friend and I had run out of money in expensive Noumea).
We were invited to a hangi (maori word) where goat and pig were cooked in the ground. I remember the beautiful harmonies of traditional songs sung at the hangi by men and women.
I made a super 8 film of what I saw but unfortunately the footage is now lost. For some time I kept in contact by correspondence with a family who had offered such generous hospitality on the island and went back to visit them in 1977 however as years passed, we felt out of touch.
Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the head of the pro-independence Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) was assassinated in Ouvéa by a local Kanak (Djubelli Wea) not long after Tjibaou signed The Matignon Agreements. These were agreements signed in the Hotel Matignon by Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Jacques Lafleur on 26 June 1988 between loyalists who wanted to keep New Caledonia as a part of the French Fifth Republic, and separatists, who did not.
The agreements provided amnesty and stopped all proceedings regarding the deaths of four gendarmes and 19 FLNKS Kanaks killed by french paratroopers. This agreement led to the Noumea Accord that reduced the threat of civil war and laid out a program for a referendum on Independence. That referendum has never been held since the accord. The popular votes of the Caldoche and Wallis islanders (60%) would defeat Kanak (40%) claims for Independence.
“Blackbirding“, a euphemism for enslaving people from New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands, New Hebrides, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands to work in sugar cane plantations in Fiji and Queensland. The trade ceased at the start of the 20th century. The victims of this trade were called Kanakas like all the Oceanian people, after the Hawaiian word for ‘man’.
“Jean-Marie Tjibaou, Statesman without a State: a reporters perspective” by Sarah Walls