New Caledonia (Nouvelle-Calédonie) is a special collectivity of France located in the southwest Pacific Ocean, 750 miles (1,210 kilometers) east of Australia and 10,026 miles (16,136 km) east of Metropolitan France. The archipelago, part of the Melanesia subregion, includes the main island of Grande Terre, the Loyalty Islands, the Chesterfield Islands, the Belep archipelago, the Isle of Pines, and a few remote islets. The Chesterfield Islands are in the Coral Sea. Locals refer to Grande Terre as Le Caillou (“the pebble”).
New Caledonia has a land area of 7,172 square miles (18,576 km²). Its population of 268,767 (August 2014 census) consists of a mix of Kanak people (the original inhabitants of New Caledonia), people of European descent (Caldoches and Metropolitan French), Polynesian people (mostly Wallisians), and Southeast Asian people, as well as a few people of Pied-Noir and Maghreban descent. The capital of the territory is Nouméa.
New Caledonia is part of Zealandia, a fragment of the ancient Gondwana super-continent. It is speculated that New Caledonia separated from Australia roughly 66 million years ago, subsequently drifting in a north-easterly direction, reaching its present position about 50 million years ago.
The mainland is divided in length by a central mountain range whose highest peaks are Mont Panié (5,344 feet/1,629 meters tall) in the north and Mont Humboldt (5,308 feet/1,618 m) in the southeast. The east coast is covered by a lush vegetation. The west coast, with its large savannahs and plains suitable for farming, is a drier area. Many ore-rich massifs are found along this coast.
The Diahot River is the longest river of New Caledonia, flowing for some 62 miles (100 km). It has a catchment area of 240 square miles (620 km²) and opens north-westward into the Baie d’Harcourt, flowing towards the northern point of the island along the western escarpment of the Mount Panié. Most of the island is covered by wet evergreen forests, while savannahs dominate the lower elevations. The New Caledonian lagoon, with a total area of 9.300 square miles (24,000 km²) is one of the largest lagoons in the world. It is surrounded by the New Caledonia Barrier Reef.
British explorer Captain James Cook was the first European to sight New Caledonia, on September 4, 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 in 1796. From then until 1840, only a few sporadic contacts with the archipelago were recorded. Contacts became more frequent after 1840, because of the interest in sandalwood from New Caledonia.
As trade in sandalwood declined, it was replaced by a new form of trade, “blackbirding”, a euphemism for tricking Melanesian or Western Pacific Islanders draw from New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands, New Hebrides, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands to work in sugarcane plantations in Fiji and Queensland. 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 labor in plantation agriculture. New Caledonia’s primary experience with black birding revolved around a trade from the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) to the Grand Terre for labor in plantation agriculture, mines, as well as guards over convicts and in some public works. 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 trade in people, 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 black birding 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 September 24, 1853, under orders from Napoleon III, Admiral Febvrier Despointes took formal possession of New Caledonia and Port-de-France (Nouméa) was founded on June 25, 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 May 1, 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” in New Caledonia. Only 40 of them settled in the colony; the rest returned to France after being granted amnesty in 1879 and 1880.
In 1864, nickel was discovered on the banks of the Diahot River and with the establishment of the Société Le Nickel in 1876, mining began in earnest. The French imported laborers to work in the mines from neighboring 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. Leenhart 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 which was taken into the care of Protestant Missionary Alphonse Rouel; Wenceslas Thi who would become the father of Jean-Marie Tjibaou.
The Europeans brought new diseases such as smallpox and measles. Many people died as a result of these diseases. 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.
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, New Caledonia adopted five statutes. Each became a source of discontent and serious disorder, culminating in 1988 with a bloody hostage-taking in Ouvéa. The Matignon Agreements, signed on June 26, 1988, ensured a decade of stability.
Since 1986, the United Nations Committee on Decolonization has included New Caledonia on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. An independence referendum was held the following year, but independence was rejected by a large majority.
Under the Nouméa Accord signed May 5, 1998, following a period of secessionist unrest in the 1980s and approved in a referendum, New Caledonia is to hold a second referendum on independence between 2014 and 2018. The official date of the referendum has been set for 2018, the year the Nouméa Accord expires. This 20-year transition has gradually transferred competences to the local government.
The official name of the territory, Nouvelle-Calédonie, could be changed in the near future due to the accord, which stated that “a name, a flag, an anthem, a motto, and the design of banknotes will have to be sought by all parties together, to express the Kanak identity and the future shared by all parties.” To date, however, there has been no consensus on a new name for the territory. New Caledonia has increasingly adopted its own symbols, choosing an anthem, a motto, and a new design for its banknotes. In July 2010, New Caledonia adopted the Kanak flag, alongside the existing French tricolor, as dual official flags of the territory. The adoption made New Caledonia one of the few countries or territories in the world with two official national flags. The decision to use two flags has been a constant battleground between the two sides and led the coalition government to collapse in February 2011.
The first stamp issued by New Caledonia was a single stamp released in 1859 intended for domestic use only (Scott #1). The 10-centime black stamp featured a portrait of Emperor Napoleon III, lithographed on unwatermarked paper and imperforate. It was valid until 1862; international mail required additional franking with New South Wales stamps and were postmarked in Sydney. Between 1862 and 1882, French Colonies general stamp issues were used.
In 1881, stamps issued for the French Colonies were overprinted NCE and surcharged with a new face value (Scott #2-7). Additional overprints appeared for the next ten years (Scott #8-39). In 1892, definitives of the common Navigation & Commerce design were released inscribed Nlle Caledonie et Dépendances (Scott #40-58). The dependencies to first open post offices were the Îsles de Loyauté and the Îsles des Pins. Stamps of New Caledonia were used in the New Hebrides until 1908 and in Wallis & Futuna until 1920.
Long pictorial sets were released between 1905 and 1928 (Scott #88-116) and 1928-1940 (Scott #136-175). New Caledonia began participating in various French omnibus issues with the 1931 Colonial Exposition set (Scott #176-179). Stamps were overprinted in 1932 and 1933 to mark the flight from Paris to Noumea by French aviators Verneilh, Dave and Munch who arrived in New Caledonia on April 5, 1932 (Scott #180-207).
In 1941 and 1944, stamps were issued for use in New Caledonia by the Vichy regime in France. As these were never put to use in New Caledonia, only mint issues are listed in the Scott catalogue (Scott #216A-216B and #265A-265B). Stamps were issued in the name of the Free French later in 1941 by overprinting earlier issues with FRANCE LIBRE (Scott #217-251). A set of definitives in different colors portraying the small kagu bird was released in 1942 (Scott #252-265) inscribed FRANCE LIBRE.
New Caledonia continues to release a few stamps each year, a mix of local-interest themes and those aimed at the collectors market.
Scott #252 is a 5-centime brown stamp from the 1942 Free French set. Printed by photogravure and perforated 14½x14, it features a kagu in flight. The kagu or cagou (Rhynochetos jubatus) is a crested, long-legged, and bluish-grey bird endemic to the dense mountain forests of New Caledonia. It is the only surviving member of the genus Rhynochetos and the family Rhynochetidae, although a second species has been described from the fossil record. Measuring 22 inches (55 centimeters) in length, it has pale grey plumage and bright red legs. Its ‘nasal corns’ are a unique feature not shared with any other bird. Almost flightless, it spends its time on or near the ground, where it hunts its invertebrate prey, and builds a nest of sticks on the forest floor. Both parents share incubation of a single egg, as well as rearing the chick. It has proven vulnerable to introduced predators, and is threatened with extinction.
Within New Caledonia, the kagu is restricted to the main island of Grande Terre. There is no evidence that it occurred on the Loyalty Islands, although fossil remains of the extinct lowland form R. orarius have been found on the Ile des Pines. The kagu is a habitat generalist and able to exist in a range of different forest types if sufficient prey is present, from rain forest to drier lowland forest. They are also able to feed in some drier shrubland associated with the island’s ultrabasic rocks, although not in the low-prey, poor shrubland of this type. They are also absent from areas where extensive ground cover makes foraging difficult, such as grassland or areas with high fern cover, but may pass through such areas to reach other foraging areas. The species has undergone some range contraction due to hunting and predation by introduced species. Its original, pre-human distribution, and the extent to which it and its sister species R. orarius coexisted in lowland areas of New Caledonia, is still not fully understood and awaits further research into the subfossil record.
Kagu are territorial, maintaining year-round territories of around 22-62 acres (10–28 hectares). Within the territory, the pairs are solitary during the non-breeding season, and may have separate but overlapping foraging areas. Kagus make a range of different sounds, most commonly while duetting in the morning, each duet lasting about 15 minutes. The kagu’s crest and wings are used in territorial displays towards other kagu, slightly different displays are used towards potential predators. Territorial disputes may be resolved by fighting using wings and bills, in the wild this seldom results in serious injuries.
The kagu is exclusively carnivorous, feeding on a variety of animals with annelid worms, snails and lizards being amongst the most important prey items. Also taken are larvae, spiders, centipedes and insects such as grasshoppers, bugs, and beetles. The majority of the diet is obtained from the leaf litter or soil, with other prey items found in vegetation, old logs and rocks. Sometimes kagus will hunt small animals in shallow water. Their hunting technique is to stand motionless on the ground or from an elevated perch, and silently watch for moving prey. They may stand on one foot and gently move the leaf litter with the other foot in order to flush prey. Having located prey they will move towards the prey and stand over it, ready to strike, or make a dash towards the prey from their watching location. If digging is required to obtain the prey this is done with the bill, the feet are not used to dig or scratch away debris.
The kagu’s initial decline was caused by subsistence hunting. The bird was trapped extensively for the European pet trade and for museums and zoos until it was afforded protection. It is threatened by introduced cats, pigs and dogs. New Caledonia lacked mammals (except for bats) before the arrival of humans, and many of its native species have been negatively affected by introduced mammals. Rats have a big impact on nestlings, accounting for 55% of nestling losses. Kagus also suffer from habitat loss caused by mining and forestry.
Concern was first raised about the future of the kagu in 1904. The first concrete evidence of the impact of dogs came when a New Zealand researcher’s study population was quickly exterminated by dogs in the 1990s, although suspicions about the importance of dogs and other predators had been voiced before this and dog control measures had been enacted in some areas in the 1980s. The kagu is listed as endangered (CITES I) and enjoys full protection in New Caledonia. It has been the subject of dedicated conservation efforts and is receptive to ex-situ conservation, breeding well in Nouméa Zoo. It is also prospering in Rivière Bleue Territorial Park, which has a pest-management program and has been the site of releases into the wild of captive-bred birds.
The kagu had an important role in the traditional lives of the Kanak tribes of New Caledonia. Among the tribes found in the vicinity of Hienghène in the north of Grande Terre, its name was given to people, its crest was used in the head-dresses of chiefs, and its calls were incorporated into war dances and considered messages to be interpreted by the chiefs. Kanaks in the vicinity of Houaïlou referred to the species as the “ghost of the forest.”
The species was not discovered by Europeans until the French colonization of New Caledonia in 1852 and was not described until a specimen was taken to the Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1860. This led to a surge in scientific interest in the species, which resulted in many birds being trapped for museums and zoos. The species was also trapped for food and was considered a delicacy by European colonizers. It was also fashionable to own kagus as pets. A campaign was run from 1977–1982 to phase out the pet trade in kagus. Today, the kagu is considered very important in New Caledonia; it is a high-profile endemic emblem for the territory. Its distinctive song used to be played to the nation every night as the island’s TV station signed off the air. Its survival is considered important for the territory’s economy and image.