Ajië - History and Cultural Relations

According to the archaeological record, the earliest ancestors of the Kanaks came to New Caledonia from southeast Asia between 6,000 and 5,000 years ago. They brought with them slash-and-burn agriculture, irrigation techniques, a polished-stone tool complex, pottery, and double-pontoon sailing craft. There was also settlement from within Melanesia, especially from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. After 1840 there was regular contact with European and American whalers, merchants, and sandalwood traders in addition to British and French missionaries. After New Caledonia was annexed by France in 1853, tribal lands were expropriated for the establishment of a penal colony, settler colonialism, and nickel mining. This systematic and radical reduction of Kanak lands meant that the culturally cohesive and contiguous clan territories of the past were reduced to a shattered collection of isolated communities. By the end of the nineteenth century, Kanaks were confined to native reserves and compelled to do corvée (forced labor) for the settlers and on public works. After World War II, colonial policy was liberalized, forced labor was abolished, and the Kanaks were accorded the right to vote. However, in spite of increased political participation, the Kanaks continued to be economically marginalized as the financial gap between the Kanaks and the rest of the New Caledonian population continued to widen. The early 1970s was a boom period for New Caledonia because of the rise in world nickel prices (the territory has one-fourth of the world's nickel deposits). Urbanization increased as the rural areas were drained of labor. The collapse of the nickel boom in the mid-1970s led to unemployment and economic recession. Kanak youths returned to overcrowded native reserves only to find that there was little place for them. At this time Kanak demands for participation in economic and political decision making increased and the Kanak independence movement grew. In 1984 the Kanaks boycotted territorial elections, set up a provisional government, and demanded freedom from French rule and a "Kanak socialist independence." A settlement known as the Matignon Accords was negotiated in 1988 between Kanaks, the settlers, and the French government. This agreement heralds a ten-year "peace period" during which the French government will attempt to redress the socioeconomic inequalities in the territory, particularly by promoting development and training programs in Kanak communities. In 1998, at the end of this ten-year period, New Caledonians will be asked to choose between independence and staying within the French republic.

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