La vie quotidienne en Nouvelle-Calédonie: de 1850 à nos jours (Daily Life in New Caledonia: From 1850 to Today) by Jacqueline Sénès is ostensibly a history of daily life in the French colony and territory of New Caledonia, but it is actually more of a general history focused principally upon social and develomental issues in the archipelago. Perhaps the contours of a book entitled "daily life" are inherently difficult to define. What is after all, daily life? Does it include the movement of settlers to the island? political parties? Administration? Economic devemopment? The prison colonies? Clearing of land and building of cities? Native revolts? Some parts of this clearly do fall under the heading of daily life, but much of it does not. This is I feel, the crucial failing of the book: its title and subject are quite different indeed. It could be a lexicon difference between French and English, with French history books devoted to everyday life englobing a larger field than English equivalents, but I really do feel that Jacqueline Sénès simply chose too large of a topic.
The beginning of the book covers the initial foundation of the French colony, discussing the first settlers and foreigners (not all Europeans, as there were numerous Chinese sea cucumber harvesters), relations to the native people, the governors and individuals, and the wars between the natives and the French. After this, it moves on to economic development with sugar cultivation, utopian communities, mining, and the building of Nouméa. New Caledonia would come to have the dubious distinction of being one of France's premier prison colonies, found in chapter 3, and continuing on with the influx of Parisians after the Paris Commune and exiled Alsatians and Lorrainers, as well as Arabs from French Algeria. It returns once again to the theme of economic development, common throughout the book, with further mining booms, and the conflicts with the native Kanaks that this produced, before the colonization and agricultural development efforts of the energetic but domineering French governor Feillet take center stage. The lot of the native people was terrible under all of this, with their lands expropriated and them repressed, but the French schools, iron in their discipline and gradually expanding even into the brush, would one day lay the foundation for the Kanaks to regain their confidence, independence, and agency. WW1, the eternal refrain once more of attempts at colonization and immigration during the Interwar, and then finally the huge boom and massive Americanization of the island during WW2, when it served as a supply base for the Allied war effort in the Pacific, take center stage, before the politics of the post-war era and the rise of Kanak independence and autonomous movements arrives. The final section of the book looks at the massive mining boom related to nickel during the 1960s to the 1980s.
When one thinks of daily life, the things which one would expect is the way in which people lived. Their homes, their work regimes, their social lives, their community, their religion, their thoughts, their perspectives, their mentalities, their goods, their horizons, their customs, their traditions. These are unfortunately, little explored in this book, which is much more in the way of a general history.
There are parts which do a much better job of actually tackling the nature of life and mentalities for the New Caledonians. one of the best is that on New Caledonia's role in WW2, where it functioned as a rear supply area for the Allied, above all American, navies, armies, and air forces in the Pacific. The vast material largesse of the American war effort - cars, refrigerators, chewing gum! - were showered on New Caledonia, giving a real taste and craving for the amenities, comfort, speed, of the industrial modern world represented by the United States.
I would also say that it does a good overview of the economic development of the land: livestock, mining, the perennial efforts at cotton cultivation during the earlier decades of French colonialism, as well as the population, diversity, and different people drawn to the island as a result.. These are relevant and important parts of the island's history, and depiction of the mining boom and the life that it inspired, built around nightclubs, massive expansion of cheap housing, long hours, high salaries, the international nature of labor and huge immigration, and all to the tune of massive ecological devastation. The last few decades of the golden age of Western industrial capitalism, of rapid expansion, standardization of life, and the huge pollution entailed - all before economic crisis brought it crashing down.
One of New Caledonia's distinguishing features was its long status as a penal colony, used both for regular criminals but also notably for political prisoners - famously, the Communards after the suppression of the Paris Commune of 1871. They are excellently integrated into a story of immigrants for their settlement, their conditions, and the conflict with the indigenous peoples that was caused by their arrival, such as the spoliation of land. It also has some of most ironically memorable anecdotes from the book, such as Caledonian natives, armed by the administration, standing guard over and disciplining prisoners - what a reversal of normal hierarchies of race, with Parisians being lorded over by Pacific islanders!
The interesting tales of immigrants continues on beyond this, with a great selection of the various diversities of newcomers. This starts from the very beginning: while formal governmental infrastructure and centralization occurred in the city, much of the rest of the archipelago had a heady mix of non-French elements, including sailor communities, their métis offspring with the native Caledonians, Chinese fishermen after sea cucumbers, and English vagabonds and merchants. During French colonialism this continued with the arrival of Alsatian and German immigrants, as well as even an Arab community from Algeria. France's own regional diversity showed itself well with the arrival of peasants from different parts of France, drawn by the hope of being able to make a living in cotton cultivation. Instead of a black and white story of the French settlers and the Kanaks, there is a much more nuanced story of the diversity which made up the French community.
But the Kanaks, despite making up an outright majority of the population, really do not get that much in the way of attention. Their appearance, particularly during the initial half of the book, is mostly limited to their rebellions against French colonialism, and the suppression of this, as well as some of their initial reactions to French settlement. Perhaps it is difficult to determine fully the way that their communities were shaped, but the Canaks are dealt with rather homogenously: despite the book noting that there was tremendous diversity among the Kanak peoples, it is mostly content to treat them as a single whole, talking about things like economic changes as their traditional irrigation systems collapsed, or effective marginalization and mute, powerless, discontent with French colonialism, as they tried their best to cope with the advance of White society from their position in the interior of and bush of the New Caledonia.
While this is changed later on with the arrival of a discussion on politics, as the first attempts at the liberation of the Kanaks began to develop after the Second World War, this again ignores what one would expect in a book on "daily life" for the Kanaks. There is very little to actually explain how the Kanaks lived in the second half of the 20th century, to discuss the changes in their lives, material conditions evolving, their attitude towards religion, spirituality, their connections to the outside world. The book is content to deal with their elites and their education, but without the contours of the rest of their life.
La Vie quotidienne en Nouvelle-Calédonnie has some excellent chapters and helps to provide a feeling for the atmosphere and the scenery of New Caledonia, its language and people, but it doesn't actually connect to individuals and the way of life that existed on the island. It is a general history book that has been titled as a book of daily life, and one which has too many blindspots for the native people of the island to be truly representative of its history.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Ryan C Thomas