New Caledonia has an interesting, and somewhat mysterious relationship with our favorite beverage. But before we get to that, lets’ look at New Caledonia as it is today.
The region known as New Caledonia is a French territory in the Melanesian Region of Oceania. It is comprised of the main island of Grande Terre, the Loyalty Island Archipelago (60 miles to the northeast), and a collection of smaller islands scattered between. Cumulatively covering an area half the size of Taiwan, the region has approximately 244,000 inhabitants. The largest city, as well as the capital of the territory, Noumea is one of the most industrialized cities in all the South Pacific. And although having the greatest number of sunny days in the region and beautiful beaches, Noumea is not a popular tourist destination due to the lack of flights.
New Caledonia’s Name:
The region’s name is accredited to Captain Cook. As legend has it, in 1774 Captain Cook first laid eyes on the main island of Grande Terre and it reminded him of the coast of his father’s homeland, Scotland. Cook thus named it New Caledonia: Caledonia being the Latin name for Scotland. This French also refer to the territory as Caillou, or “the pebble”. This French term of endearment is said to regard Grande Terre’s size and shape.
The official name of the region, Nouvelle-Calédonie, could change within the next few years. In 1998 the Noumea Accords were signed into law giving the native Kanak population the power to create a new anthem, flag, motto, and banknotes. This is to be done in preparation for the transfer of power from the French Government to the autonomous New Caledonian government by 2018. To date, however, no changes have been made.
Ancient New Caledonian History:
The Melanesian region was first settled by humans over 50,000 years ago. The original settlers, the Lapitas, settled not only Melanesia, but Micronesia and Polynesia as well. The Lapitas were skilled navigators, originally sailing from Taiwan and Southern China. They arrived in New Caledonia around 1500 BC and their culture was one of simple clan living: gathering from the seas, domestication of animals (pigs, dogs, etc.), and the farming of yams, bananas, coconuts, and taro. Incidentally, these foods are still the staples of the New Caledonian’s diet. Also, being the oceanic navigators they were, they engaged in brisk trade in precious stones.
New Caledonian Culture:
New Caledonia is a culturally diverse and rich society. It brings together the cultures of the Kanaks (indigenous Melanesians) and the French (making up the two largest cultural influences.) These cultures have also been subtly molded by influence from the Polynesians (comprising Wallisians, Futunians, and Tahitians) and Asians (mostly form Indonesia and Vietnam.)
Being a French territory, the official language is French, but there are numerous local dialects in use. New Caledonia, being a collection of island chains, contains over 30 differing local dialects, all spoken still in their respective clan areas. Although English is spoken in larger towns such as Noumea, French is fluently spoken through out.
Like many of the cultures found through out Oceania, the Kanak people (or indigenous Melansians) have a long a proud heritage which can be seen in all aspects of New Caledonia life from the food to the architectural. One of their proudest cultural contributions, which even today is going strong, is the traditional music and dance. Music is essential to every traditional ceremony (from birth to death) and uses simple regional instruments such as Conch Shells and Bamboo Flutes. The traditional dance form, the Pilou, is used to tell stories of birth, marriage, death, and war. The participants in the stories were often swept up into a high-energy, trance-like state. Although temporarily banned by French colonial officials in 1951 due to the occasional supping of human flesh, the tradition has continued sans the human flesh.
The French influence, which can be seen through out New Caledonia, was first introduced when Napoleon took control of the region in 1853. It is thought that Napoleon was looking to counter the regional power of the United Kingdom (controlling both Australia and New Zealand.) Taking a page from the United Kingdom’s penal playbook, the French government sent 22,000 convicted felons to the New Caledonia coast from 1864 to 1922. These felons eventually became their own cultural subset known as the Caldoches.
During this time there was also an influx of French settlers as well as Asian contract workers. As their number increased, the numbers of indigenous Kanaks decreased through a combination of land grabs an apartheid-like system called Code de l’Indidenat. After this period the Kanak national movement began leading to changes such as the Noumea Accords in 1998.
New Caledonia and Kava:
New Caledonia is interesting in this regard, and somewhat of a mystery. There are few islands in the South Pacific chain which have virtually no traditional or contemporary ceremonial or religious usage: New Caledonia is one of them. One of New Caledonia’s Melanesian neighbors, the Solomon Islands, shares this trait. However, New Caledonians do have an advantage over the Solomon Island cousins-New Caledonia does have Kava Bars. Which again make the beach towns surrounding Noumea an attractive prospect, if you can get there.
One theory ethnobotanists use to explain this Kava cultural conundrum falls at the feet of the original settlers, the Lapitas. It is thought, that although great agriculturalists, the Lapitas did not come to understand the properties of kava until they had made contact with their Melanesia neighbors from Vanuatu. This most likely took place during trading expeditions to other islands, as the Vanuatus use Kava extensively in ritual as well as every day use.
Although the kava species P. methysticum, P. wichmanni, and M. latifolium have all been found growing in New Caledonia, it is thought they are recent transplants (not having been discovered by botanist until the 1980’s). If these were native species to the New Caledonian region, we should be able to find them growing wild in ancient forests or in fossilized specimens. This is not the case. It is thought these strains were brought along with emigrants from Vanuatu.
Likewise, none of the traditional Kava drinking cups and bowls can be found in the island’s archeological record. This lends even more weight to the current strains found on the island being Vanuatu transplants.
Luckily for the residents of New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands, Kava bars can be found in major metropolitan areas. Thus, after a long day in the industrialized capital of Noumea, you can unwind with a cup of Kava at your favorite establishment. And if you make it there, enjoy…and drop us a line. Let us know how the recent introduction of Kava has influenced the New Caledonians life style. We’re sure you’ll find it’s for the better.