Located in the Pacific Ocean 2,000 km from Sydney, New Caledonia was
named by the British explorer Captain James Cook, who found
similarities between the island and the Scottish highlands. The island
was annexed by France in 1853, and starting in 1864, the island served
as a penal colony for French prisoners for four decades.
But the growth of the European population led to tensions with the indigenous people, known as Kanaks. A revolt by the Kanaks in 1878 took nearly 1,000 lives and led to increased French repression.
Pro-independence moves by the Kanaks and opposition from the Europeans resulted in further violence in the mid-1980s. France even declared a state of emergency and sent paratroopers to the region to calm down the situation. France finally signed a peace agreement, the 1998 Noumea Accord, which called for the transfer of power from France to the island over a period of 15 to 20 years. France also agreed to conduct referenda between 2013 and 2018, which will decide whether New Caledonia will become an independent, sovereign nation.
In 2006, the French parliament also agreed to another demand of the Kanaks: only long-standing residents of the island (citizens who were born on the island) would be able to vote in the local elections. Currently Kanaks represent about 45 percent of the population, while Europeans, most of them born on the island, make up a third.
New Caledonia has around a quarter of the world’s nickel deposits, but the trading of the mineral has been adversely impacted by the price fluctuations in the world market. However, the island has one of the highest per capita incomes of the region.
Sources: BBC, International Crisis Group, CIA World Factbook.