New Caledonia and the Origin of Kanak

Head Heeb recently posted a nice backgrounder and update on New Caledonia.

The upcoming election in New Caledonia is shaping up to be significant for the future of the country. As usual, the election will pit the ruling settler-dominated, anti-independence Rally for Caledonia in the Republic against the indigenous, pro-independence opposition, but this time the leader of the ruling party wants to pull out of a 1998 power-sharing accord.

New Caledonia is one of the Pacific’s few settler colonies. Like Australia, it began as a penal colony with many of the convicts choosing to stay after the completion of their terms; nickel and copper booms later in the 19th century led to further settlement. Unlike other regional settler colonies such as New Zealand and Hawaii, however, the indigenous Kanaks were never reduced to a small minority. Instead, the Kanaks and the descendants of settlers are at rough parity. The Kanaks are the largest group but are only a 42.5-percent plurality of the population, with Caldoches (whites) at about 37 percent and Asian and Pacific labor migrants making up the remainder. The higher birth rate of the Kanaks gives them a long-term demographic edge, but the relatively even numbers have led to sharp conflict.

The history of how the Hawaiian word for ‘human, person’, kanaka, eventually came to be appropriated by Melanesian nationalists in a French colony named after Scotland is a tangled one.

The word kanaka comes from the original Polynesian tangata as it was pronounced in the eastern end of the Hawaiian archipelago (the island named Hawai‘i), where earlier t had come to be pronounced [k]. The western dialects, in particular those of Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau, preserved the older pronunciation as [t]. (The island of Taua‘i shows up on early Western maps as “Atooi.”) In 1778, the English explorer, Captain James Cook, on his way north to seek the Northwest Passage, sighted the biggest, highest, southernmost island in the archipelago before any of the other islands he named after the Earl of Sandwich. The local chief, Kamehameha, thus acquired the means to conquer the other islands before his neighbor-island rivals did. His kingdom was named after his home island, and his dialect eventually set the standard for the huge volume of written Hawaiian language materials during the 1800s, a rich legacy which is now being translated and standardized.

The same Captain Cook was responsible for naming New Caledonia (after the old Roman name for Scotland) when he first sighted it on an earlier voyage in 1774.

By the 1840s, at the peak of the whaling and sandalwood trade, Hawaiians could be found on ships and in ports all over the Pacific. At Fort Vancouver, for instance, 40% of the Hudson’s Bay Company laborers were Hawaiian.

As the English vessels stopped in the Sandwich Islands, now the Hawaiian Islands, to take on stores of food, water, and goods like rum and coral, Natives were offered (or sometimes forced into) short-term, renewable contracts with the Company; they boarded ship (in fact, they gained a reputation as skillful aboard because, unlike most sailors of the day, they could swim) and joined the workforce at Fort Vancouver. The employee village, just southwest of the stockaded fort proper, came to be known as Kanaka Village because of the large population of Hawaiians residing there, though it was home to all the diverse employees of the Company.

The common languages were either Canadian French or Chinook Jargon, a trade language based on Chinook but incorporating elements from English, French, and Hawaiian. In the early years of the fort, English was used infrequently, with visiting missionaries or the remnants of unsuccessful American fur trading ventures.

Among the gathering places in the South Pacific for whalers and traders in sandalwood and bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber, trepang) were Tanna in the southern New Hebrides and the Loyalty Islands off New Caledonia. The equivalent of Chinook Jargon here was Bislama, which also incorporated elements from English, Hawaiian, and later more and more French, as France began claiming territory in the area during the 1850s and 1860s.

By this time, kanaka seems to have been used on ships all over the Pacific to mean ‘native’, with the same derogatory implications that its English gloss has. In both Bislama and Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin), it suggests someone who is not just a native, but an uncivilized hillbilly. The word and its meaning were borrowed into French as canaque. However, Melanesian nationalists reversed its derogatory implications and defrenchified the spelling to Kanak, which has the advantage of denoting all New Caledonians of Melanesian ancestry, no matter which of three dozen different Melanesian languages they might speak.

If you’ve read this far, you really should go read the rest of Head Heeb’s post.

1 Comment

Filed under France, language, Pacific

One response to “New Caledonia and the Origin of Kanak

  1. Pingback: Wordcatcher Tales: Hodohodo, Czechia, Kanakysaurus « Far Outliers

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