World War II brought significant change to the region, particularly as it related to Melanesian self-determination.
In January 1942, Japanese forces occupied the Solomon Islands and the United States Marines arrived soon thereafter. After not being allowed to enlist in World War I, Fijians volunteered for the Fiji Infantry Regiment and earned a reputation for bravery in the Solomon Islands campaign. Meanwhile Solomon Islanders and Vanuatu served in the Labor Corps to support Allied military bases on Solomon Islands and New Caledonia.
Interactions with the Americans had a profound effect on them, and led to a disruption of the British colonial ethos that branded the indigenous Melanesian peoples as inferior. This was particularly due to the presence of Black American troops, who served in segregated units and were part of the main landing force on Vanuatu.
After the Second World War, Fiji and other British West Pacific colonies began to take their first steps towards Melanesian self-determination. Fiji was the first to obtain its independence in 1970. The Solomon Islands followed in 1978 and Vanuatu in 1980.
The battle was particularly hard-fought for Vanuatu, which was held by both Britain and France. France opposed Britain’s desire to decolonize its island holdings, fearing that this would influence the French colony of New Caledonia.
This was largely motivated by financial gain as New Caledonia is home to one of the world’s largest nickel sources: Goro Mine. Goro Mine is owned by the Prony Resources New Caledonia consortium, which is led by French CEO Antonin Beurrier.
The mine was opposed by many of the indigenous Kanak residents, largely due to the negative impact of mining on the environment. Acid spills have posed a particularly hazardous problem in New Caledonia. In 2021, Tesla agreed to a partnership with the Goro Mine that includes using nickel for its electric battery production while developing a more sustainable manufacturing process.
Despite French efforts, the movement for independence has been brewing in New Caledonia amidst decades of systematic oppression. In 1984, a pro-independence indigenous alliance known as the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) successfully got the United Nations to place New Caledonia on the Decolonisation List of Non-Self-Governing Territories in 1986.
In 1988, FLNKS killed four paramilitary officers and took 27 hostage in an effort to force talks with the French government about independence for New Caledonia from France; the French Special Forces responded by killing 19 indigenous New Caledonians. This event, known as the Ouvea Island cave massacre, led to international outcry and talks between the French and the Kanak; the Matignon Accord was reached in which a referendum on independence was scheduled to be held by 1998.
In 1998, the FLNKS President and the French government signed the Noumea Accord, which allowed for some Melanesian self-determination. They also scheduled a referendum for independence in 2018. Three referendums were scheduled to be held, and in each, the majority of voters voted to remain with France. However, while the first two votes were fairly close, the third vote in December 2021 was boycotted by the Kanak population.
This was due to the refusal of the French President to postpone it amidst a year-long indigenous mourning period due to Covid-19 deaths. Virtually only the European population, which comprises a quarter of New Caledonia’s population, participated in the vote. These circumstances are currently being evaluated by the UN’s Special Decolonization Committee as to the validity of the third referendum.
As for now, New Caledonia is still a French territory–the only currently occupied nation in Oceania’s Melanesia subregion.
Mothers’ Darlings of the South Pacific: The Children of Indigenous Women and U.S. Servicemen, World War II by Judith A. Bennett and Angela Wanhalla
To learn more about Melanesia, read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 , Part 4, and Part 5 of my Follow the Sugar series.
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