Numea, 1 June 1893

Above the island of New Caledonia lay heavy clouds which blocked the lighthouse from our view during the night and made navigation more difficult for „Elisabeth“. Taking the bearing of Mount Mu showed that the ship had moved far to the South during the night. The position had to be corrected and course set for the lighthouse of the small island of Amédée which we sighted towards 8 o’clock in the morning. The wind and the motion of the sea had much diminished and in time the sun broke through victoriously so that the contours of New Caledonia with its high mountains became clearer and clearer appearing out of the calm waves of the ocean. Towards 9 o’clock in the morning „Elisabeth“ was in front of the Bulari passage where we took the pilot called from Amédée on board and then we drove between the reefs which accompany New Caledonia along the Northeast and Southwest coast with only a few breaks in between and reach out far in the North and South as well as through the small green islands of Brun and Dubouzet.

After we had celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi with service in the battery, the ship was moored at half past 10 o’clock in the morning in the inner harbor of Numea at the Messageries maritimes buoy offered by the harbor captain.

New Caledonia generally comprises the whole archipelago. This includes the main island discovered in 1774 by Cook and named in the honor of North Scotland New Caledonia, the  Loyalty islands Mare, Lifu, Uea and Beaupre islands to the east discovered in 1795 as well as L’Île-des-Pins, Southeast of the main island, and finally the Chesterfield islands to the West. New Caledonia and the Loyalty islands together include an area of 19.823 km2 and 62.752  inhabitants according to the census of 1890.

First colonized by English merchants and missionaries, New Caledonia and the Lifu group of islands were declared French territory by admiral Fevrier-Despointes in 1853. The actual permanent French governance over the long resisting natives only happened after the subduing the insurrection of 1875 to 1878.

Earlier ruled by the governor of the islands of Tahiti and the Marquesas, the colony called „New Caledonia and dependencies“ has its own special governor since 1860 with his seat in Numea, while the main French settlement used to be Balade in the Northeast of the island from 1853 to 1854. New Caledonia is darkly notorious for its penal colony. Even though there had been prisoner transports to here earlier, only the internment of multiple thousands of criminals in the year 1871 made the island notable for a wider audience.

The island of New Caledonia lies to the East of Australia between 20 degrees latitude and the tropic of capricorn. Its width is relatively small compared to its length of 440 km. The coasts are accompanied by mountain ranges consisting in the South-east of Mont Humboldt, 1634 m. These mountain ranges drop off sharply in the North-east to the sea, while in the South-west coast there are plains between the foot of the mountain and the beach.

The entrance to the harbor offers beautiful sights even though the scenery of the landscape we were seeing can not match those of Port Jackson. The harbor of Numea is formed toward the West by a tongue protruding into the sea on which sits the town of Numea. Towards the East the harbor is closed off by a number of small islands. Here too the view passes over picturesque bays that reach deeply into the land up to the foot of the mountains like Bulari Bay in the East and Dombea Bay to the Northwest of Numea. The Mont des Sources at 1025 m and Mont Dore at 775 m are the most notable mountains.

In the harbor anchored the armored ship „Thetis“, the transport dispatch boats „Durance“ and „Scorff“, as well as the dispatch boat „Loyalty“ and the English cruiser „Tauranga“. Our territorial salute was answered by a land battery at a very slow pace — the individual shots happened after long intervals. While mooring the ship at the buoy, a small incident took place. A steam barge bringing baggage to „Elisabeth“ collided with the ship due to its clumsy maneuvering throwing one man out of the barge into the sea. But he was soon thereafter fished out of the water with a hook.

The town of Numea, even though it is situated in picturesque surroundings, presents naturally not improved by the fact that one can see from the ship the purpose of the town as the capital of a penal colony. Along the bay are groups of small houses and prisons with high walls. Whole columns of prisoners clad in denim and protected effectively against the sun with large straw hats are working on the construction of a quay.

When we were moored, the commander of the dispatch boat „Loyalty“, ship of the line lieutenant Louis Lucas, appeared first to offer his services, then came governor M. Albert Picquie to welcome me in the name of the colony, accompanied by the commander of the land and naval forces as well as the commander of the warships, and to discuss the program of the coming days. The governor seemed to be not very pleased himself about the country that he had to govern as he repeatedly said that I would be disappointed in all aspects.

An hour later I returned the visit of the governor in his small government building which lies about in the middle of the town on a hill and is surrounded by a garden where a statue of liberty causes an artistically not really beautiful impression that stands in a rather stark contrast to the purpose of the colony. The parlors of the building are large and paneled with local wood. The governor must be an animal lover as an important number of large cages with parrots and pigeons was in the garden of the residence. Deer too could be seen whose species seemed to me to be different from those on Java.

Accepting the invitation of the governor to visit the surrounding of the town I drove in his company in a four horse carriage whose horses alternatingly became lame first to Montravel, where a prison is located for housing prisoners working in the town and the surrounding areas during the night. 50 men each occupy one house where each man is assigned a hammock. On a plank above them the prisoners could store their possessions. Between the houses of which there are I think twelve small patches of vegetable gardens are set up as well as guard houses and a kitchen.

I was very astonished about the great quantity of food the prisoners received daily. They get coffee in the morning, meat with vegetables at noon and in the evening again vegetables. It seems to me to go too far to provide these jailbirds as far as food and board is concerned as well if not better than the soldiers. My astonishment increased when suddenly a music band appeared that was constituted by 40 prisoners and welcomed me with a fast played waltz by Strauß. This musical assignment not compatible with the idea of punishment I can not approve. Apart from everything because these musicians by performing their musical activities are spared from having to do any hard labor.

In total there are about 8000 prisoners on the island who are mostly building roads but also assist in mining the large nickel mines. Regarding the local distribution and occupation one distinguishes more or less three kinds of prisoners:  Those coming directly from France or the colonies who are immediately put to work at the different places of the island. Then there are those deported who commit new crimes on the island and were sent as die-hards to the actual main depot on the island of Dubouzet or Nu. Finally the so called Libérés who had already completed their sentence but were not allowed to return to France. The latter enjoy almost a state of liberty but are still under political surveillance and had to report to the government on certain days. Prisoners who were sentenced for eight years are not allowed to return to their own soil. Those sentenced to less than eight years may return home after the double number of years. The largest contingent of the deported are naturally made up by the French, but there are also among the prisoners  numerous Arabs from Algeria as well as prisoners from Tongking. Discharged NCOs of the French army serve as guards.

The governor made many surprising remarks to me about the state of the penal colony. He is only in office for half a year and seemed to be a very energetic man who shares my opinion that humanity towards criminals individuals among the categories of the deported gone too far has bad consequences and at the same time seems to be unjust towards the decent elements of society. The predecessor of M. Picquies seemed to have acted with extreme mildness and established the principle that prisoners should not be forced to work which had the result that most refused to work. Naturally under such a forgiving rule there were a number of abuses. The patriarchal state that came to be is shown by the fact that the criminals erected triumphal arches to the former governor when he made inspections with the letters „A notre père“. The life of the prisoners were quite nice.

When these conditions were finally noticed and the newly installed governor had reined in these practices, he was met with much resistance. The prisoners were no longer used to work. It even happened that some prisoners gouged out their own eyes in order to not having to work. The governor countered by sending those who had gouged out their eyes into the mountains to have these immolators cut stones for ten hours per day — a drastic proceeding that taught the other prisoners a most healthy lesson.

When he came into office M. Picquie had two of the worst criminals and gang leaders decapitated what however made the colonial council advising the governor anxious with concerns. It thus vetoed the death penalty when the governor again wanted to condemn a criminal to death who had already murdered six persons and finally tried to kill a guard so that the governor was required to appeal the decision to the president of the republic. No decision had been made during our stay here.

Our drive now turned to the interior of the island along a beautiful road that crossed a swamp thickly covered with mangrove bushes and then along the foot of the mountains in an Eastern direction towards blue-green Niauli forests in which we found individual araucariae and coconut palms. The Niauli tree (Melaleuca viridiflora), a Myrtaceae species with a crippled trunk, covers nearly the full island and gives it a character that is reminiscent of Australia. Out of the Niauli tree oil is collected which is similar to the cajuput oil produced by Melaleuca leucodendron in chemical composition.

Along the road one finds everywhere small gendarmerie barracks and posts whose garrison keeps up the order among the working prisoners as well as the policmen’s houses or more exactly huts who are recruited from the native Melanesisan population which is mixed with Polynesian elements. If a prisoner escapes to the endless forests of the colony, something which happens fairly often, then it is these native policemen who track down the fugitive with their fine senses and return them — actually only as a dead body. Fleeing prisoners either die of hunger or are murdered by the hand of the natives as the government pays out a prime of 25 Francs for each escapee dead or alive. As the natives find it much more convenient to return but the cut-off head than the live prisoner, this is the consequence. As incredible as it seems given the about 1600 sea miles of distance between the colony and the closest point on the mainland — Brisbane, there are a few but mostly just a few cases where prisoners managed to escape successfully from New Caledonia.

We also passed the nice settlements of the Libérés. But the settlements of free European colonists are rather scarce on the islands despite all the efforts of the French government to support such settlements, as any respectable man understandably is reluctant to permanently settle on this island dedicated to criminals or stay as soon as he knows about the actual state here.

The governor deplored that this beautiful island with its good and healthy climate, its productive soil and the rich mineral wealth — gold, copper, antimony, cobalt and especially nickel — is in fact renounced from being settled by free colonists and thus lies bare in such a large part. Even though the conditions are met both for the growth of tropical plants — the cultivation of cotton, maize and coffee is growing— and the growth of temperate plants, agriculture is not at a higher state than negligently managed  cattle breeding so that the island is still today dependent in many relations on imports from Australia. Great care is given by the natives who prefer to eat plant matter to the cultivation of taro (Colocasia antiquorum), yams roots, sugar cane etc. By the way the development of the island lets as far as the roads and other public works are concerned much to be desired according to the opinion of neutral observers. In France the reasons are said to be well known that currently hinder the full development of New Caledonia and there exists an intent to send the deported in the future to Cayenne so that respectable members of society can be added to the population of New Caledonia.

In a small valley we passed a Catholic mission not far away from Numea which was led by French nuns who made it their task to educate the native children. The mission does much, like the twelve other ones on the island to raise the moral and material level of the native tribes that not long ago practised cannibalism. Instituting missions seems to be very common in this French colony and show beneficial effects. As all natives on New Caledonia who adhere to Christianity are of the Catholic faith, while the number of Protestants surpasses the Catholics on the Loyalty islands where evangelical missionaries had been at work since 1840.

Turning towards the city we ascended a steep path that offered a beautiful view upon the distant coast,  Mont Dore and the small islands of the Bulari Bay.

The artillery horses of the battery of Numea drawing our wagon did not seem to be used to this task. Soon after the departure, they already showed signs of exhaustion and had reached the end of their strength when we wanted to ascend the mountain. They could not be moved by any means and we had to leave the wagon and continue our drive in another vehicle.

The regularly organized streets of the town intersect at a right angle. The houses are small, ugly and visibly built in a haste. The general view of the town is overall a melancholic one. Everywhere one meets the long columns of prisoners marching in pairs to an from work, many of whom are in chains for having attempted to flee or disciplinary offenses etc. There is not much life in the streets only a few Europeans and now and then a few natives become visible. Numea has besides the governor’s mansion also a large military hospital, two barracks, one of which is occupied by a marine infantry regiment the other with artillery, as well as multiple schools and depots. A beautiful church is being constructed and is nearing completion.

Returned on board I enjoyed a splendid evening with a gorgeous full moon glitteringly mirrored in the calm sea. Agreeable cool air fanned the brow. Now and then the calls of the guards on the warships could be heard by us. From the Place des Cocotiers, however, where our music band was giving a concert the noble sounds of our anthem rang out which was repeated no less than three times due to the roaring demands of the numerous audience.  For a long time I remained on deck, lost in my thoughts.

Links

  • Location: Numea, New Caledonia
  • ANNO – on  01.06.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is playing „Der Meister von Palmyra“. The k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is closed from 1 June to 19 July.

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