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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Nouméa, New Caldonia

Nouméa is the capital city of the French territory of New Caledonia. It is situated on a peninsula in the south of New Caledonia’s main island, Grande Terre. The area in which the city was founded was not an important one for Kanaks prior to European settlement; the first European to set up a settlement nearby was a British trader, James Paddon, in 1851. The French, anxious to assert control of the island, established a settlement there three years later in 1854, moving from the north of the island. The area served first as a penal colony, then as a center for the exploitation of the nickel and gold that was mined nearby. Later, it served as the headquarters of the United States military in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, the US military headquarters was taken over as the base for a new regional intergovernmental development organization: the South Pacific Commission. Even today the US wartime military influence lingers, both in the warmth that many New Caledonian people feel towards the United States after experiencing the friendliness of American soldiers, and also in the names of several of the quarters in Nouméa. Districts such as “Receiving” and “Robinson,” or even “Motor Pool,” strike the Anglophone ear strangely, until the historical context becomes clear. The Gondwanan Forests Many Pacific Islands are of relatively recent volcanic origin however New Caledonia is an ancient fragment of the Gondwana super-continent. New Caledonia and New Zealand separated from Australia 85 million years ago and from one another 55 million years ago. This isolation from the rest of the world’s continents made New Caledonia a treasure trove of the prehistoric Gondwanan forests. Some have become emblematic in local culture. Among them is a hen-sized, flightless bird, commonly-known as the Cagou or Kagu whose song and image are frequently seen as nationally-recognized symbols. Others include the Columnar or Cook's Pine, the Niaouli tree whose sap contains Gomenol, a camphor-smelling compound, used to treat head colds, and as an antiseptic. New Caledonia is home to a species of plant believed to be genetically close to the ancestor of all flowering plants, and has the largest number and diversity of conifer species in the world, unusual in that conifers are usually rare in tropical regions. High rainfall supports the rain forests and a more arid region is home to the now exceedingly-endangered New Caledonia dry forests. Extensive farming in the dry forest areas has caused these forest ecosystems to virtually disappear.

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