Anger is mounting among the Melanesian people forced to leave their land pushed away by the European settlers. In 1878 it's just too much... Ataï, Chief of Komalé, is the leader of a rebellion which had a profound impact on several generations of colonisers and has remained vividly in the memories of the Melanesian people, until today.
The rebellion origin
Since the 1853 colonial takeover, Melanesian were no longer owners of their land. Initially they did not understand this situation and were eager to take advantage of the wealth brought by the colonisers. Until 1858 the colonial policy was that lands allocated to European settlers were limited to areas around forts for security reasons. Consequently, seizing lands had a limited impact on the Melanesian territory and were located mostly around Noumea.
In 1858 the colonial authority changed its policy and allowed settlers to colonise areas away from Noumea. The settlements then developed northward to La Foa and up to Poya. It resulted in a land conflict which triggered the 1878 rebellion and spoiled the relationship between European and Melanesian people until today. From 1862 to 1870, under governor Guillain, the land taken over by the European colonisers grew from 27 000 to 78 000 ha. In 1877, under governor La Richerie who made this land grab easier, the European land reached 150 000 ha. By mistakenly classifying crop rotation lands put to rest as unused lands, which were then seized, the colony destabilized the economy and food supply of the Melanesian people. Their remaining territory was too small and too scattered. The Kanak were pushed in the high valleys of the mountains on soils of lower quality. The settlers cattle roaming without fence strayed on Melanesian crops destroying taros, yams fields and other staples foods.
While, until 1869, conflicts had been limited to problems of relationship between some disappointed chiefs and the colonial authority, in 1878, with their shrinking territory, the upset was profound among all the Kanak on the "Grande Terre" (New Caledonia main Island), hence the importance of this historical rebellion.
The plan of Ataï and other chiefs kanak
It is believed that Ataï main objective was Noumea, the capital city of the young colony. Through a surprise attack at the head of the colony he could hope to destabilize the colonisation. Preparation was initiated in great secret. Many tribes were involved including the ones of Houailou and Canala. Although Ataï was the leader of the rebellion, according to Amouroux (1881), the uprising might have been promoted by other chiefs, in particular Cavio from Nekou assisted by Dionnet the war chief in Bourail. The attack date, symbolically charged, was initially the 24th September, date anniversary of the French taking possession of New Caledonia. However, according to other witnesses, D day was to take place at the end of the yams harvest season in July. Rivière (the man who led the military counter attack), believed that it was even as early as the 26th June.
However an unforeseen event led to speeding up the agenda. On 19th June 1878 in Ouaménie, the members of the Chene family, farmers on the Dézarnauld property, were murdered by a group of Melanesian people. Chene was formerly a convict and his wife, a Melanesian named Medon, originated from the Poquereux clan in the area. The colonial authority immediately jailed 10 Melanesians chiefs. While the murder was unrelated to the plot, the resulting outrage forced the Melanesian plotters to anticipate their attack. At such an early date, with no real preparation, Noumea as a target was clearly unfeasible and was forsaken. Instead the Kanak decided to launch several attacks aimed at the colonial advanced settlements on the West Coast from Poya to Baie Saint Vincent. One of the most important settlement, La Foa, an area where numerous Melanesian clans were still living, was their initial target.
On 25th June, the four "gendarmes" of La Foa were murdered and the Kanak killed also most of the European settlers in the area from the Dogny up to Fonwhary and Farino. Overall 40 civilian people were killed. Then, on 26th June, the Kanak attacked Bouloupari . The "gendarmes" post was destroyed. Most of the inhabitants were killed. Further north, Moindou was attacked on 21st August, then Poya on 10th and 11th September. A small supply boat with 10 men on board was overcome by surprise in the mouth of the Poya river. The crew was killed and eaten. In Bourail the Arabian settlers got also under attack. This was a strategical mistake because most were tough warriors who then decided to join the French military forces. They will then ferociously participate in the fight and repression.
The army reaction
This only permanent military protection in the area was a small garrison in Teremba fort, near Moindou. Initially the Kanak attacked it and started a siege. However they were unable to overcome the fort and they gave it up.
Meanwhile people in Noumea started to panic. They believed that the rebels would pursue their progress southward and attack the capital city. About 20 Kanak were executed in Dumbea (near Noumea) following their looting of a store. They were the last people of the Ouamou clan. The 120 Melanesian leaving in Noumea were locked in the jail of Nou island.
Commandant Gally Passeboc was appointed to lead the counter attack. He did not evaluate properly the size of the insurgent forces and did not react appropriately against the guerrilla actions of the Kanak. He was killed in an ambush on 3rd July.
He was replaced by his lieutenant Rivière who understood that the same guerilla methods were to be used to fight the Kanak. Initially, in July and August, military columns got bogged down in an unproductive guerilla. The French troops burnt villages and destroyed crops but could not reach the insurgents. However a new fort was built in La Foa. It made military action far more efficient as French troop were closer to the insurgents area and then launched surprise attacks. The fort was completed on 24 Th. August its garrison was 80 people strong. The Kanak, realizing the threat, attacked it with 500 warriors. They could not take it and retreated.
Meanwhile "Lieutenant de vaisseau" Servan based in Canala on the East Coast achieved a very audacious coup in overturning and getting support of the Canala Great Chief, Gélina and his chief of war Nondo. With the Canala warriors to his side he then marched on to La Foa. This changed the course of the war as Kanak were now badly divided.
The rebels defeat
On 1st September, in Fonimoulou, the French troops, with support of the Canala Kanak and of the Arab warriors, launched a surprise attack, and progressed using Kanak paths. They were divided in three columns and encircled the insurgents area. Ataï was surprised in his camp by the column headed by Le Golleur and comprising the Canala warriors. The Kanak Segou, from Canala, dared to throw his spear through Ataï and killed him. As a testimony of how ferocious was the French retaliation, Ataï's head was severed from his body and sent as a trophy to Paris
Despite Ataï's death the fight went on but the insurgents were then destabilised. Fresh marine troop arrived from Indochina on 18th August 1978. In September 1878 the La Foa-Moindou area was pacified. The insurgents were still fighting in the North, in Poya and Bourail, but the French troops harassed them. The rebellion ended with the fall of the Adio Kanak fort in December 1878.
This rebellion had a high cost for the Kanak. Many men were killed, up to 5% of the population. Many chiefs were executed without trial. Retaliation had been ferocious. The natives territory shrunk further as the colony seized the defeated rebels lands. Entire tribes were moved to the South or to Isle of Pines, far from their original grounds.
These spoliation and plunder through doubtful means will go on after 1878 and lead towards the end of the XIX th. century to the Kanak forced settlement in ever shrinking reserves. These reserves, while officially established to place Melanesian territories off an almost hysterical land grab, were, due to the lack of knowledge of the Kanak agricultural system, quite insufficient in arable lands. Destabilized by the rebellion drama, the forced settlement and the destruction of their traditional structures, the Melanesian population, already weakened by diseases brought by the colonisers at the beginning of the colony, dramatically decreased until 1921 were they were 16 000 people left, that is half of the 1860 population.
European settlers were also badly upset after 1878. The colonization momentum was nearly halted. It took 20 years to start developing again. The new colonizing momentum took then its source in the penal colony. This resulted in an unprecedented enlargement of the land taken over by the colony and a further shrinking of the Melanesian territory.
The land conflict resulting from this plunder generated other uprisings, particularly one in 1917 . But this year they were other causes such as the fear of forced recruitment in the French army and to be sent on First World War front.
The land spoliation, added to France's inability, even after the de-colonising laws of 1956, to acknowledge the Kanak identity and dignity, led the Kanak to demand independence of New Caledonia. This resulted in a bloody fight from 1984 to 1988 between "independentists" and "loyalists" the former mostly Kanak and the latter consisting mostly in the European community. The fight was settled through an agreement which led to the new and current status of New Caledonia.
About one thousand Melanesian people and 200 Europeans were killed during these tragic events. These are very high figures for a territory then populated by 24 000 Melanesian natives and 16 000 European settlers.