Someone linked to Pam Allen’s fascinating Inside Indonesia article takes a look at the remarkable story of the Indonesian minority in the French Melanesian island of New Caledonia.
Aged 65 and still working as an engineer in Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, Djintar Tambunan is a member of an unusual minority. He is one of very few Indonesians in New Caledonia who speak fluent Indonesian. His Javanese wife Soetina does not. Nor do his two adult children. Like most of their Indonesian friends, their preferred language is French.
Born in Belige, on the shores of Lake Toba, North Sumatra, in 1945, Tambunan (as he prefers to be called) moved to the Pacific Island of New Caledonia during the mining boom in 1970. He came to work for the big construction company Citra, and has remained there ever since. He describes himself as part of the ‘third wave’ of Indonesian emigrants.
Who, then, comprised the first and second ‘wave’ of emigrants, and what were they doing in New Caledonia? Djintar Tambunan’s story, and that of the 7000 or so other Indonesians currently living there, forms part of a relatively little-known chapter in the history of Indonesia. Like the history of the Javanese in Suriname in South America, and that of the Cape Malays in South Africa, it is an intriguing story of the tension that results when populations move, or are moved, to new surroundings.
That first wave of Javanese emigrants comprised 170 contract labourers, who arrived in Noumea in 1896. Forty-two years earlier, Napoleon III had established a penal colony in the French possession of New Caledonia. Most of the convicts transported there were political prisoners from the Paris Commune. In 1894, the French Governor of New Caledonia, Paul Feillet, abolished penal immigration and replaced prison labour with Asian immigrants, mainly from Japan, Java and Vietnam, who came to work in the mines and on the plantations.
Initially sent to work in agriculture, from 1899 the Javanese began working in the mining industry, which offered better pay but more difficult conditions. They were expected to work long hours with pick and shovel and to put up with demanding French employers. Once their contract term had ended, some returned to Java. But many remained in New Caledonia, a choice that robbed them of their right to repatriation. It was a choice that also brought with it the burden of paying the costs of finding new employment.