The maritime museum in Noumea is one of my favourite museums in New Caledonia. This is probably largely due to its layout comprised of lots of small alcoves as well as to its huge collection of objects many of which have been salvaged from shipwrecks. It also interweaves the practical history of technologies such as archaeology and sonography into the stories it tells without making this over-reflexive or confusing.
But another reason I like this museum is due to the way it embeds the story of the penal colony into the wider maritime history and moreover a colonial history of forced and indentured migrant labour. Convict labour is presented alongside other groups brought to New Caledonia from Indochina, Japan, Indonesia, Reunion and elsewhere to carry out the worst forms of agricultural labour as well as in the nickel mines. Where other museums focus in on individual convicts, the display here emphasizes the huge convoys of ‘human flesh’ brought to New Caledonia from the mid-1900s onwards.
Located almost adjacent to the section on imported labour is a section which tells the tragic, unresolved story of La Monique. The ship carrying 126 passengers disappeared without a trace in August 1953 after leaving the island of Maré for Nouméa. What is known is that the boat was dangerously overloaded with both goods and passengers. The boat was operated by the Société des Iles Loyauté (SIL) but what is worth noting is that the largest stakeholder in SIL also happened to be one of the wealthiest and most politically powerful companies in New Caledonia at the time, La Maison Ballande. There is evidence that the company tried to interfere with official enquiries into the ship’s disappearance and downplay any accusations of negligence. A short documentary screened in the museum emphasizes the huge impact of those lost to communities in New Caledonia especially on Lifou and Maré. What the tragedy and its lack of resolution also call to mind within the space of the museum is the wider impact of colonialism on communities elsewhere via the displacement and disappearance of different populations through transportation and indentured labour. Without taking anything away from the adventure of seafaring, the artisanal craft of shipbuilding or the increasingly refined technologies of underwater exploration and salvage, the museum emphasizes the distinction between those who chose (and still choose) to risk everything for the call of the ocean and those upon whom these risks were imposed unwillingly or unknowingly out of greed. SF