Louise Michel in New Caledonia


In honor of Louise Michel’s birthday and the ongoing anticolonial resistance in New Caledonia, we offer an account of her time in exile there, beginning from her arrival in November 1873. This story illustrates how regimes force their own subjects into service in colonial projects, as well as the prisoners they capture in other colonial endeavors. It is also worth remarking that, like Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, and many other 19th-century anarchists, Louise Michel only came to formally identify as an anarchist after spending time with Indigenous people. While many of her colleagues nonetheless retained Eurocentric notions about “progress” and “civilization,” Louise Michel wholeheartedly sided with Indigenous resistance to French colonialism. She is remembered more warmly today than most French settlers in New Caledonia.

A work of literary nonfiction, this narrative draws on Michel’s memoirs, her book Légendes et chansons de gestes Canaques, and several other sources. For more background on Louise Michel’s time in New Caledonia, consult the reading list below.

Louise Michel in exile in New Caledonia.

Louise Michel in New Caledonia

At last, their destination comes into view on the horizon. The warship coasts through a double rampart of coral reefs and approaches the shore. Hills flank the harbor like sphinxes, silently interrogating them.

For four months, Louise Michel has been caged on this prison vessel. She and her fellow deportees have traversed the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, the Cape of Good Hope, and the southern Indian Ocean, finally rounding the continent of Australia. They are sentenced to exile in this prison colony—exile in perpetuity.

The male prisoners are made to disembark while the women are kept on the ship. They are to be transported up the coast to a different prison camp, supposedly under milder conditions.

Louise Michel and her comrades strenuously object. Are they not enemies of the state, no less than the men? Louise herself has shot police officers, defended barricades, and worn a man’s uniform in defense of the Paris Commune.

For several days, the women remain at limbo, held on the ship within view of the island. In the end, the captain takes their side. The prisoners file into a rowboat and are ferried to the same shore where the men landed.

This is the first time Louise has set foot on solid earth in well over a hundred days. After the continuous rolling motion of the vessel, the sand seems to pitch and heave beneath her.

The male prisoners have gathered on the beach to welcome them. They have already built huts of earth and grass. This is the prison colony where they are to spend the rest of their lives.

That evening, Louise Michel cooks with other exiled Communards. She knows some of them from Paris. Before the Commune, she attended a demonstration at City Hall with the man who is hosting dinner at his newly-erected hut. When the soldiers began shooting at them that day, he and Louise were among the only ones who returned fire. To Louise, it is a wonder that he is still alive.

The chef, too, is a fellow Communard. He is trying to roast their dinner in a hole, in clumsy imitation of the natives. He and Louise defended a barricade together when the French army invaded the poor neighborhood at the northern edge of Paris. He teases her about how, when she was ordered to take a rest from the fighting, he and his comrades heard organ music coming from the nearby church, and broke into it to tell whoever was playing the organ to stop attracting fire to their barricade.

It was Louise playing the organ, of course, accompanying the explosions of the bombs with her own macabre refrain.

A drawing by Léon Jacque of the barricade on the rue Peyronnet in the neighborhood of Neuilly.

A photograph of rue Peyronnet after the clearing of the barricade.

Here in the South Pacific, at the furthest point across the globe from Paris, crabs wrestle among the leathery fronds of beached seaweed. Sea foam collects under the mangroves at the foot of cloud-wreathed peaks. On moonless nights, the trunks of the trees glimmer silver in the starlight; under the full moon, they hold their crooked branches aloft like the arms of weeping giants.

Thus the weeks pass.

The deportees are confined to this peninsula, a thousand miles east of Australia. They have to scavenge their own food, fashion their own tools and dwellings. Under the vacant gaze of the guards, they labor to establish the minimum conditions of life.

A panorama of the coast of New Caledonia, taken in 1877.

The French call this island New Caledonia, recycling the name that the Romans gave to the part of Britain beyond the wall of the Roman Empire.

The colonizers call the native inhabitants of the island Kanaks, a Hawaiian word.

But what do the native people call themselves? Louise Michel has no idea. She sometimes hears them singing as they walk through the brush, counting off the quarter-tones like raindrops on the leaves. They use a more complex musical scale than the Europeans.

The first local she meets properly is named Daoumi. Louise Michel meets him at a dinner hosted by another of her fellow French exiles.

Daoumi arrives at the dinner in a top hat and kid gloves—a sendup of French formal wear that enables him to excuse himself from assisting the white people with cooking and serving.

The fact that he is not helping them makes him available for conversation. Louise introduces herself. They converse while she feeds leaves to a goat tied to a castor oil plant. She has so many questions.

Daoumi’s French is impeccable. By contrast, she can’t speak a word of his language.

Later, talking with Daoumi around a fire of sandalwood, Louise Michel begins to compile a phrasebook of the pidgin dialect the islanders use to communicate with outsiders. Among themselves, the natives speak some thirty different languages. Daoumi can read and write French, but Louise is the first French person to try to record the other languages he speaks.

Tayo means “friend.” Maté means “ill”—maté maté, dead. They call the Milky Way the diahot, the river of the heavens. To Louise’s dismay, they refer to a woman as nemo, “nothing,” or popinée, “useful object”—though it seems to her that both of these words have arrived from Europe.

Michel is tireless in her inquiries. “And what do you call the white man’s coin?” she asks.

“Money,” answers Daoumi, deadpan.

“Before her, the earth has split,” Daoumi narrates. “Torrents pour in without end. Behind her, the mountain is torn; abysses open to the right and to the left.”

Around a fire of rosewood—peuhaou—he recites as Louise Michel transcribes. He is telling the stories of those who came first, of those who call this island home.

“And the water rises, rises; it reaches as high as the clouds, and the heavy clouds merge with the wave. The clouds and the sea embrace, the clouds pouring in torrents, the water rising in columns, higher than the tallest trees, the trees the white men use as masts for their ships—there they are, like mountains of night…”

At night, out on the still water of the lake, the voice of a single frog rings out above the distant breakers. All the other frogs answer in chorus.

By day, fuzzy black bees busy themselves in the pink flowers of wild plum trees hung with enormous vines, from which fruit bats dangle, dozing, wrapped up in their wings so that from a distance, one might mistake them for outsize pears.

Insulated from European colonization until just twenty years ago, New Caledonia preserves the greatest ecological diversity anywhere on the surface of the earth. Louise Michel makes notes about the flora and fauna alongside the Kanak words in her lexicon.

This is the bounty France has arrived to plunder—exporting the sandalwood, exploiting the natives, mining the nickel and copper. The government has sent prisoners like her here as a wedge to open the way for the next phase of colonization.

One morning, another French vessel appears in the harbor and a new round of captives are ferried to the shore. They are Algerians. To Louise Michel, they look distinguished in their white burnouses.

They too have been exiled for revolting against the French authorities. Their uprising broke out on March 16, 1871, two days before the outbreak of the Paris Commune. Their families have been fighting France since before the oldest of the Communards was born.

Just as the decades-running occupation of Algeria prepared the French army to crush the revolt in Paris, the resources that are extracted here on the colonial periphery in New Caledonia power the war machine that overran Algeria and the Commune. Colonialism interlinks the entire surface of the earth in a great circuitry of oppression.

Louise Michel has been exiled on the island for five years when a native leader named Ataï confronts the French governor of New Caledonia about the encroachment of the European colony. The French settlers have been snatching up more and more territory while their cattle gobble up the crops that the natives depend on.

“This is what we had,” Ataï says, pouring out a bag of soil to make the point absolutely clear to the governor. “And this is what you left us,” he says, pouring out a bag of stones.

The governor suggests that the Kanaks build fences around their lands the way the Europeans do. “When my vegetables eat your animals, I’ll build fences,” Ataï answers.

There is only one option: guerrilla war. Soon, there are reports of raids in the bush.

The French authorities arm the deportees to suppress the rebel Kanaks. Many of the Communards side with their jailers—with the civilization that killed their comrades and exiled them here, against the barbarism of those whose lands they are occupying. Even some of the Algerian rebels join the French side.

Colonialism pits the uprooted against the colonized in a cycle that begets ever more violence, generating strange alliances along the way.

Louise Michel argues fiercely with the other deportees about the rebellion. What distinguishes the Kanak rebels from the Communards? Shouldn’t they unite against their common enemy?

One discussion becomes so heated that a guard races over, thinking that a riot is breaking out. He withdraws in dismay when he sees that it is only Louise, shouting at a single Frenchman.

One night, in the midst of a storm, Michel hears a knock at the door of her hut. “Who’s there?”

“Taïau,” comes the answer. Friends. She recognizes the voices of two natives she knows well. They’ve come to bid her farewell. Though their people, the Manongoes, have stood aside from the uprising, the two of them are leaving to cross the bay to join the insurrection themselves. Revolt, too, can give rise to new solidarities.

Michel invites them in. She takes out the thin red scarf she has saved since the days of the Commune. She has concealed it during every search. Now she cuts the scarf in two and gives each of them a strip of it—a red thread of freedom running from one uprising to another, across oceans, decades, peoples.

They disappear into the night.

A thousand native people die in the fighting. In the end, Ataï’s severed head arrives in France preserved in formaldehyde—a trophy of the victory of civilization over the headhunters.

In mourning, Louise Michel translates the war song of Andia, the long-haired Kanak bard who was killed alongside Ataï.

The spirits
Of their fathers
Make a storm.
They are waiting
For the brave.
The brave

Are welcome.
Friends or enemies,
They are welcome
Beyond this life.
Those who wish to live
Go back.

War is come.
Blood will flow
Over the earth
Like water.

The old Communard walks beside Louise Michel, leaning heavily on her arm. Life in exile here has just about killed him. Everyone knows he has only a few weeks to live.

When they reach the heights between the two bays, from which they can see the buildings of the convict prison out on the island like a smear of blood on the horizon, her companion draws himself up to his full height. Stretching out his long, gaunt arm toward the prison, he addresses Louise, biting off each syllable in a guttural voice.

“Proudhon was right. Every reform we’ve ever tried to make keeps the same causes for disasters, the same inequalities, the same antagonisms. Proudhon said it: ‘The men who produce everything get only poverty and death in return.’ The best commercial treaties of a nation only protect exploiters. People will end all that. But how much pain, how much evil…”

Louise knows Pierre-Joseph Proudhon as a misogynist, a hypocritical anarchist who wished to keep women in the home under the governance of men. But listening to her old comrade speak, she can imagine an anarchism that rejects all forms of oppression—sexism and racism and colonialism as well as capitalism and the state.

From the South Pacific to Paris, it is the same fight.

Louise Michel arrives in Paris at Gare Saint-Lazare on November 9, 1880 after nine years in prison and exile, resuming her struggle against the French government where she left off.

Ataï’s countrymen are still seeking the return of his skull in 2014.

In 2024, they are still fighting for their freedom.

The struggle continues.

Further Reading