France returns skull of New Caledonian chief, 135 years on

28th August 2014, Comments 0 comments

France returned the skull of a New Caledonian rebel chief on Thursday, 135 years after it was cut off in a battle between the people of the South Pacific island and their French colonisers.

In a solemn ceremony in Paris, France's Overseas Territories Minister George Pau-Langevin handed back the skull of the great Kanak rebel chief Atai to one of his descendants.

"I cannot tell you how emotional I am. I have waited for this moment for so many years. I had started to give up hope," said Berge Kawa, a direct descendant of the chief.

The story dates back to 1878, a quarter of a century after colonial power France had taken possession of the archipelago around 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) to the east of Australia.

Atai led a rebellion of the Kanak tribe, which ended up claiming the lives of more than 1,000 tribesmen and around 200 Europeans.

During a battle, Atai was killed and his head and right hand were chopped off.

At the time, European scientists were fascinated by the anthropology of the islanders and Atai's skull was preserved in alcohol and transferred to Paris, where it was studied and finally placed in a museum.

Kawa seized on the occasion to urge Paris to "finally apply" the 1998 Noumea Accord, which handed more autonomy to France's nickel-rich overseas territory of 265,000 people.

New Caledonia currently holds a unique position as an overseas possession that formulates its own tax, labour laws and trade policy but not defence or foreign policy.

"These remains bring us back to our own reality: we are two peoples, two cultures which have never ceased to clash with each other and still clash today," Kawa said.

"We were ravaged by the French state. It is therefore up to the French state to give us back our property," he added.

New Caledonia is due to hold a referendum by 2018 on whether to stick with France or go it alone.

© 2014 AFP

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