The untold story of Algerians deported by France to the Pacific island in the 1870s and their descendants today.
Filmmakers: Abdelkader Mame and Abdelaziz Abid
Almost 150 years ago, after troops led by Sheikhs Al Mokrani and Al Haddad failed in their year-long resistence to French colonial rule in Algeria, France sent hundreds of Algerians to what was then a penal colony – the island of New Caledonia.
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More than an estimated 2,000 Algerians who were considered “rebels” by the French were deported to the Pacific island in the last quarter of the 19th century. Journeying by sea – some dying after refusing to eat pork when their dates ran out – they were imprisoned in jails in New Caledonia.
I want Algerians to know that other Algerians were uprooted from their country and suffered a lot. My grandparents and many others died with a heavy heart. They weren’t able ever to see their homeland again. … They had nothing here but memories. I would have sent them back home on a flying carpet if I could.
The tragic irony, says Tayeb Aifa, a descendent of an Algerian deportee sent to New Caledonia, “Is that they used us to colonise this country while we ourselves were being colonised at home.”
According to Algerian anthropologist Mamoun Benmouhoub, the deportees were often influential figures within their tribes and their exile contributed to the unravelling of Algeria’s social fabric and splintered families who would never see their relatives again.
First colonised by France in 1853, New Caledonia today remains in French possession and about 10 percent of its 270,000 population is of Algerian origin. Three generations later, this exile has had a lasting legacy for the deportees’ descendants still living on the island.
Some feel a deep resentment about their ancestors’ exile and treatment on the voyage and during their subsequent imprisonment in the island’s prisons. When the inmates were released, they weren’t allowed to return home. Many descendants feel a strong affinity with what they consider their homeland and travelling to Algeria to discover their roots is considered an important rite of passage.
“We know where we come from,” says Bernard Salem, a descendant of an Algerian deportee. “We reclaim our Algerian identity, or Arab as they call it here. It’s always here inside us.”
All the original Algerian deportees were men and many ended up marrying the French women convicts who’d also been shipped to the island from mainland France. So, today the descendants of the Algerian deportees are of mixed race. Many are proud of their multi-ethnic, multi-cultural heritage yet feel unequivocally Algerian.
“Do you know how they survived?” asks Halima Jean, another descendant. “Solidarity.” It is this connection between exiles that many say allowed their ancestors to preserve traditions such as giving their children Arab names, getting involved in equestrian sports, the Arabic language, and their Islamic faith. Very often, their sense of identity goes beyond ancestry and many descendants try to obtain Algerian citizenship.
Filmed in Algeria and in New Caledonia, this is a story about a deportation and its legacy that delves into the fascinating history of a strong anti-colonial resistance movement that was ultimately crushed; and looks at how the descendants of the Algerian deportees have been able to uphold their identity and traditions a century-and-a-half later.
An independence referendum will be held in New Caledonia on 4 November 2018. Voters will be given the choice of remaining part of France or becoming an independent country. The government and authorities in Metropolitan France have stated that they will recognise and abide by the results of the referendum. If the motion fails, New Caledonians will have opportunities to vote again in 2020 and 2022 if one third of the local assembly members agree to allow those votes to be held.