The western Pacific was first populated about 50,000 years ago. The Austronesians moved into the area later. The diverse group of people that settled over the Melanesian archipelagos are known as the Lapita. They arrived in the archipelago now commonly known as New Caledonia and the Loyalty islands around 1500 BCE. The Lapita were highly skilled navigators and agriculturists with influence over a large area of the Pacific.
From about the 11th century CE Polynesians also arrived and mixed with the populations of the archipelago.
Europeans first sighted New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands in the late 18th century. The British explorer James Cook sighted Grande Terre in 1774 and named it New Caledonia, after the Scottish highlands, which the Romans had called Caledonia.
British and North American whalers and sandalwood traders became interested in New Caledonia and tensions developed as their approach became increasingly dishonest (an arrogant attitude and cheating became commonplace). Europeans used alcohol and tobacco amongst other things to barter for commodities. Contact with Europeans brought new diseases such as smallpox, measles, dysentery, influenza, syphilis and leprosy. Many people died as a result of these diseases. Tensions developed into hostilities and in 1849 CE the crew of the Cutter were killed and eaten by the Pouma clan.
As trade in sandalwood declined it was replaced by a new form of trade. Blackbirding involved enslaving people from New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to work in sugar cane plantations in Fiji and Queensland. The trade ceased at the start of the 20th century.
Catholic and Protestant missionaries first arrived in the 19th century. They had a profound effect on indigenous culture. They insisted people should wear clothes to cover themselves and introduced cricket and tea. They eradicated many local practices and traditions.
Settled by France during the first half of the 19th century, the island was made a French possession in 1853. It served as a penal colony for four decades after 1864.
To this day New Caledonia remains on the UN list of territories to be decolonised. Agitation by the Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak Socialiste (FLNKS) for independence began in 1985. The FLNKS (led by the late Jean Marie Tjibaou, assassinated in 1989) advocated the creation of an independent state of 'Kanaky'. The troubles culminated in 1988 with a bloody hostage taking in Ouvéa. The unrest led to agreement on increased autonomy in the Matignon Accords of 1988 and the Nouméa Accord of 1998.
The authorities continue to encourage migration from France to New Caledonia using various fiscal incentives.