The Banks Islands, of volcanic origin, are situated about 50 miles northeast of the main New Hebrides. The vegetation is luxuriant, the rainfall abundant, and the soil fertile. The chief islands are Vanua Lava, which has an active volcano, and Gaua, both of which have an area of about 85 square miles.
The Torres Islands, a chain of small islets, are northwest of the Banks group. The largest isle is 10 by 2 miles in greatest dimensions. The natives are Polynesians, of whom only about 200 now remain as the island has been seriously depopulated.
The archipelago of New Caledonia (including the Huon Islands, the Belep Islands, and the Isle of Pines) and the Loyalty Islands and little Walpole Island (150 miles southeast) lie about 900 miles east of Australia and 1000 miles northwest of New Zealand. Also attached to New Caledonia for administrative purposes are the Chesterfield Islands, 285 miles west of the Huon Islands.
New Caledonia, locally often referred to as "the mainland" (la Grande-Terre), is a large island 248 miles long with an average breadth of 30 miles. Its total area is about 6200 square miles. The area of its dependencies amounts to about 800 square miles. The climate is pleasant and healthful and suitable for European settlement. The temperature is moderate for its latitude, mean monthly averages varying between 65° to 72° F, and the weather is tempered by fresh trade winds. The annual rainfall is about 40 inches, and the relative dryness is favorable for Europeans and for livestock of European origin. The island has an irregular coastline with numerous bays and is nearly surrounded by a barrier reef about 5 miles offshore. The reef continues north to the Huon Islands and has a length of over 400 miles.
New Caledonia was discovered and named by Cook in 1774, but the British did not establish a claim to the island, and after negotiations agreed to its annexation by France in 1853. It was a penal colony from 1864 to 1894, and during these years about 40,000 prisoners were transported. The natives, who were Melanesians mixed with some Papuan and Polynesian blood, were originally estimated to number between 60,000 and 100,000, but are now reduced to less than 20,000. With settlement of the country, trouble began with the natives, who were crowded off from much of their land. A great insurrection of natives in 1878-1879 lasted 9 months and was put down only after much bloodshed and property damage. Another insurrection came in 1881, and parts of New Caledonia have never recovered from the effects of these wars. The natives raise taro, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, bananas, manioc, beans, corn, and other crops. Abandoned terraces, once planted in taro, record the decrease in native population.