Elia Nurvista & Ayos Purwoaji


Human Migration, Root, and the Tension in Between

According to the records, Javanese people started arriving in New Caledonia precisely 125 years ago. This wave of migration was marked by the travel routes of the Saint-Louis, a steamboat that brought hundreds of contract coolies from Batavia to the island of Nouméa in 1896. In this French colony, they eventually took on jobs such as domestic servants, plantation laborers, or blue-collar workers in nickel mining. From that moment on, the shipping routes from Java to Nouméa became quite active. The steamboats were commuting the workers. Up until the year 1948, a number of 19,590 Javanese contract coolies were recorded to have been transported to New Caledonia. Most of them eventually returned to Java after their contracts ended. But there were also many who chose to settle in the foreign land for generations to come.  

In a 2014 population census, around 4000 people, or 1.43% of the population in New Caledonia was listed as ethnic Javanese with French citizenship. This Javanese diaspora community still cultivates a collective memory by preserving the “traditions” inherited from their ancestors, similarly to how the descendants of Java in Suriname are still practicing the Javanese religion (kejawen) until today.1 Allen, P. (2013). Diasporic representations of the home culture: case studies from Suriname and New Caledonia. Asian Ethnicity, 16(3), 353–370. Perhaps, by preserving their “traditions” in this way, they hoped to confirm their existence and link their “Javanese” identities with “Java” which they imagined as their roots.

The discovery of cartography, the history of European colonialism, the development of means of transportation, and the growing idea on globalization have caused the diaspora of indigenous communities around the world. The physical migration and the increasingly cosmopolitan world have made numerous diaspora communities uprooted from their homeland. On the new land, they would then rearrange their old, familiar life by means of forming a mixed culture through negotiation and assimilation processes—either non-violently or violently—through several generations. In such hybrid conditions, how do the diaspora communities around the world define their root of identity? How do they view the concept of “nationalism” underlying the unity of a community as a nation state?

Furthermore, we understand that migration is not always a neutral option or condition for everyone. As is the case with Javanese people migrating to New Caledonia or other colonized countries as contract labor, up to the phenomenon of migrant labor from East Nusa Tenggara, Kiribati, and other Oceanian regions. Their migration was commonly motivated by economic force for the interest of the ruler, since colonial times until the recent modern times. The migration process occurring in formerly colonialized regions and countries was often caused by and accompanied with violence. Likewise, the settlement or relocation occurring in the destination region most of the times causes various tension, because such places were considered to be uninhabited land that might be occupied freely by the newcomers.