Louise Michel in New Caledonia
A biography of Louise Michel during her exile in New Caledonia, and after her 1880 return to Paris following amnesty.
After twenty months in prison Louise was loaded onto the ship the Virginie on 8 August 1873 to be deported to New Caledonia, where she arrived four months later. Whilst on board, she became acquainted with Henri Rochefort, a famous polemicist, who became her lifelong friend. She also met Nathalie Lemel, another figure active in the Commune. It was this latter contact that led Louise to become an anarchist. She remained in New Caledonia for seven years and befriended the local Kanak people.
Taking an interest in Kanak legends, cosmology and languages, particularly the bichelamar creole, she learned about Kanak culture from friendships she had made with Kanak people. She taught French to the Kanaks and took their side in the 1878 Kanak revolt. The following year, she received authorisation to become a teacher in Nouméa for the children of the deported — among them many Algerian Kabyles (“Kabyles du Pacifique”) from Cheikh Mokrani’s 1871 rebellion.
In 1880, amnesty was granted to those who had participated in the Paris Commune. Louise returned to Paris, her revolutionary passion undiminished. She gave a public address on 21 November 1880 and continued her revolutionary activity in Europe, attending the anarchist congress in London in 1881, where she led demonstrations and spoke to huge crowds. While in London, she also attended meetings at the Russell Square home of the Pankhursts where she made a particular impression on a young Sylvia Pankhurst. In France she successfully campaigned, together with Charles Malato and Victor Henri Rochefort, for an amnesty to be also granted to Algerian deportees in New Caledonia.
In March 1883 Louise and Émile Pouget led a demonstration of unemployed workers. In a subsequent riot, 500 demonstrators pillaged three bakeries and shouted “Bread, work, or lead”. Louise was accused of having led this demonstration with a black flag, which has since become a symbol of anarchism.
Louise was tried for her actions in the riot and used the court to publicly defend her anarchist principles. She was sentenced to six years of solitary confinement for inciting the looting. She was defiant at her trial; for her, the future of the human race was at stake, “One without exploiters and without exploited.” She was released in 1886, at the same time as Kropotkin and other prominent anarchists.
In 1888, Louise survived an assassination attempt when Pierre Lucas shot her head point-blank. A bullet lodged in the left side of her skull and could never be removed. Louise refused to press charges against him, wrote numerous letters requesting that the police charges be dropped, and paid a lawyer to represent him at trial. You can read a newspaper article about the event here.