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JOHN HIGGINSON, NEW CALEDONIA & NEW HEBRIDES: THREAT to THE COLONIES

The so-called ‘Ligne T’ of La Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes operated from Marseilles to Sydney from 1883 until 1903 and in the period of 1895-1903 it operated four weekly on the route of Marseilles-Port Said-Aden-Colombo-Fremantle-Adelaide-Melbourne-Sydney-Noumea, New Caledonia and return. The M.M. Australien was added to this service on 4 June 1890 and it did not sail in March of 1891 from Sydney to Adelaide, so the letter was carried by another ship. The cover is addressed to Monsieur John Higginson, Passenger bord de l’Australien, ( ? ), M.M. (homewards), Adélaide, S.A. The dark blue QV stamp of New South Wales was canceled with a duplex SYDNEY/ MR 20/ 1 - P.M/ 01/ 10. The reverse was not seen, but the vendor said it had an Adelaide arrival postmark (Figure 1).

John Higginson (1839-1904) caused an enormous amount of anguish to the press and public of the Australian Colonies which is very well documented in National Library of Australia Newspaper Beta website, the first entry for him being in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 24 September, 1869, as follows: The Moniteur (New Caledonia) of the 29 August published a Government ordinance, appointing John Higginson (and other men) as members of the Tribunal of Commerce at Noumea, (New Caladonia), for the ensuing year, till the 29 August, 1870. He next appears in the S.M.H., 18 December 1874, in relation to the Fern Hill gold mine, Noumea where he advanced £14,000, and the yield of gold was good. At the same time he was involved with a nickel mine, and the S.M.H. headlines on 2 September 1975 his involvement with the Nickel Mines of New Caledonia, stating that he is interested in a number of these mines, and was making enquiries on the extraction of this metal.

The Argus (Melbourne), 4 March 1878 finds that Higginson has had difficulties in starting a new bank, but the Government of New Caledonia has given him 300 workers for 20 years, with the Government responsible for feeding and clothing the men. We learn that he has added the erection of sugar mills to his portfolio. The Argus 26 October 1882 stated that a number of the most influential people in New Caledonia, headed by Higginson, have formed a company termed "Compagnie Caledonienne des Nouvelles-Hebrides" with a capital of £20,000 for the purpose of colonising the New Hebrides and inaugurating a reliable and unobjectionable source of procuring labourers for New Caledonia. Higginson took half the shares of the company, and the remainder were quickly taken up. All efforts to induce France to annex these islands have so far failed.

The Argus on 24 July, 1883 in a long article expressed disquiet on what was happening in New Hebrides, in its first sentence: "Australia, it would appear, must be up and doing, if the New Hebrides are not to fall into the hands of the French." Their correspondent known as "The Vagabond" en route to the Archipelago, describes the situation as far more critical than previously thought. The news that the Victorian Government had communicated with the Imperial authorities (in England) upon the subject, threw the entire French settlement into a paroxysm of fear and fury. The newly formed company had been buying land largely in the New Hebrides and had already secured most of the properties of the early European settlers. "The lead in the adventure has been taken by Englishmen in New Caledonia, some of whom have become naturalised French citizens, but others have not gone through that formality." Mr. John Higginson and (the company of) Morgan Nephew and Morgan Bros have taken the lead, and annexation of the islands by France would greatly increase the values ("hundredfold") of their properties. "And these reasons - which are not denied - affect the Australian colonies deeply." Of particular concerns was the likelihood of France sending their convicts to New Caledonia and New Hebrides. This was the crux of the Australian colonies disapproval of John Higginson.

This was soon followed by a short cable from London printed in The Argus, in addition to a 2-column entry, both printed on 14 September, 1883. The first reads: "FRANCE AND NEW HEBRIDES: There is reason to believe that Sir William Morgan and Mr. John Higginson are making arrangements in Paris for the employment of an extensive scale of French convict labour by the New Hebrides Company. Suspicions are entertained that France intends to annexe the New Hebrides" (Figure 2).

The 2-column piece by "The Vagabond" expands on the cable’s theme and he fires a barb at Higginson: "Of Mr. John Higginson in particular it is believed that though he changes his nationality with ease, he would never forgo his grasp of what commercially might be considered to be a good thing."   If France does not annexe, Higginson probably would apply that the convicts shall be farmed to him, his firm receiving a charter for the convicts.

The Argus, 25 April 1884, gives considerable space to Mr, Julian Thomas’ address (a.k.a.: "The Vagabond") to The International Trades Congress" in Melbourne, which is greeted with frequent applause from the audience, for he attributes the intrigues of Mr. Higginson to the passage of the Recidiviste (convict) bill. The Argus, 5 July 1884 gives Higginson an opportunity of rebuttal with a heading: OPINIONS OF MESSRS. HIGGINSON AND HANCKAR. The 2 gentlemen have very large interests in New Caledonia and are presently in Melbourne on a voyage from France to Noumea, and were interviewed by a representative of The Argus. The reporter gives some background, that we already know, with minimal biographical information on Higginson. His history is the history of the place (New Caledonia);  he has most government contacts; stores at every point on the coast; owns ships and steamers (one with his surname); interested in sugar and coffee plantations, in farms and stations; in mining of every description - gold, copper, nickel, and antimony. "I get on very well with governors and officials; am trusted in France as in Noumea; although I am a French colonist, I have a love and affection for Australia.

The reporter continues:  Sir William Morgan, of Adelaide, was my partner for many years in most of my speculations in New Caledonia. We commenced with flour contracts. In 1879 we dissolved partnership (for Higginson wanted to specialise in nickel), but I bought back a half share in copper mines. In 1877, I went into partnership with M. Hanckar, and Higginson praised the use of nickel as well as its earning capacity. For 14 years I have been urging the French Government to annexe the New Hebrides. These islands must belong to France, and should not belong to Australia. He denied lobbying the French Government re the Convicts Bill. "As a colonist of New Caledonia, married there, my children born there, having my home and property there, I would protest against it".  M. Hanckar is Belgian by birth and for some years was engaged in gold mining in Victoria.

The Argus, 22 July 1886 states that Higginson is known as the "King of New Caledonia" and a special wire headed NEW CALEDONIA: CONTRACT FOR PRESERVED MEATS introduces Baron Dijon, the director of the Gomen Land Company of New Caledonia and states that the French Government has a contract with the Baron for the supply of preserved meats. The Baron will probably arrive by boat with full plant and men. Higginson is reported "to be largely interested in the Undertaking" (Figure 3).

The Brisbane Courier,19 December 1887 entered the fray about the convicts and describes a "renegade Englishman, who has become a naturalised Frenchman, (who) has it seems acquired ...plantations in New Hebrides. He has applied for 300 ex-convicts from New Caledonia".  Apparently there has been an upswing in crime ascribed to convict escapees landing on our coasts and Brisbane gaol has deeply-dyed criminals awaiting deportation to New Caledonia.

The Argus, 10 April 1890 re-enters the fray and states that John Higginson has lived for the past 5 years in Paris and is now passing through Melbourne and Sydney. He quite agrees that the presence of so many of the worst criminals close to the shores of Australia is a serious menace to the well-being of the colonies. This is followed up by yet another article on the same day in the same paper, which adds little to any solution. The next week The Argus on the 14 December 1890 has an article where Mr. Joseph Service (former Premier of Victoria) is asked whether he had anything to say in reply to Higginson’s proposal that "Australia should say what she wanted". Service's answer was too long and convoluted to report here!

At least another three more entries were found in The Argus about John Higginson and these are followed by an entry in the West Australian (Perth) 12 January 1897 which mentions his strong commercial connection with Sydney. The Advertiser (Adelaide) 2 October 1903 associates the Tasmanian Centenary with the Caledonian Jubilee.  It mentions the "town of Noumea is said to owe its existence to Mr. John Higginson, formerly of Adelaide, who planned it and laid it out about the year 1863". The final entry I found was in The Mercury (Hobart) 12 November 1904 which recorded the "death of John Higginson in Paris in the 64 th year of his age on 26 October, 1904." Thus between 1869 and 1904 the colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia all recorded the story of John Higginson in New Caledonia, New Hebrides and Australia..

The map shows the position of New Caledonia and New Hebrides in relation to the east coast of Australia (Figure 4).

 
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