Digest>Archives> October 2002

Amédée Lighthouse, New Caledonia

By Colleen Ryan


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New Caledonia lies in the South Pacific like a precious and fragile ornament wrapped in the protective waters of 8,500 square miles of lagoon and encircled by 1000 miles of reef. Indeed the island is in some respects exactly that, a precious material. Scratch its surface and you will find high-grade nickel.

Lots and lots of it, more than Russia or Canada, the world’s other two nickel producing nations. It is believed to have the largest nickel deposits in the world, and it has quite respectable quantities of iron, manganese, chrome, copper and zinc. Drop something on the ground and you’ll hear more of a ping than a thud.

So it is perhaps not surprising that lighthouses guard the only two navigable entrances through the reef used by the ore ships that are slowly removing the island. However the Amédée Lighthouse was constructed originally not to provide safe passage for the export of New Caledonia’s prized resource but to enable the safe arrival of penal ships from France.

Early European explorers had found New Caledonia’s barrier reef troublesome and dangerous. Captain Cook arrived on Resolution in 1774 and was keen to explore but reported difficulty in finding safe routes through the reef. For the next 80 years British, American and French whalers used the island as a base and consequently reliable charts of the reef became available. Finally, the French took possession of New Caledonia and Governor Saisset was appointed with the task of holding the island for France and developing maritime trade.

Saisset quickly realised that safe access to Noumea was a high priority and in 1859 he requested that a lighthouse be constructed. Bureaucracy was no different then from now and it took nearly two years for a decision to be made but Saisset was to have his lighthouse, and not just any old lighthouse.

The design was the personal responsibility of Monsieur Leonce Reynaud, Director of Lighthouses for France and the construction was entrusted to Rigolet who was well known in the industrial world for his construction of the Paris Winter Garden. A Monsieur Lepante was set the task of designing the optical system.

So proud were its designers of their creation that it was assembled on a high point in La Villette so that the Parisian public could admire it. And there it sat for a year, garnering praise.

Meanwhile New Caledonia was designated a penal colony, and soon ships would be arriving from France with prisoners who would serve their time in enforced labor, building roads and government buildings. Over 20,000 prisoners, many of them political detainees, were sent to New Caledonia. The first ship left France at the beginning of 1864 arriving four months later in May of that year. The previous year nickel had been found and although not yet commercially mined the need for safe passage through the reef was becoming pressing.

So the lighthouse was dismantled, each part numbered and wrapped and the whole lot was shipped to New Caledonia. Bretin the local engineer charged with the task of assembling the lighthouse received what can only be described as a giant erector set weighing 388,000 kgs. Within 10 months he had solved the puzzle and recreated this wrought iron masterpiece, which formerly became operational in November 1865.

Deprived of their scenic lighthouse the Parisian public were compensated shortly afterwards with that other scenic tower designed this time by Eiffel, although the Amédée lighthouse was still considered interesting enough to have a model constructed for the Paris Universal Exhibition.

Amédée claims to be the tallest iron lighthouse in the world and comprises an iron frame covered in steel sheets bolted together. It is 185 feet high and has an internal spiral staircase, which we climbed enthusiastically if not very quickly. From the cast iron console at the top of the structure we were able to see the passage through the reef, and also the wreck of the L’Ever Prosperity. Despite the obvious prominence of the Amédée Lighthouse and the 13 nm range of its light, the ore carrier L’Ever Prosperity was driven onto the reef in 1970. L’Ever Prosperity could not be described as a lucky name for a ship as a vessel of exactly the same name met a similar fate on New Caledonia’s barrier reef five years earlier.

Amédée lies 15 miles from Noumea, New Caledonia’s main town and these days it is visited by tourists who want to enjoy a day on a desert island or who want to take advantage of the impressive snorkelling and diving in the Boulari Passe. The island that the lighthouse stands on is a coral structure. Coral that has become exposed at low water, perhaps due to changing water level, has died and been ground to sand by wave action. In order to provide a stable base for the lighthouse a one-meter thick stone plateau was created.

The island is uninhabited, the lighthouse unmanned except during the daytime when visitors are allowed access. These days it is solar powered (achieving 30,000 candlepower) but during its life it has been powered by windpump, kerosene and originally colza oil.

A few days after our visit to the lighthouse we left Noumea on our yacht, bound for Australia, and slipped safely out through the Boulari Pass, guided by New Caledonia’s Parisian designed lighthouse.

This story appeared in the October 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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