If Jean-Louis Bouvier was parachuted into the Australian Outback, he would feel right at home. It is not just the fact that he is a cattle farmer who musters his herds on horseback. He also wears an Australian-style felt hat to ward off the sun, carries a stock whip and refers to the holding pen on his dry, dusty property as le stockyard. Apart from the fact that Mr Bouvier speaks French and lives on the French-owned island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, he could almost be from Goondiwindi or Gulargambone. 'Most of our farming equipment comes from Australia,' says Mr Bouvier, as he tucks into a lunchtime feast of pate, duck casserole and apple tart, washed down with Bordeaux. 'We have rodeos just like they have in the Outback. And we use a lot of English words - creek instead of riviere for instance.' Just as Australians refer to the bush, the Caldoches talk of la brousse. Like most of the cattle farmers in New Caledonia, Mr Bouvier is a Caldoche, a descendant of settlers and convicts who were shipped to the island after it was claimed by France in 1853 - just as the British used Australia as a dumping ground for their criminals. Once released from bondage, many of the former French convicts chose to remain, building up a culture distinct from the ways of the indigenous Kanak people. The original Melanesian inhabitants of New Caledonia, Kanaks are now a minority in their own land, making up about 45 per cent of the population of 200,000. 'The Caldoches are New Caledonia's cowboys,' says Sabine Milella, from the nearby town of La Foa, which was established as a penal settlement in the 1870s. 'It's rare, though, for anyone round here to admit to being descended from a convict - people are still embarrassed about their history.' Like Australia's past, the history of New Caledonia has been one of dispossession. In the 19th century, Kanaks were forced off the rich agricultural land of the coastal fringe, just as the Aborigines were removed from their traditional hunting grounds and made to live on missions. 'The colons [settlers] chased the Kanaks into the mountains,' says Wauka Ajapuhnya, a Kanak. 'They still own the best land.' An independence movement led to a period of violence in the 1980s known as Les Evenements, or The Events, in which nationalist leaders were killed, French paratroopers were flown in to quell riots, and the country teetered on the brink of civil war. Since then, a political settlement has been hammered out, and under the Noumea Accord signed in 1998, power is to be gradually transferred from France. A referendum on independence is due to be held in the next 15 to 20 years. If New Caledonia votes to cut ties with Paris - as seems likely - there could be claims for Caldoche land to be given back to the Kanaks. But none of this seems to worry Mr Bouvier as he sits back contentedly after another good meal. 'We are French, but we are also New Caledonian,' he says. After 150 years, the Caldoches - cowboys of the South Pacific - are here to stay.