The New Hebrides was an "Anglo-French Condominium", which doesn't mean a vacation home in St Tropez but a unique form of colonial administration in which the poor old natives have to put up with two imperialist overlords. On this little piece of turf in the South Pacific, it meant that various competing cargo cults found themselves in anglophone or francophone schools according to the vagaries of arrangements agreed between Paris and London. There was also a third Native Court, whose presiding judge was appointed, for obscure reasons, by the King of Spain.
The government of the islands was headed by two Resident Commissioners, one British, one French. In the late Seventies, as Vanuatu was moving toward independence, the Frenchman was a chap called Jean-Jacques Robert and the Briton was an old colonial hand called Andrew Stuart, a cool customer who'd won the Colonial Police Medal in Uganda for taking down a spear-wielding prophet.
I hadn't thought about Mr Stuart in decades, but, a few days after autographing that book for my reader in Port Vila, I was browsing the Daily Telegraph obituaries column, and noticed that the long-retired colonial administrator had died at the age of Mr Stuart and M Robert did not get on, in part because the British chappie towered over the diminutive Frenchie in a way that made their joint appearances at New Hebridean ceremonial occasions somewhat lop-sided.
The Telegraph 's obituarist describes it thus:.
The Coconut War: Vanuatu and the Struggle for Independence
For two years after their arrival in , the two men had struggled from their separate residencies to remain on good terms despite the differing demands of their masters in London and Paris. Spiffed up in the full cockatoo feathers, Stuart was over seven foot, while the Frenchman had no dress outfit at all.
At any rate, relations deteriorated entirely in the weeks before independence, with the French covertly backing a wacky secessionist called Jimmy Stevens, a "francophone" despite his name and the fact that he couldn't write in any language who'd proclaimed the "Republic of Vemarana" on an abandoned air base. The British became convinced that the French were using "independence" as a cover to get the British out and maintain it as a French colony only. The French became convinced of more or less precisely the opposite:.
He was educated at a missionary school and sent to New Zealand to study for the priesthood. He was ordained in He returned with ideas about nationalism and joined an independence-minded party supported by the Anglican church. The French-speaking Roman Catholics had a political party with similar aims.
Walter Lini was the obvious choice to lead the independent state's first government. Belonging to a world-wide religion helped Mr Lini to overcome the sense of remoteness felt by Pacific islanders.
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Unlike the strident though at present muted countries of the Pacific rim, the island-states are lonely specks in the ocean with few natural resources. Mr Lini appreciated that copra and cocoa, plus a dollop of international aid, were not going to do much to raise living standards.
He turned to the dodges of the capitalist world. Vanuatu became a tax haven and a place to register a flag of convenience. In the s Vanuatu sold licences to Russian fishing boats to trawl in its waters and there was talk of Soviet warships using its ports. America, which regarded the Pacific as its private pond, seemed about to offer tempting counter-proposals when, sadly for Vanuatu, the Soviet Union collapsed.
Lonely they may be, but the island-states are among the world's most peaceful places. Nothing much happens there. Even their occasional troubles—Bougainville's rebellion, Fiji's military coup—seem mere frolics in a world of Kosovos and Iraqs. Under Mr Lini, Vanuatu became one of the most desirable tourist destinations in the South Pacific, rivalled perhaps only by Tahiti.
Rich Australians, especially, have villas there and pop over for the weekend. Walter Lini gave an impression of modest confidence. There were no guards, not even a policeman, at his official residence when the writer of this article visited him. Yes, he believed in material progress, but it should be unhurried.
He favoured small government, and not just for a small country. Regular reading room hours will resume on Tuesday 8th October. Shears, Richard. The coconut war : the crisis on Espiritu Santo. North Ryde, N.
Obituary: Jimmy Stevens | The Independent
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