John Champion

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John S. Champion CMG, OBE 

British Resident Commissioner  1975-78


The purpose of this contribution is not so much to assess the work or the effectiveness of District Agents in the New Hebrides in the period, from 1975 to 1978, when I was the British Resident Commissioner in the immediate run-up to independence, but rather to paint the back-cloth of the different perspectives and objectives of the two metropolitan governments against which the British and French District Agents had to operate, in principle and ideally jointly, but in practice often separately, and sometimes in competition.

In 1975, as I saw it, my own presence, and that of the British National Service in the islands, served no important or wider British interest.  Our task was to seek to achieve, in step with our French partners, a reasonably orderly but timely withdrawal from the absurd predicament in which history had left us both in the Condominium, in such a way as to avoid on the one hand bloodshed or international ridicule, and on the other too precipitate an abandonment of those who had come to look to us for protection.  This meant leaving behind us, if we could, a single reasonably stable and united administration representing all the diverse elements of the fragmented and often mutually antagonistic population of this scattered archipelago, and simple institutions of government adequate to sustain an unambitious independence.

Unlike ourselves, however, the French Government had a strategic interest in retaining a continuing influence in the South Pacific region, partly as a base for their nuclear testing programme, but also and not least because New Caledonia, only an hour’s flight away from Port Vila, was a constituent part of France itself.  And there were some 2000 French settlers in the New Hebrides, who would be passionately opposed to any change of sovereignty, which would withdraw the protection of the French flag.

I was briefed before leaving London that one of my principal duties would be to curb what was perceived as a destructive atmosphere of rivalry and mistrust between British and French officials in the Condominium.  I gathered that this was the subject of frequent French complaint. Britain’s relations with France in Europe were anyway much more important than bickerings between officials 14,000 miles away in the South Pacific.  On one occasion as I was leaving, the Minister of State, Lord Goronwy Robert’s valedictory words to me were “Just keep things quiet, boyo.”

From my first arrival in Port Vila, therefore, I set out to establish a warm personal relationship on Christian name terms with Roby Gauger, my counterpart as French Resident Commissioner.  Our friendship was certainly helpful on the occasions on which we subsequently had our professional differences, some of which were severe.  His successor, Bernard Pottier, was equally affable, but a lightweight unable to cope with his tough colons, and lasted only six months. He was summarily sacked (the French being ruthless in such matters), telling me as he left that he would be revenged.  I doubt if he was: his next post, I think, was as Commercial Counsellor in the French Embassy in Cameroon.  His replacement, Inspector-General Robert, a much more senior and formidable character (whose Christian names I never learnt), no doubt on instructions always addressed me formally, although he did once tell me that as a younger man he used to play scrum half for Bordeaux rugby a treize, until flattened by two Yorkshire mining flank forwards when on tour at Bradford; this may have affected his attitudes.

The undercurrent of mutual mistrust and suspicion between the two administrations, of which I had been warned, certainly existed, perhaps especially among the older hands.  It arose inevitably from the different systems and objectives of the two administrations.  As usual in British dependent territories, the British Administration was allowed considerable freedom of local decision; by contrast the French administration was tightly controlled from Paris.  Thus, the French Director of Education was directly subordinate to his Ministry in Paris rather than to the French Resident commissioner.  A good deal of misunderstanding and frustration could have been avoided if it had been realised on both sides that the French Residency was organised and operated like a small metropolitan Prefecture, with functions and procedures quite different from those of our own British colonial Secretariat.

As for policy, when the French and British Governments established the Condominium regime in 1906, neither was activated by any overriding concern for the primitive indigenous inhabitants.  The British went in reluctantly, under some Australian pressure, to prevent the French from taking the islands over entirely, to try to curb the worst excesses of the blackbirders, and to protect the interests of British and Australian traders and missionaries, as much from French competitors as from local cannibals.  The French went in to support their own traders and settlers, to help them to regularise title to the land they had acquired, and to enable them to exploit the natural resources of the islands – inhabitants included. With these objectives, the French sought to establish a dominant influence short of actual sovereignty.

As time went on, however, each administration in its own traditional way acquired a paternalistic interest in the local people.  The French colonial tradition is to seek to evolve an elite of indigenous Frenchmen; the British to promote the emergence of a regime of self-governing natives.  In the New Hebrides, therefore, the British, with no significant settler problem to worry about, began to look ahead to some form of ultimate local self-government, and meanwhile the anglophone missionary schools took the lead in encouraging political consciousness among New Hebrideans.  By contrast, the French, with their substantial settler constituency, pursued their customary mission to propagate the benefits of French civilisation and language to those relatively few who could appreciate them, and for a long time the Catholic, francophone, mission schools showed comparatively little direct interest in constitutional advance, or in mass education.  It was not until 1960 that the French administration seems to have woken up to the possible implications of this.  In his memoirs, Maurice Delauney (French Resident Commissioner 1960-1965) notes that in 1960 there were only 2000 children in French schools against 8000 in the British:  l’anglophonie était en train de se généraliser”.  It was to redress the balance that under his administration and that of his successor, Jacques Mouradian, a new competitive energy was injected into French official activity.  Very substantial sums of money were thereafter poured into the francophone education system, and indeed some of the French schools in my time (1975-78), staffed largely by splendid young expatriate teachers, who came out to do this work as an alternative to conscript military service, were much more impressive than their anglophone equivalents, if not necessarily so relevant to the real needs of the country.   At the same time, it became the specific and conscious duty of the French officials, in particular the French District Agents, to promote and support “la francophonie”.

Meanwhile, without perhaps clearly recognising the implications, the British education system had for some years been evolving a substantial cadre of anglophone, almost exclusively Protestant, Melanesians, encouraged as a matter of course to think for themselves, and so inevitably in time to look forward to independence.  In due course, this cadre became the nucleus of the National Party (NP), - later the Vanuaku Party - founded in 1971, which, in view of the British approach to decolonisation, in its early days naturally enjoyed a good deal of sympathy and encouragement from British administrators.  It was always an independence movement and soon acquired a radical complexion.  As explained above, independence was not on the French agenda; in consequence, both in the New Hebrides and Paris, the party quickly became the object of suspicion in French eyes as a force for immoderate change, inimical to French interests.

It is perhaps surprising that the wasteful and inefficient condominium system should have been able to survive for 70 years without breakdown.  That it did so for so long, if only on the basis of a lowest common denominator of agreement, often a very low one indeed, owes much to the forbearance and patience of successive British and French administrators in the face of constant frustration on both sides, but still more to the fact that for half a century at least, there was little pressure for change, either from the still unsophisticated New Hebrideans, who continued to live their lives relatively undisturbed by expatriate society, or from the largely indifferent metropolitan governments.  But in the 1970s, the increasing pace and complexity of development, the heady scent of independence blowing down wind from Fiji, Western Samoa, Tonga, Nauru, Papua-New Guinea, and then the Solomons and Gilberts, the spread of education, and employment opportunities in New Caledonia, all brought more New Hebrideans into contact with the outside world, and gave rise to the emergence of authentic indigenous, political movements.  Ministerial meetings in London and Paris in November 1974 and July 1975 set the New Hebrides on a course of constitutional reform, and cleared the way for an elected Assembly representing all the various interests in the islands, with elections to be held by universal suffrage in November 1975.

Given their suspicion of the NP, and their difficulties over the concept of independence (anathema to their colons and traditional colonial policy – it was not until February 1976 that any French official was allowed to refer in public to independence even as a possibility, and it came as a surprise when M. Eriau, the French High Commissioner, then did so in private conversation with the NP Executive), it was natural that in the run-up to the elections, the French administration should openly have encouraged francophone parties and custom movements opposed to the NP, and sought to frustrate the latter.  For example, when just after my arrival, Jimmy Stevens, the leader of one such movement (Nagriamel), purported to declare a form of UDI, hoisted his own flag, set up a subversive pirate radio station and assaults followed on NP supporters in Santo, and I proposed to M. Gauger that we should mount a joint police operation to deal with him, his reply was that he could not permit me to lay a finger on a friend of France.  It was not until independence in 1980 that Tofor, the most influential custom chief on Ambrym, decorated as such by the President of France, could be brought to trial and convicted for witchcraft and murder, or Jimmy Stevens for subversion.  On the other hand, on one occasion, I think in 1977, I refused to allow the French Resident Commissioner to arrest Barak Sope, the NP radical, for treason, after he had promulgated a particularly inflammatory manifesto against the French, at a time when I was trying very hard to coax the NP into constitutional channels.  One reason for which Gauger and I got on well together was that we had similar frustrations to share, as indeed did the British and French District Agents.

In a more conventional colonial territory, in which there was intertribal and communal friction, the expatriate district officer, clearly uncommitted and impartial, could often act usefully as an arbitrator and peacemaker.  In the New Hebrides, however, the British District Agents’ relations tended naturally to be with the local anglophone communities and the French District Agents’ with the francophones.  It followed that an anglophone would normally take his grievances to the British District Agent, and a francophone his to the French District Agent; each District Agent would thus tend to hear, and perhaps genuinely to believe and report or act on, only one side of the story. This in turn could lead to a fatal loss of confidence in his impartiality and good faith, not only in the eyes of the rival community, but also in those of his opposite number and Residency.  The same syndrome affected mutual confidence between some senior officers in the two Residencies.

Another difficulty arose from the fact that the effective maintenance of law and order became increasingly difficult with the very limited resources available to the two Residences.  In 1977 and 1978, hardly a fortnight passed without some reported incident of aggression by Nagriamel or Tabwemasana supporters (the so-called ‘modérés’) against NP adherents, or of arson, criminal damage or intimidation by NP extremists against francophone schools, missions or plantations, in their campaign for the return of alienated land owned by expatriate settlers.  It was not always easy for the two Residencies to agree on joint action; on the two or three occasions on which we mounted a relatively large scale joint police operation, the results were not usually proportionate to the effort.  Once or twice the French did indeed deploy the Gendarmerie from Noumea to back up their police and to boost the morale of their colons, but with little other practical effect.  Similarly in 1978, The British Government offered to send me a spearhead infantry company, and researched the logistics of doing so, but I declined the offer. PBI with their boots and lethal weaponry would have been irrelevant to scattered and sporadic hooliganism in Santo or Mele or in the bush, and anyway I did not think that the problems of the New Hebrides were important enough to justify risking a single British soldier’s life.   But our relative impotence bore hardly on the British and French District Agents confronted with the reality of disturbances on the ground.

When the elections to the Assembly were eventually held in November 1975, the NP, on a platform which included an unrealistic demand for independence in 1977, took 57% of the votes cast in a massive 90% turnout, on the basis of which it felt itself entitled to an overall majority in the Assembly.  Many in the British administration, who were not surprised by the result, would have thought this reasonable.

The outcome, however, came as a shock to the French Administration, which had confidently been expecting that all their previous efforts to promote francophone education would have been reflected in the polls.  It may be that there had been some element of wishful thinking in the reports on the subject from the French District Agents to their Residency. The fact was that those efforts had come too late; there was now an irreversible, permanent anglophone majority in the electorate.  In any case, the French Administration’s reaction was now to seek, through manipulation of the elections for the seats reserved for custom chiefs, and by the encouragement of election petitions, to secure a ‘balanced’ Assembly, in which the NP would have no overall majority.  The French District Agents were naturally in the front line in this endeavour, which was eventually achieved, but at a cost:  a year’s delay in the first meeting of the Assembly; lasting resentment against both Residencies on the part of the NP; widespread minor disorders throughout the islands; and increased difficulty in securing agreement to joint action to deal with the latter, between British and French District Agents as well as between the Residencies.

 Because I had felt bound to be seen to act jointly with the French, the NP came to mistrust me as much as them.  Where political parties divide on racial, linguistic, or religious lines, and where one such party enjoys a permanent, irreversible majority, the democratic principle of simple majority rule is unlikely to provide a workable basis for a stable society, because it will be profoundly unacceptable to the permanent minority (hence the bloodshed in Northern Ireland, Croatia and elsewhere).  Either the rights and aspirations of the minority have to be protected securely and credibly, or the powers of the majority have to be diluted, so that all parties have the confidence to work together amicably for the common good.  That is why, in my view, the French attempt to balance the Assembly in 1976 was justifiable, as was our joint attempt to create a Government of National Unity in 1978, in the aftermath of the riot in Vila on 29 November 1977, thereafter referred to by the French Resident Commissioner as ‘les événements’.

I am probably the only British civil servant under whose orders a British police force has used tear-gas on a French demonstration led by the local Mayor.  At the time, and since, I saw no alternative but to intervene to try to prevent a potentially bloody confrontation between two unlawful demonstrations, one organised by the NP, which had purported to declare their own Provisional Government, and were marching to hoist their flag on their offices in Port Vila, the other by the French colons, who were determined to stop them.  I had to do so unilaterally, since the French police had been withdrawn to their barracks.  The immediate outcome was untidy; the intervention did not prevent the confrontation, which fortunately ended without violence; the indignant and noisy French crowd marched unopposed on my Residency, and only dispersed after I had addressed them from the Residency steps, with the Mayor, Remy Delaveuve, beside me, feeling rather like Gordon in the celebrated picture, facing the Mahdi’s dervishes at Khartoum.  Subsequently, both the French Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) were very displeased; still worse, in the face of a formal ultimatum from the French High Commissioner, and threats of violence against the two British officers directly involved in the incident and their families, which would have led to an uncontrollable state of affairs had they materialised, I had no option but to remove Mike Dumper, my Police Commandant and Tim Osborne, the British District Agent, into premature retirement (on full redundancy terms).  As they had both been acting on my orders, I offered to resign myself at the same time, but was constrained to see out the rest of my tour in order to do what I could to mend fences with the French Residency, and restore morale in our own Service.  I was and am immensely grateful for the support I received at this time from the British District Agents and the British Service generally, and especially to Brian Graves, who took over as Commandant from Mike Dumper.

In retrospect, I believe that the outcome of this unhappy affair may even have been positive once the dust had settled.  Subsequent events suggest that it may have finally persuaded the French Government in Paris that, even at the cost of abandoning their colons, it was no longer in their interests to resist early independence.  Certainly Inspector-General Robert came out with that brief.  Not all the French citizens or administrators or francophones in the New Hebrides were happy about this, and my successor had his own well-publicised problems to face as a result before the two colonial flags came down in 1980.

But for our own people too there were some uncomfortable implications of the new rapid progress to independence.  Before I left, as preparation for self-government, we had to require all our permanent and pensionable officers to retire on redundancy terms and convert to short term contracts if they wished to stay.  This was a painful choice for those in particular who had devoted their life’s work to the service in the Pacific and elsewhere.  Sadly, some of them left in consequence, and with some bitterness.

In the last resort, mutual relations between the British and French District Agents depended on personality.  In Vila, for example, Tony Forster and Francis Doyen got on well together and made a good team; on Malekula Darval Wilkins, who served there for altogether 12 years and was immensely knowledgeable and experienced, outclassed the rather unimaginative French District Agent, Datchary, who was not in any case an anglophile, and actively discouraged his staff from fraternising with our people.  Darval’s successor, Gerry Marsden, found him equally uncooperative.  When later, Gerry was replaced by a New Hebridean, Tom Bakeo, this was altogether too much for Datchary, who retired.

The French District Agent on Santo, Lefillatre, was an exceptionally competitive and able officer, with a brief to support Jimmy Stevens and Nagriamel whom we regarded as subversive.  With this object, he was lavishly funded by the French Residency to undertake prestige works, such as his new road through the bush to link Santo with Bay Bay, and a dispensary for Vanafo.  He was very unlikely to agree with our District Agent on any joint action to confront disorders, if Nagriaml were involved.  It was very much to the credit of Dick Baker (who much later found himself Chief Secretary in the Falklands when the Argentines landed, and ended up deservedly as Governor of St. Helena) and of his successor, David Browning, and their patience, firmness and tact that they were able to keep their end up.  This was a particularly hot seat.

The situation on Tanna was special.  There, Gordon Norris, the British District Agent, and Andre Pouillet, the French District Agent, were both hard bitten, humorous, experienced and able men, a splendid pair of old soldiers and adversaries.  Pouillet, like Lefillatre, had his brief to do all he could to support the opposition to the NP on Tanna, in particular the John Frum custom community at Whitesands.  There emerged in time a bitter dispute over the custom rights to some land claimed by the Whitesands people from an anglophone village nearby, and a few heads were broken on each side.  The facts were hard for a European to elucidate, as the evidence turned on the disputed interpretation of custom.  Appeal was made to the District Agents, who typically took opposite sides in the matter, and were anyway unacceptable to both sides as impartial arbitrators.  It was left to the Resident Commissioners to adjudicate, and Roby and I went down to Whitesands to do so.   From the start, Roby gave unqualified support to the Whitesanders' case, which was being heard on their own home ground in an atmosphere of barely concealed menace, and he urged me to agree in the interests of joint condominiality.  I did not share his certainty, which I suspected was influenced by Pouillet, but I was equally not entirely convinced by the other side, supported by Norris.  It was a long hot day; in the end it seemed to me that this was one of those occasions on which it was more important to agree than to be right.  We gave our joint judgement for the Whitesanders, and it was grudgingly accepted by the other side.  Much later, I learnt that the Whitesanders had erected roadblocks on the track back to Lenakel, and had determined to seize both of us if the judgement had gone the other way.  I have always wondered if my decision would have been any different if I had know this beforehand.  The end of the Pouillet/Norris saga was rather sad, however. Each eventually became so totally unacceptable to the opposing community on Tanna that the only solution had to be to move both from the island, which became a rather less exciting place in consequence.

His successor, Bob Wilson, an able and sensitive operator, had the distinction of unravelling a puzzle, which had exercised successive British Resident Commissioners for years.  There was in the bush, an hour’s rough drive by landrover from Lenakel, a tiny community of strict custom people with rather similar beliefs to the John Frum, but unlike the latter basically well disposed to the British.  They nevertheless seemed to have harboured a long-standing grievance against us, which they were too polite, or too inarticulate, to put into words.  I thought I detected something of the sort when I first visited their village with Bob, and asked him to make some tactful enquiries.  He discovered that, years before, the then British Resident Commissioner, Sandy Wilkie, had been entertained to a full-scale custom welcome to the village, and had been ceremoniously presented with a pig.  He had left, however, without making the reciprocal present which custom demands, and indeed he died very soon after.  This lack of courtesy had rankled ever since.  The question then remained, how best to make amends?  Bob then discovered that the people believed that their God, who dwelt in the local volcano, had had two sons, one of whom was John Frum; the other had flown across the sea, where he had married a white lady, and would one day return in his nambas to live on the volcano and rule over them in perpetual bliss, when old men would lose their wrinkles, become young and strong again, and be able to enjoy the favours of innumerable women without restraint.  Following the visit of The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to the New Hebrides some years before, they had now identified the Duke with the Messiah.  With this information I was able to communicate to the Palace through my predecessor, by then Vice-Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, solicit a signed photograph of the Duke, and in due course return to the village alone, with Bob’s New Hebridean successor, Job Delesa, to present it ceremoniously to the village elders as a token of our wish to repair our past discourtesy.  It was received with great dignity and satisfaction – although one old man was heard to mutter that it would have been even better if HRH had come in person.

In August 1978, when I was getting ready for my final departure in October, I was urged three times earnestly in person by the French Minister, M. Dijoud, who was visiting Port Vila, to stay on until independence.  I declined, with the FC0’s firm approval.  A new face was needed to persuade the Vanuaku Party to join the constitutional process, and my own credit with them was exhausted.  My successor, Andrew Stuart, accomplished this within a month of his arrival – but that is his story.  Besides, I owed it to Mike Dumper and Tim Osborne to go.