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John Champion
Andrew Stuart
Jean-Jacques Robert

New Hebrides Reminiscences

An acknowledgement by Keith Woodward OBE


In 1991 the late William E Stober suggested to me that we should jointly launch an appeal for reminiscences about the former condominium of the New Hebrides, with emphasis on the system of rural administration operated by the British and French District Agents on behalf of the Joint Anglo-French administration, usually known as the Condominium Government.  I thought it was a good idea and we accordingly sent letters inviting contributions, in writing or tape recorded, to some 350 people who had either once lived in the condominium or were still living in Vanuatu.  The majority of the addressees were British (including Commonwealth citizens) but we also contacted as many of our former French colleagues as we could locate, and over 50 ni-Vanuatu, many of whom had once worked in the British National Service.  Our letters were accompanied by detailed lists of the points which Will Stobers, who had served in the B.N.S. as an administrative officer from 1972-1976, thought might guide potential contributors in recording their memories of the New Hebrides District Administration.  Will also sent a good deal of documentary information, such as District Reports, and D.A.'s 'handing-over' notes to may former District Agents in the hope of jogging their memory.

About 50 people responded to our invitation, either by writing down their reminiscences or having them recorded on audio cassette (in Vanuatu, this was done in interviews with my friend and former B.N.S. colleague, Bob Makin, who resides in Vanuatu, and to whom I am deeply grateful).  if the majority of the contributions have come from Britons, Australian and new Zealanders, it is gratifying to record that a significant number of our French friends, including former Resident Commissioners and District Agents, have kindly responded as have about the same number of ni-Vanuatu, among whom are a former President of the Republic and a former Prime Minister.

When initiating the project, Will Stober and I hoped that it would prove feasible to publish as much as possible of the material contributed, but Will had wisely obtained the agreement of the Librarian of Rhodes House, in the university of Oxford, for all of the contributions to find a definitive home in the library, which specialises in Commonwealth and Naval studies.  Two applications for a modest degree of financial support for the project; which were prepared by Will with kind assistance from Richard Dorman CBE, former Chairman of the british Friends of Vanuatu, were submitted in the early 1990s to the Rhodes Trustees, but were unfortunately unsuccessful.  However, I have received some support from the Australian Friends of Vanuatu Association, for which I am grateful.

Late in 1998, after a preliminary approach had been for me by Reece Discombe OBE, who has resided in Port Vila since 1947, and who has contributed to the economy of Vanuatu in many fields, I wrote to Professor John Lynch who heads the University of the South Pacific campus in Port Vila, to enquire whether the USP would be interested in publishing a book of Condominium reminiscences.  A qualified expression of interest followed in mid-1999, after we had sent out to Suva some selected contributions, by aconfirmation from the university Research School of Pacific Studies that USP was willing to publish the reminiscences of the Condominium.  The publications fellow, Linda Crowl, has since been very helpful, and we have been informed that Professor Lynch and Doctor Howard van Trease (the author of 'The Politics of Land in Vanuatu') have been asked to read our material.

This project encountered a severe set-back with the untimely death, in January, 1997, of Will Stober, without whose inspiration and enthusiasm it would not have come into being.  Another of my former British Residency colleagues, Brian Bresnihan MBE., has, however, agreed to become co-Editor and his assistance since 1998 has been invaluable, as has the hard work of the handful of members of the friends of Vanuatu who have typed hundreds of pages of reminiscences  for storage onto computer media.  It was hoped that the book of Condominium Reminiscences (this is only a provisional title) can be published by the end of the year 2000, but there has been slippage and a publication date in the first half of 2001 now seems more likely.

The book will be a miscellany, and will no central theme although it will contain an historical introduction to the Condominium for the benefit of readers not intimately connected with Vanuatu nor knowlegeable about the country's pre-independence history.  Many of the articles are concerned with the activities of the District Agents and their New Hebridean (Melanesian) Assistants, but broader aspects of condominium life, especially in its later, somewhat turbulent years, are also dealt with, thanks to the contributions of several former Resident Commissioners (including both the last British and French Resident Commissioners at the time of Independence).

Other contributors have written about, for example, what it was like to be a DA's wife in the 1950s, and to teach at an isolated Mission school, whilst two eminent ni-Vanuatu politicians have told us something of their participation in the struggle for independence.  A former French District Agent describes how he got his family out of his brand-new Condominium house, only minutes before it was wrecked by a ferocious cyclone in December, 1958, whilst another narrates the dramatic story of two shipwrecks.  Former British Heads of Department have described the work of their Departments, and a British police officer has written of being under fire from rebels on the island of Tanna.  To complete the account of the build-up to independence, a former Royal Marine officer has depicted the scene at Luganville, Santo, on July 30th, 1980, when his detachment and their French "Parachutiste" counterparts held off, by threatening to open fire, a hostile crowd of secessionists, while the flag of the newly independent Republic of Vanuatu was being raised.

The book is to be illustrated.

Keith Woodward