Inspecteur-General Jean-Jacques Robert
The Pacific Islands have long been popularly imagined
to be little earthly paradises. Contact
with the realities of these reputedly enchanting places has appreciably changed
this point of view, which is nowadays only affirmed in the advertising brochures
produced by travel agencies catering for mass tourism.
At the beginning of this century, these paradises had
not yet been lost, and the sailors of the Anglo-French Joint Naval Commission,
set up in the New Hebrides in 1887, marvelled when they saw whales disporting
themselves in the bays of Ambrym and Erromango, and sea cows playfully
gambolling off the coast of Malakula.
The early discoverers of these islands, coming after
Cook from Australia or New Caledonia, were probably not susceptible to their
natural beauty. They devised
fanciful schemes for making their fortunes from copra, or from the cultivation
of coffee, tobacco, maize, beans and potatoes.
Even at this early stage, the Japanese were interested in establishing
themselves in the Group. In 1892
emissaries from Viscount Enamoto, the Japanese Foreign Minister, envisaged the
creation of tea, coffee and sugar-cane plantations. Nothing came of this idea, which could have changed the face
of the New Hebrides.
Many illusions have been dimmed - the whales have been
taken, the dugongs have fled, and the coralline soils have curtailed the
grandiose schemes of the early settlers. Nevertheless,
the report in which my colleague and dear friend John Champion describes his
arrival in the New Hebrides could have been dated at the end of Queen Victoria's
newcomer to the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides is constantly
reminded that he is at the end of the world.
The muggy days of leaden skies and unremitting rain in the cyclone season
are depressing, but when the sun shines even the seedy Vila waterfront is
extremely beautiful from the islet on which my Residence confronts the Residence
de France across the brilliant blue and emerald harbour..... There are no
newspapers, only the dedicated can find the BBC and when my "Times"
arrives the week-old headlines seem to relate to another planet....... We eat
well in our isolation, the French influence sees to that."
How these lines echo the stories of Somerset
Maugham! As for good eating, one
always ate well in the New Hebrides, even if it was sometimes one's neighbour!
Notwithstanding these irenic visions,
civilisation made its appearance in the Group in three guises. There were the slavers, the "blackbirders", who
recruited natives under duress and sold them in Victoria and Queensland, or in
Fiji, even as far away as Hawaii. There
were the settlers - French, British, Australian, and even German - who 'bought '
large areas of land, often without ever as much as viewing their boundaries, and
paying the natives with old rifles, liquor, tobacco or cloth.
In fact, the natives did not intend to alienate their land, because the
very concept of such alienation was foreign to them, in view of the very strong
emotional ties binding them to the land. These
sales, even those which were later legally regularised, gave rise to endless,
and often violent, disputes, which were only resolved when the country gained
its independence. The third
category or representatives of civilisation was composed of Presbyterian
missionaries (the Anglicans arrived later), mostly from the state of Victoria.
Arriving in the middle of the 19th century, these missionaries risked
their lives to bring the Gospel to the inhabitants of the islands.
Unfortunately, the methods which their evangelising zeal led them to
employ in order to eradicate the
customs, such as polygamy, of "man belong darkness " quite often lacked Christian
charity. The more recalcitrant
heathen ran the risk of being beaten, put in prison, fined, or - the supreme
insult - having their genitals wrapped in stinging nettles. These practices led to reprisals and occasional disorder, of
which the consequences persist to this day.
The arrival of the white man thus tended to increase
the anarchy already prevalent in the islands, adding to traditional warfare
conflicts between the newcomers and the indigenous people, there being no kind
of authority, whether political, legal or moral, capable of bringing them to an
end. France and England could not
remain indifferent to this situation - the former because of the proximity of
the New Hebrides to New Caledonia, and the latter because of increasing pressure
from the Australian states, which feared annexation by France, coupled with the
settlement of convicts released from the penal colony in Noumea. The system of
joint control was only established after much hesitation.
In 1878, the two powers had committed themselves "
to not infringing the independence of the New Hebrides ".
The Convention of 16th October 1887 set up a joint naval commission,
which had as its sole purpose the protection of the lives and property of French
citizens and British subjects only, and was not empowered to intervene in the
settlement of internal disputes, especially those concerning land, with the
natives of the country. "This international act", stated an
instruction from the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, "maintains the
stipulations of 1878; it does not affect the political independence of the
Archipelago, cannot in any way be considered as implying the establishment of a
kind of condominium, by virtue of which wide or restricted rights of sovereignty
or protection would be exercised by the two contracting states".
This instruction rejected the very principle of a condominium.
But the worm was already within the fruit, and
tensions made their appearance with the appointment by the British Government of
Mr Hugh Romilly, an Englishman living in Noumea, as Vice-Consul in the New
Hebrides, with rights of residence. This
was at once contested by France. On
the other hand, the establishment by French settlers on the island of Efate of a
municipality called "Franceville", which took unto itself full
administrative, fiscal and judicial powers, and was even represented in
Melbourne, could not fail to arouse strong public feeling in Australia.
To eliminate rapidly increasing anarchy, to give the Group a semblance of
political unity, and a legal basis for administrative and judicial acts, as well
as to provide security for lives and property and for the settlement of disputes
with the natives, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and the French
Ambassador in London, M. Paul Gambon, set up in 1906, at a time when the
"Entente Cordiale" was taking shape, a system of co-sovereignty, with
a tripartite structure and a mixed tribunal ( the Joint Court). This arrangement
placed the New Hebrides and all its inhabitants under the control of the two
powers, but left the indigenous people without any existence in international
law, since they could neither enjoy British or French citizenship, nor have a
nationality of their own, because the islands did not constitute an
internationally recognised state. This
convention of 1906, after revision and amplification, became the Anglo-French
Protocol of the 6th August 1914. England
and France then had other problems.......and the Protocol was not ratified until
18th March 1922, on which date it came into force.
By this time England and France were well established
in the Group, but they had come dragging their feet, and not knowing what they
really wanted to do there.
Erudite jurists (O'Connell - Verdross - Lauterpracht)
have attempted to analyse the concept of a condominium, but without satisfactory
result. A former French District
Agent for Central District No. 1, M. Dominique Vian, who until recently was
Prefect in French Guiana, has given us an excellent definition:
"a legal Wild West, in which everything is permissible, even if the solution chosen does not conform to any orthodox form of Government ".
In reality, there existed a duality of power.
Where their routine administrative work was concerned, the British and
French District Agents did more or less as they saw fit.
Each had his own clientele. In
the case of the British District Agents, this was made up of the inhabitants of
either Presbyterian or Anglican villages, according to geographical location,
upon whom their clergy often imposed a strict discipline, which left little room
for manoeuvre to the representatives of the Crown.
The French District Agents tried to have good relations with everybody,
but had more success with people belonging to the Catholic Church, and those
villagers whose fierce attachment to custom enabled them to resist successfully
any kind of religious proselytising.
The clientele of the British District Agents was
described as "anglophone", and that of the French District Agents as
" francophone" - with some exaggeration, since, with the exception of
the children who attended village schools, I never heard people in either
category speak any language other than Bichelamar. The linguistic divide, which was deplored by some people, but
appreciated by others, never existed at village level.
Nor did the political divide, because the people in each category had
plenty of contact with each other. Moreover,
if one or other district agent refused - which did not happen very often -
something that one of his "parishioners" had asked for, the latter
would rush over to " the shop across the street", where the other
district agent would immediately grant what he wanted, whilst deploring sotto
voce his colleague's small-minded and niggardly attitude.
The indigenous people were subjected to no kind
of obligation or constraint from either side; they paid no taxes, were not
required to do military service, or carry out forced labour, and they had free
access - except sometimes on the British side - to schools, dispensaries and
hospitals. This system, based not on rivalry but on competition for influence,
lasted for almost 74 years, from 1906 to 1980, to the great advantage of the
indigenous population. One might
ask why they wished to bring it to an end, since everything in the Group was for
the best. Hunger was unknown, since
the fertile soils produce an abundance of subsistence crops, and bilateral or
European Community aid compensated for fluctuations in the price of copra, the
principal cash crop, and on Santo, cattle breeding, based on Charolais bulls
imported from France by French planters, was becoming important.
At a higher level, the Resident Commissioners
were concerned less with fostering a clientele than with the administration of
the Melanesian community as a whole, by taking joint decisions giving effect to
their agreed objectives. This
process was not always an easy one, since these decisions had to be prepared by
administrative or technical departments, headed by either British or French
civil servants. In addition to the
cultural differences, there were also sometimes clashes of personality,
diverging objectives, or even ulterior motives, between the representatives of
the Crown and the Republic. Nevertheless,
apart from the weeks immediately preceding independence, when tensions created
by events arose between the two Residencies, there were never fundamental
conflicts. When points of view
diverged, there was a great deal of discussion, usually of an amicable nature,
and we ended up reaching agreement on the course which would be most favourable
to our people, because the welfare and the improvement in the living conditions
of the indigenous inhabitants of the country were always, throughout the
Condominium period, the principal concern of the British and French
They usually worked cordially together to achieve
this end. To assert that " the
territory was still living in the age of Fashoda, and that the Entente Cordiale
was considered a betrayal" was purely a journalistic invention.
As John Champion said:
" In the face of the problems and frustrations we share in common, working relations between the two Residencies are close on terms of real personal friendship. This is one of the most agreeable aspects of the job."
It was thus, for example, that the two Administrations
jointly strained their ingenuity in an endeavour to resolve the thorny land
problem. Land disputes were of
particular concern to the French Residency, because of the importance of French
When the Condominium was created, the French owned the
greater part of the alienated land. A
public company, the Société Française des Nouvelles Hebrides (SFNH)
controlled vast areas, which had been transferred to the French State at the
beginning of the century by an Englishman, John Higginson, who had purchased
them between 1882 and 1885. SFNH
had undertaken to return to the custom owners the land, which it was not
cultivating, but difficulties in identifying the latter made the process a very
Yet the British also worked assiduously to find satisfactory solutions in a situation impassioned by the radical demands of the political parties and the local custom movements pressing for the restitution of all alienated land. The Condominium even envisaged jointly financed re-purchase from planters of land, which had been legally registered, but not developed, or was essential to the subsistence of neighbouring villages. British and French experts produced elaborate compromises, and even thought, as our British friends put it, "to sugar the pill" in the hope that it would be swallowed by both sides. However, in the final analysis, no one was prepared to swallow anything, and Article 71 of the future Constitution finally ended all disputes by providing for the return to the indigenous custom owners and their descendants of all alienated land, whether registered or not. It was the only possible solution, given the relationship between the Melanesians and the land, which nurtured them. Indeed, a French naval officer, who witnessed the advent of the first settlers, wrote on the 11th April,1886:
" No kanaka ever sells land with the intention of dispossessing himself of it. He is merely selling the right to buy on this land, coconuts and other produce of the soil. Thus ownership by the supposed purchaser is a mere fiction".
The establishment of a good understanding
(between the Residencies) was made all the easier by the fact that London and
Paris (but not Canberra) did not really care what happened in the islands
situated at the end of the world, and only took interest in them when they were
taken by surprise, by the outbreak of disorder, which preceded Independence.
This worried them, and led them to taking uncoordinated and often
When it became obvious after the Second World
War, and especially after the independence of Papua New Guinea in 1975 and the
Solomons in 1978, that the constitutional status of the New Hebrides, which had
remained unchanged since 1906, would have to evolve, the two tutelary powers
reacted in different ways. For the
French, it was necessary to ensure that this evolution did not orientate New
Caledonia in an undesirable direction, secondly that it did not adversely affect
the rights of French settlers over their land, and thirdly that the French
language should not decline in a geographical area where English predominated.
Thus, it was considered that political advance should be cautious, and
based on the principle that independence should be carefully prepared, and
preceded by a probationary period, during which the future leaders should
demonstrate their ability to run the country. This preparatory period should
begin with the granting of continually widening self-government until a point
had been reached when functions so transferred amounted to de
facto sovereignty, which would then be made de
jure, this last step being preferably preceded by the adoption of a
constitution, again preferably a democratic one, guaranteeing the rights of
minorities. It was felt desirable
that this political emancipation should, moreover, be accompanied by a
co-operation agreement, providing for a special relationship between the former
Colonial power and the newly independent state.
The United Kingdom, on the other hand, appeared to
envisage a simpler and speedier process. It
had no settlers to protect, few economic interests to preserve, and could rely
on its cultural and political influence being maintained through the hold of the
Presbyterian and Anglican Missions over the majority of the population, the
proximity of Australia ready to assume the succession, and lastly, the inclusion
of the Group in the Commonwealth. Thus,
everything could go very quickly - it would suffice to convene a constitutional
committee, composed of the political and ethnic leaders of the country, sitting
with representatives of all shades of opinion.
This committee would have full responsibility for the drafting of a
constitution, which would then be brought into force by an Assembly elected by
universal suffrage. In the
meantime, the two protecting powers would have withdrawn "on tiptoe".
This was precisely the kind of accelerated procedure, which France did
not want, fearing she would have no say in the choice of final constitutional
It was inevitable that there would be clashes between
these two different approaches. They
did occur, but representatives of the two nations in charge locally succeeded,
almost up to the finishing line, in conducting the march towards independence at
a pace, which was a compromise between the two policies.
Unfortunately, the two administrations had not the
field to themselves. There were
also the opposing political parties, which, because they were opposing,
sheltered under the umbrella of one or other of the two Condominium Powers, but
without necessarily heeding the advice, which they received from the latter's
The most structured, and the one which knew best
where it wished to go, and how to get there, was the Vanuaku Party (originally
called the National Party). The
greater part of the membership of this party, which had religious and cultural
origins, was provided by the supposedly anglophone Presbyterian and Anglican
villages. The Vanuaku Party was
well organised; it was present everywhere and had very efficient
"commissars" in the islands. Its
leaders had very often been educated at the University of the South Pacific in
Suva, Fiji, which at that time was training the leaders of the South Pacific
States and was instructing those whose countries were not yet independent, in
the techniques of gaining power, either by persuasion or revolution. The Vanuaku Party demanded immediate independence, but above
all - and this constituted its main attraction in the eyes of the indigenous
population - it promised the return to the villagers of all alienated land.
As the majority of those owning land were French, the Vanuaku Party was
markedly anti-French in tone.
Confronting this monolithic force was a heterogeneous
grouping of custom movements - Nagriamel on Santo, Kapiel on Tanna, Natotok etc.
- and the so-called political parties, themselves divided into various factions
(UCNH, MANH, Tabwemasama, Fren Melanesian, etc).
They were collectively called the "Moderates", but not all of
them in fact were. Their clientele
consisted of the villages, which had resisted conversion to Christianity and of
those attached to the Catholic Mission, or which had French schools.
The former were fiercely opposed to any kind of centralised
administrative structure, and wanted wide powers of self-government for the
islands in any future New Hebrides state. They
wanted to run their own affairs among themselves.
In the second category, there were many who thought on national lines,
and wanted a unitary state, based on very wide popular participation in
Government, but all distrusted the totalitarian tendencies of the Vanuaku Party,
and this made a dialogue between them difficult.
Given this difficult context, the preparation of
a constitution for the future state of Vanuatu provided another example of the
efficacy of the two administrations, when they were working towards a common
objective. The French point of view
on the preparation and adoption of a constitution before independence had
prevailed, in spite of the opposition of the Vanuaku Party.
A constitutional committee, composed of representatives of the political
parties, and also of the custom chiefs, representatives of the Churches,
and of village communities, succeeded, with the help of two experts in
constitutional law (Professors Yash Ghai and Zorgbibe), and after bitter
arguments, in reaching agreement on the 5th October 1979, on the fundamental
charter of the future State.
Because of the prevailing political climate,
Anglo-French collaboration was not always harmonious, but it succeeded, up to
the end of the Condominium, in avoiding the worst, i.e. a confrontation between
Melanesians espousing different ideologies.
Indeed, between 29th August 1975, the date of the Exchange of Notes
between the British and French Governments providing for the establishment of a
Representative Assembly, and the 19th August 1980, the date of departure of the
joint military force which had come to restore order on the island of Santo,
opportunities for internal conflict were not lacking.
First of all, there was the blocking by the disaffected
Vanuaku Party of the operation of the first Assembly, which was elected by
various separate electoral colleges - British, French, Melanesian, the chiefs
and economic interests - because it did not have a majority therein.
Then in 1977, the Vanuaku Party boycotted the second Assembly, although
it was elected by universal suffrage on a common electoral role, because its
demand for the minimum voting age to be lowered to 18 had not been accepted.
Being absent from the Assembly, the Vanuaku Party then
set up its " People's Provisional Government", which controlled areas
in the islands where its adherents were in the majority.
These areas were excluded from the authority of the legal Government, and
the latter's representatives were denied access to them, and its legislation was
not enforced. It was, in effect, a
secession. George Kalsakau, the
English-speaking Chief Minister of the legal Government, which was based on the
Representative Assembly, did not react to this situation.
This would have in any case been difficult for him, since the police
forces were under the control of the two Residencies, which were disinclined to
enter into a confrontation with a
section of the population. Providing
thus yet another example of their close co-operation, they chose rather to
initiate negotiations, which resulted, in December 1978, in the establishment of
a Government of National Unity, half the Ministers of which were
"Moderates" and half Vanuaku Party, headed by a francophone priest,
Gerard Leymang. The latter was
politically astute, but lacked strength of character. His preoccupation with maintaining a strict balance between
the two wings of his Government condemned it to inaction.
This concern for consensus was not shared by Walter Lini, who was installed as Chief Minister after his party's victory in the election of 14th November 1979 over the "Moderates", who were as usual divided between rival factions, and also between those who came from the North, Centre and South of the Group. Lini, an Anglican priest, formed a one-party Government, and aroused considerable apprehension among the Francophones, both by his refusal to enter any dialogue with the parliamentary opposition and by ill-conceived or sectarian actions, such as the appointment or dismissal of public servants because of their political allegiance, by calling into question the principle of bilingualism and the teaching of French, together with a very restricted interpretation of the Constitution by emphasising centralisation at the expense of regional autonomy.
It was mainly this refusal to implement Article 42 of the Constitution, and to give full effect to Article 94, which provided for the preparation of a law defining the functions, once they had been elected, of the Regional Councils for Santo and Tanna, which was the cause of the deterioration of the political climate that preceded the proclamation of independence. This had been fixed for the 30th July 1980, and was also the origin of the secessionist movement on Santo and Tanna.
The indigenous inhabitants of Tanna have always been
opposed to the central government in Port Vila, whichever one it was.
In this southern island the forests are
intermingled with ash plains, where troops of wild horses roam in the
shadow of a sacred volcano, named Yasur. There
are no plantations or settlers, but only mystic adherents of the John Frum
movement, the last representative of a cargo cult, which has disappeared
everywhere else in Melanesia. They
reject the ways of the white men, together with all forms of western life and
thought. For them, independence, decentralisation, national identity
and political pluralism, etc. are meaningless concepts. On the other hand, their jealous attachment to their own
particular kind of custom causes them to oppose everything, which seems contrary
to their idea of the world, but their world is not ours.
They have only wooden muskets and swords, and are incapable of organising
any kind of resistance.
It is true that, in a fit of anger, they abducted the
local representative of the Vanuaku Party Government, only to release him
shortly afterwards. Nonetheless, everything would have ended well if the
French-speaking member of Parliament for Tanna, who was of their persuasion, had
not been shot at Isangel on the night of 10th/11th June, 1980, by Vanuaku Party
militiamen during a skirmish, which resulted in several people being wounded,
under the eyes of the British Police, who did not intervene.
Alexis Iolu had studied at tertiary level in France and
his abilities should have enabled him to play a prominent part in the history of
his country. His murder gave rise
to unanimous condemnation. The
refusal of the Public Prosecutor, Graham Mackay, an Englishman, to prosecute
those responsible on grounds of insufficient evidence, unleashed the fury of the
dead man's friends, and the custom people of Tanna.
Faced with denial of justice in a country where the lex
talionis had not yet completely disappeared, some people thought that, in
order to redress the balance, a leading member of the Vanuaku Party, and
preferably a Presbyterian, should be sacrificed.
Being then in charge of the French Residency, I succeeded, but ......
very reluctantly, in persuading them to abandon their project.
A Requiem Mass was celebrated in Port Vila to the
memory of poor Alexis in the presence of a great number of people.
My British colleague attended this Mass and was at pains to let me know
that he was in no way responsible for Public Prosecutor Mackay's refusal to
prosecute, since the latter, because of the principle of the separation of
powers, was not under his authority.
Santo was a thornier case. The island was the largest and richest. The settlers were worried, because they were afraid that
their land would be taken from them by a Vanuaku Party Government.
They hoped that a local authority, endowed with wide powers, could
guarantee them against any kind of dispossession, and would make it easier for
them to attract the external investment required to improve the infrastructure
of the islands, and to develop their properties. Walter Lini's determination to
oppose this decentralisation, despite its being written into the Constitution,
inevitably led them to oppose his Government.
A second adversary confronted the central Government in
the person of a local leader, named Jimmy Stephens, who was an English-speaking
half-caste, and the guru of the Nagriamel movement, which had originally been
founded to oppose the swallowing up of land by foreigners.
Stephens hoped to head a local executive, which would have jurisdiction
over all the islands in the North of the Group, in a framework of a region,
which would have maintained only very loose ties with Port Vila.
He planned to have recourse to American capital, in order to carry out
projects from which he hoped to extract a substantial personal profit.
His revolt could not fail to appeal to the French
settlers in particular, amongst whom some wanted to go much further. They wanted
to obtain the separation of Santo from the future state of Vanuatu, so that this
island could maintain a privileged relationship with France, as had been
possible for the island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, which had detached
itself from the Comoros Islands State. These
people were quite ready to lend their active support to Jimmy Stephen's
rebellion. Unfortunately for them,
they did not realise that the situation was not the same.
On Mayotte, the whole of the indigenous population was favourable to
separation from the Comoros, but in spite of that, France displayed considerable
reticence, and waited several years before welcoming this island into the
Republic. On Santo, in the 1979
election, half of the population had voted for the Vanuaku Party, and this half
was fiercely opposed to Nagriamel, and to any form of secession.
In these circumstances, the French Residency found
itself on a knife edge; the French Government,
indeed, considered that decentralisation was necessary, not so much to favour
the interests of the settlers - on Santo or elsewhere - as to promote the
development of the various parts of the Archipelago, in the context of the
co-operation agreements, that it was preparing to sign with Walter Lini.
Disastrous experience in Africa had taught it that the
closer the provider of the money was to the beneficiary, and the less
intermediaries there were at the level at which the projects were to be carried
out, the greater would be the chances of seeing the funds devoted to the
purposes for which they were allocated and spent in a proper manner.
The Santo dissidents could thus count on support from France in trying to
move the Vanuaku Party Government on the question of decentralisation and of
obtaining the establishment of a local executive endowed with effective powers,
but not on her support for an attempt on secession.
This was what certain people either did not understand, or did not want
The situation on Santo deteriorated rapidly.
Jimmy Stephens expelled the representatives of the legal Government,
caused his "warriors" to occupy Luganville, the main urban centre on
the island, and proclaimed the birth of an independent State - Vemerana.
This attempted secession caused a stir in the
surrounding region. The Melanesian
countries immediately gave their support to Walter Lini.
Australia, which for more than a century had actively tried to prevent
France, already guilty of having installed herself in New Caledonia, from
extending her influence in the South Pacific, fanned the flames.
British Commonwealth countries became agitated, and even the Soviet
"Pravda" heaped insults on the French colonialists and associated
British imperialists with them. In
order to extricate themselves from this impasse, London and Paris decided to use
both the carrot and the stick. London
sent out Marines, and Paris Paratroopers, and a blockade of Santo was organised. Emissaries full of good intentions and expert in maieutics
also came out from the two capitals, and attempted to restore contacts between
the dissidents and the legal Government. I
remember the night of 27th/28th July, the whole of which I spent in Jimmy
Stephens' house at Vanafo, trying to persuade him to accompany me the following
day to Port Vila, so as to be present at the celebration of independence.
I assured him that Walter Lini and his Government would receive him as a
brother, and that negotiations on the status of Santo could be resumed in a more
relaxed atmosphere. I almost
succeeded - the old chief was wavering. Unfortunately
at dawn, one of his European advisers came on the scene, and opposed his
departure, causing him to change his mind.
All I could do was to return to Port Vila, exhausted
and deafened by the noise of the helicopter, which had transported me, and not
feeling very pleased with myself. In
the afternoon, I made my farewells to my staff, to numerous French people, and
to Melanesians, amongst whom some belonged to the Vanuaku Party, who came to pay
their respects. In the evening, on
the French Residency lawn, in the presence of M. Olivier Stirn, Minister of
State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who had come out to represent the
French Government at the Independence ceremonies, the Tricolour was ceremonially
lowered by a Gendarmerie officer, attended by a Guard of Honour, and watched by
a meditative gathering of French ressortissants
and friends of the French Residency from all communities.
On the following day the Condominium actors would leave the stage.
The play was over. It had
lasted for seventy-four years.
It was not, however, over for everybody.
The obduracy of the Santo secessionists was to cost them dear.
After the departure from Santo of the French military detachment on the
18th August 1980, a large contingent of troops from Papua New Guinea, officered
by Australians, and transported in Australian aircraft, which had been requested
by Prime Minister Walter Lini, arrived on the island.
Stephens was arrested and sentenced to fourteen years in gaol. His "warriors", who put up no resistance, were also
sentenced to long prison terms, the majority after being ill treated.
As for the colons, whether or not they had sympathised with the rebellion, they
were deported and lost all their property. Many took refuge in New Caledonia.
The extortions and brutalities would no doubt have
continued if, following the arrest on Malakula of a Catholic priest, they had
not been moderated in the first place by the protest of the Apostolic Nuncio in
Wellington, and secondly by the severe admonishment addressed to Walter Lini's
Government by the Council of Churches. This had all the more repercussions in
the heavily Christianised neighbouring island groups, because the Government was
composed of clergymen, i.e. Anglican priests and Presbyterian pastors.
In the meantime, on 30th July 1980, Vanuatu had become
independent. France could no longer
intervene without exposing herself to severe international criticism.
Being anxious to safeguard its future position, the French Government
contented itself with mild protests, and with compensating - even more mildly -
The punitive expedition restored at least superficial
unity to the country, but the imprisonment and ill treatment of individuals, the
acts of extortion, and the settling of old scores created bitterness and
resentment, even in communities, which had remained neutral during the conflict.
Hostile reactions prevented the Vanuaku Party from extending its
influence in the way in which its political victory, its long struggle for
independence and the return of land could have given it reason to expect.
Unlike what happened in many countries after de-colonisation, the Vanuaku
Party did not become the sole party. The
continuing existence of an opposition, still divided but often determined, has
enabled a kind of democracy to emerge in Vanuatu.
Twenty years have elapsed. Political,
religious and cultural tensions between the various communities have become less
acute, but one still sees strange things happening, as if Vanuatu were different
from other countries. Many of the
protagonists in the events, which preceded and followed independence, have
disappeared. Jimmy Stephens, the
symbol of the Santo rebellion, is dead. In
1991, after eleven years of detention, he was released from prison, having paid
a custom fine of twenty circle-tusked pigs.
To celebrate his return, his village of Vanafo organised a great custom
feast, in which participated his Nagriamel followers, his political friends
among the "moderate" parties, together with George Sokomanu, the first
President of Vanuatu, Walter Lini, the Prime Minister, who had had Stephens
arrested and imprisoned, and other Vanuaku Party leaders, who were his
irreconcilable opponents. According
to the journalists, who were present at this reunion, all these personages wept
with emotion while drinking the traditional kava.
Since that time, Walter Lini has also left the scene.
It is perhaps surprising that it should have been
French lawyers from New Caledonia who initially defended George Sokomanu, then
President of the Republic after he had been arrested and prosecuted for having
allegedly illegally dissolved the Parliament of Vanuatu.
Even more surprisingly, the lawyers' fees were paid with money collected
in Noumea by various Europeans, who had been involved in the Santo secession.
The consequences of the Santo rebellion have become
much attenuated, especially since those
who had been exiled were allowed to return to Vanuatu.
If the economy is generally healthy, with inflation
under control, imports and exports in balance, and satisfactory foreign currency
reserves, it is thanks to substantial external aid from the two countries, which
have maintained with it special ties for historical reasons, and through
self-interest, i.e. Australia and France. Australia has always considered these islands as falling
within its sphere of influence; she has taken over the inheritance from Great
Britain and her technical assistance personnel are involved, particularly in the
financial, judicial and security sectors. France
is present in agriculture, health, telecommunications, and the distribution of
water and electricity. Satisfactory
relations have been established with New Caledonia; the Vanuatu Government no
longer involves itself in the debate on the future of this territory.
It declined to associate itself with the United Nations resolution
condemning the last series of French nuclear tests.
Neither France nor Australia, which have more or less the same level of
financial commitments in the country, contemplate reviving the Condominium. On the contrary, they are concerned to ensure, through a
harmonious co-habitation, the permanent presence of the western world, at a time
when Europe, like America, is tending to disengage from this area of the South
Pacific, and its island groups, which have only limited economic interest, and
have lost, since the end of the Second World War, all strategic importance.
As often happens in countries undergoing their
democratic apprenticeship, a consequence of independence has been the breaking
up of the traditional political parties. This fragmentation has brought about,
in the place of the monolithic confrontations of the past, a rapprochement
between groups from different political and linguistic backgrounds, which
circumstances have caused to work together. As a result, since 1991, Vanuatu
Governments – however precarious some may have been – have all been composed
of both francophones and anglophones, collaborating in a spirit of tolerance
worthy of emulation by other countries in the South Pacific, and elsewhere.
J.S. Champion was accustomed to say that de-colonisation
was much closer to being an art than a science.
He remarked that, in the New Hebrides, Great Britain and France were like
two elderly artists, seated in front of the same canvas in order to work -
without many illusions - on the same picture, each using his own technique, but
without ever losing sight of the principal subject of the painting, however
ill-defined its outline or uncertain its perspective.
He added that this joint work was carried out "fairly amicably”.
If Vanuatu has become a State, and perhaps even a
nation, it is doubtless due to this collaboration, which may have been at times
imperfect, but was always friendly.