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  • William Tyler

New Hebrides/Vanuatu: Condominium, Cargo Cult, & Coconut War

Vanuatu achieved independence from France and Britain in 1980. It had previously been known as The New Hebrides, a name bestowed on this collection of Pacific Islands by Captain James Cook in 1774.


From 1906 through to independence the islands had been ruled as a condominium by France and Britain; that is it was ruled jointly. The islands were not divided between the two European Powers and the French looked after their own European nationals, and the British theirs.


The islands, consisting of thirteen main islands and numerous smaller ones lies some 1800km east of Australia and about 800km from Fiji.


The Condominium was a very odd affair which some critics referred to as The Pandemonium. There were separate French and British administrations, including police, laws, schools, health services, prison systems, and even currencies. The indigenous islanders could choose under which Administration they wished to be governed. Further confusion was the dual use of the French and English languages, plus the indigenous languages of the islands. One joint initiative was a Joint Court whose President was appointed by The King of Spain until the position was abolished in 1939 - there was by then no King of Spain to make a new appointment!


A Cargo Cult was established in the islands in the 1930s. A phenomenon seen across the Pacific islands the cults revolved around a belief that cargo (material goods) would be dropped from the air if the islanders performed certain rituals. The cults really took off during and after The Second World War, when first the Japanese then the Allies dropped supplies by air. The earliest recorded cult comes from Fiji in 1885. In The New Hebrides the cult worshipped a mythical American called John Frum, whom they believed would organise cargo drops for them. The cult on one The New Hebrides island took a very weird turn sometime in the 1950s when they began to worship Prince Philip as a God!


As islanders' demand for independence grew in the 1970s, tensions and divisions between France and Britain began to emerge, as both sides accused the other of attempting to maintain control after independence. This escalated to the point that in June 1980 an islander called Jimmy Stevens led a conservative cargo cult movement which declared the island of Espiritu Santo independent, with himself as Prime Minister. Stevens was part Melanesian, part European, and part Polynesian. Stevens was backed by France, who did indeed secretly wish to keep control of the islands (Britain did not), and by an American business operation, who sought to build a casino on Espiritu Santo. The Government of Vanuatu asked both France and Britain for help to crush the rebellion so as independence could take place in a calm and peaceful manner on 30th July.


The World Press now coined the phrase 'Coconut War'. No practical help came either from France or Britain, although both countries sent troops So the Vanuatu Government turned to Papua New Guinea for help. They duly sent troops. The 'war' was soon over as Stevens' rebels were armed only with sticks, bows and arrows, and rocks. Few people were injured but Stevens' son was killed when he tried to burst through a Papuan New Guinea roadblock. It was all over before it had really begun and independence day came without a hitch. Stevens was imprisoned and died in prison in 1991.


One odd story is that shortly before Independence Day dawned the Vanuatu Government asked both France and Britain to withdraw their troops prior to independence. The British Resident Commissioner, Andrew Stuart, did not do so as he claimed to have mislaid his reading glasses and hadn't read the letter until it was too late. Eventually the Royal Marines withdrew three weeks after independence handing over security to the Papua New Guineans.


Today, Vanuatu remains a member of The Commonwealth and was one of the first countries in the world to ban single use plastic bags. The spirit of Britannia lives on!



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