late nineteenth century, planters as well as missionaries began to colonise
the islands that had become known as the New Hebrides. English Men o'
War patrolled the waters irregularly, to safeguard settlers and monitor
the sandalwood trade. In 1875 Tannese settlers, mostly Catholic, wrote
to the French government suggesting that the islands be annexed by the
(Catholic) French Government. In 1876, planters in Efate sent an identical
submission. Presbyterian missionaries saw this as a threat and promptly
waged a press campaign in Australia and England, for the New Hebrides
to be annexed by the British.
The French and British governments sent each other assurances that neither
wishes to annex the islands. Ten years passed while French planters bought
up almost all the useable land in an effort to take economically what
they could not yet control politically. Meanwhile the Presbyterians continued
their campaign with even more vigor. Finally, France suggested to Britain
that it would exchange any English claims to the French claimed Leeward
Islands and Newfoundland, in exchange for the New Hebrides. Britain did
not agree and things stood at an impasse.
However, between 1882 and 1886 around twenty Europeans were killed by
local villagers. Clearly, in the eyes of France, the English Men o' War
were unable to maintain peace. France sent a detachments of troops from
New Caledonia, to set up stations in Port Havannah, North Efate Island
and Port Sandwich on Malekula.
This Joint Naval Commission proved reasonably effective in maintaining
order until France and English began playing serious political footsies
with the New Hebrides. Each in turn sent consuls, High Commissioners and
Governors to assume some sort of control of the islands. Each began a
game of one-upmanship that finally, in 1906, resulted in the necessity
for some form of agreement. Finally, a joint agreement to rule was invoked.
It was called the Condominium. In most circles it was soon to become know
as Pandemonium and was probably the single most inappropriate form of
rule any group of peoples had to live under.
The New Hebrides Condominium comprised of a joint court ruled over by
a Spanish judge who spoke neither French nor English, a Dutch registrar
and completely dual functioning bureaucracies. In real terms it meant
passing through two sets of Customs on arrival, dealing with two law systems
based on quite different principles, two jails (the French served wine),
two hospitals, two....well, two of everything. It was grossly inefficient,
incredibly costly in Bureaucratic terms and totally ridiculous in the
eyes of the world. Towards the end of it's life, Vanuatu was effectively
ruled by the head's of state of Britain and France, the British Queen
and the French President. Issues were so confused that many ni-Vanuatu
believed the two were married , but because of the varying ups and downs
in the relationship, the pair lived apart, separated by the English Channel
and a lot of arguing. This explained the conflicts and inconsistencies
in the relationships - or lack of - between the French Consuls and British
High Commissioners, and in the tragicomedy of errors running the New Hebrides.
Tenacity can be surprisingly effective, however, and it was just this
that, despite logical predictions the Condominium would last less than
10 years, kept the New Hebrides in this state of confused flux for the
next 74 years. It might have continued to this day, except perhaps for
these seeds of contention brought about by WWII.
WORLD WAR II During the Time of Our Play
With the fall of France in W.W. II. the French side of the Condominium
were, from the Vichy point of view, technically at war with the other
half - Britain. Back in France, when World War II came, the German
First Panzer Army used Gaullist tactics against France, and sent the country
down, and Charles de Gaulle managed to flee to Britain, where he started
and commanded the Free French Movement, putting a death warrent
on his head by the German occupation. He fought with the allies
during this time, commanding the French to victory. In 1940, the French
population of the New Hebrides immediately declared their support for
General De Gaulle's Free French Forces. In fact they were the first of France's
Pacific colonies to do so.
In Michener's book, "Tales of the South Pacific", Emile de Becque
is a De Gaulist, and is actively involved in resistence against
the Japanese. He has nothing nice to say about De Gaul himself,
but what he stands for, that is 'is a different matter".... Freedom
from Tyranny... a strong motivational aspect of his character in the play.)
the only time in the life of the Condominium, the French and British were
not at complete odds with one other.
With France under German rule, the French Ambassador was placed in a difficult
position with no support structure in terms of a properly functioning
French government. But concerns over such matters were overshadowed by
the fast approaching Japanese forces.
In early 1942, the Japanese reached the nearby Solomon Islands and New Guinea, intent on invading New Zealand and Australia. The
New Hebridean's lived in real fear that they would be next. The Americans,
however, arrived first, totally unannounced, in May 1942.
It is a sight that can only be imagined; to wake up and glance out in
the dawn light to the vast expanse of Mele Bay - filled with warships.
A good number of the Vila population fled into the hills in the belief
that the Japanese had arrived. It took some time to convince everyone
otherwise, but the stealthy nature of the American arrival was imperative
in its defensive strategy against the the seemingly unbeatable Japanese.
Being inherently rather brash, and being at war, the Americans simply
Took Over. They built an entire infrastructure to support their introduced
military population and the necessary equipment to wage a counter offensive.
They brought in tens of thousands of tons of machinery, built barracks
and hospitals, a road around the entire island, airstrips and wharves,
all with the totally efficient lightening speed typical of the Seabees
and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, albeit in a desperate need to push back
the Japanese. Regardless of the reasons, it left the foot shuffling beurocracies
of France and Britain in shame for all they had not done for the islands.
In Espiritu Santo, 100,000 troops arrived in short order, doubling the
population of the country almost overnight. And throughout the islands
an interesting social phenomena took place. Indigenous New Hebrideans
were astounded at the apparent equality with which black and white military
personnel were treated. And when these New Hebridean natives went to work
for the Americans, they received respect and wages far in excess to anything
they had ever experienced before. The typically generous Americans would
also look at the native New Hebridean living conditions and give them
clothes and beds, ice boxes and furniture, - all requisitioned from the
The early 1940's were Halcyon years for the native New Hebrideans. Vanuatu
was attacked only once by a Japanese plane (that was shot down), resulting
in but one casualty on Santo - Besse the cow. Thus they never experienced
the horrors of Japanese occupied New Guinea or Solomon Islands. They saw
only fair treatment, better living conditions, modern medical aid, economic
growth and a vast expansion of facilities, many of which are still in
use with only minimal upgrading, fifty six years later.