British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by David Browning
The Volcano
Ambrym's Volcanoes
The review of Barry Weightman's book Nowhere Near Greenland reminds me of an episode in the New Hebrides in 1974 when I was a British District Agent and Barry the Agricultural Officer. I had been on leave and had come back to the District Office in Lakatoro on Malekula with a new wife straight from the UN in New York.

There being no telephone in those days we had radio 'skeds' with the other islands, normally at about 0800. On my first morning back, which happened to be 1 April, Barry came on the air to say that he was on tour in Ambrym, a volcanic island some 50 miles south-east of Lakatoro. The main news he had to give me was that someone had put a spell on one of the volcanoes and that the people were leaving the island on their canoes because the volcano was going to erupt, as it had done in 1902 killing several hundred people. They clearly did not want to be caught the same way.

Now Barry, among his many talents, was a master of practical jokes. I had been in Malekula with him the previous year and knew this well so I said "Come off it Barry, it's April Fools Day and you won't get me going all the way to Ambrym on a wild goose chase". It took some time for him to persuade me that there was indeed a problem. So, leaving my new wife in tears on the wharf in the middle of a mangrove swamp, I took off in the launch with a police sergeant and a constable to investigate.

On arrival in Ambrym several hours later I was told by villagers that they were afraid of the rumours that the volcano was going to erupt and destroy their villages and kill many people. Could the Kapman (Government) give them a ship to leave the island. I promised I would find out what was going on and assured them that there was no such thing as a spell to blow up volcanoes. I then went inland and climbed up to the village of the chief whose name was Tofor who was said to behind all this.

The Volcano
Motor Launch
Well, Tofor had had his differences with the Kapman before and had seen my launch coming and taken off into the bush. No point in only three of us searching thick jungle so we returned to the launch, spent the night on board and tried again the following morning. No luck again so we returned to Lakatoro.

Many people believe that in the Anglo-French Condominium there was little cooperation between the French and the British. Now was the time to see if this was true so, on landing, I immediately went to see my French colleague Lecuyer at the French station at Norsup and told him my story. He expressed understanding of my frustration but did not propose a solution.

Some days later I received a message from Tofor in Ambrym saying that he wanted to talk to me but he did not want to talk to the French. I went to see Lecuyer and he told me that he had received a similar message - no British. We agreed that Tofor was probably trying to play us off against each other so we agreed to go together, this time on a French vessel.

The Volcano
Volcanic Activity
A few days later off we went on board the Aquitaine with a gendarme as leader of a joint Anglo/French police patrol. On arrival at the anchorage we sent the patrol ashore with instructions to bring Tofor to us to explain what was going on. An hour or two later the gendarme reported back on board to say that Tofor had agreed to come down but had escaped. My sergeant had another story. Tofor had been willing to come down so the gendarme had put himself at the head of the victorious patrol followed by his miliciens followed by the British police with Tofor bringing up the rear. He had spotted his chance to escape and taken it. Once again no point in searching the jungle; once again the attempt at 'jointery' failed and we returned to Malekula disappointed. And the local population continued to leave the island. But one thing that my sergeant had discovered was the nature of the spell over the volcano and this reassured me that no eruption was likely. He explained that Tofor had dug a hole in the ground near the volcano and put a green coconut at the bottom. After putting a layer of earth on top of the coconut he had planted a black taro, an inedible plant. When the roots of the taro reached the coconut there would be an explosion which would cause the volcano to erupt. It was said that Tofor's father had caused the eruption in 1902 by the same means.

After our return to Malekula we clearly could not be seen to be doing nothing so a more serious police expedition was planned, this time headed by the British police with no gendarme. A dawn raid on Tofor's village resulted in his arrest. But whose prison was he to stay in? We gave him the option and he chose the French one at Norsup which was near the French District Agent's house because the food was known to be better in the French 'kalaboos'. Very soon the FDA was complaining that he was screaming all night and keeping the whole station awake. I declined a request to transfer him to Lakatoro.

I was not to see the end of this saga because I was due to get my own district in Tanna and moved shortly after this affair. Eventually Tofor was given an 18 month sentence. The people of Ambrym realized that they had been fooled and settled down to their normal lives under the shadow of the volcano.

Was Tofor, like Barry, a master of practical jokes? We shall never know, but his probably had more malice in them than Barry's.

Africa Map
1943 Map of New Hebrides
Colony Profile
New Hebrides
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 102: October 2011


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