British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by R. E. N. Smith

Joint Traveller

I served in the New Hebrides Condominium from 1961-7, most of the time as British District Agent for Central District Number one. Since the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) is an archipelago of many islands, and since air travel was only just coming to them, most travel was necessarily by sea. To me, a native of an inland county in Britain, and a newcomer from an eleven year sojourn in a landlocked Nyasaland, the sea was a new experience, and one to be savoured to the full. There were numerous ships plying the New Hebrides waters, including the Messageries Maritimes Polynesie of happy memory, several trading ships, the British and French National Service vessels and finally the Condominium Joint Administration's own two touring ships, Rocinante and her newer rival, Navaka. The odd name of the former is due to her having been an intended companion to the Don Quichotte, a handsome almost yacht, which had proved a little fragile for the often turbulent waters of the group, and had been sold.

On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog
MS Polynesie
These two little ships, neither much over forty feet long, were extremely active and hard worked, not only taking the French and British District Agents about their duties, but also carrying departmental officers and various official visitors on theirs and in addition finding room for a modest amount of government cargo. Though the two worked at the same duties, they were considerably different, the one from the other, not only in design, but in style. The Roginante was not in her first youth and arrangements aboard were a little on the spartan side. The only accommodation for Condominium officers and their staff was a single cabin at the stem, about ten feet wide and long, containing five bunks, no cupboards, and a bottle-gas domestic refrigerator whose fumes discharged at the level of an upper bunk - making it necessary for you to be careful which way your head lay. The dining area was just outside and consisted of a single bench the width of the ship with a table in front of it. The captain slept in the wheelhouse/bridge, and the "deck" passengers dossed down anywhere free from cargo or other clutter.

On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog
New Hebrides Postcard
Navaka was fresh from her Australian builders, but had had an unusual problem on her trials. While she answered her helm well in one direction, on the other she did not. Her captain (Jack Barley) investigated and discovered that one of the steering arms fetched up against a traverse beam. In the carefree way of the time, a chunk was cut out of the beam, and the trials proceeded satisfactorily. She was slightly better provided for in accommodation than her rival, for she had a small dining saloon (with sleeping accommodation of sorts) but the one "First Class" cabin was no more than about seven feet by five, so that with two hunks in it, you had great difficulty in dressing or undressing!

The style depended on the two captains; in true Condominial fashion one was French and the other British. Captain Guenet was a jolly Breton ex-naval boatswain and in true French manner he was also the cook; his speciality was fish, fresh from the sea, for wherever you went there were lines trailing astern. He perhaps overworked the fishy menu a little, and I found it hard to get used to fish head soup (with heads) for breakfast. Ever helpful, the captain bowed to my Rosbif sensibilities, and served me up a dish of several runny fried eggs instead. Apart from that, his forte was red wine and lots of it (at breakfast too), for wine was plentiful and cheap. His opposite number was Jack Barley, son of a famous British official in the Pacific, one-time British Resident Commissioner in the Gilberts. Jack was a splendid seaman, a generous host (fruit cake was his speciality) and a great companion on these trips. The Navaka, being more modern than her rival, was perhaps the better sea-boat; this was just as well, for conditions could be difficult. I well remember one occasion when we left the lee of Emai island, heading for Tongariki, and found that the sea was running far too high for the Navaka - but it was too risky to attempt to reverse course. I took my hat off to Jack as he handled the alarming situation with great skill and courage and kept on course. Me, I just found it extremely hair-raising, for you could neither sit down nor lie down - you just had to stand up and hang on; it was a highly relieved BDA who reached the shelter of Tongariki.

On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog
Each tour by sea started at five minutes to midnight; this was because the captain was paid 1 pound Australian per head per diem as a victualling allowance. If he sailed before midnight, that counted as a full day. On return, however, he always tried to arrive back at dawn, for whatever time he actually reached Vila he only received 10/- for that day. The system must have worked well enough, for Captain Guenet was able to build a small block of housing flats out of his pay. The departure of the BDA and/or FDA on tour was far from impressive - none of the clerks, cooks or servants, messengers and bevy of carriers and applause from the attendant multitude of my African days. You and your clerk rolled down to Vila wharf at about 11.30pm, climbed aboard an apparently deserted ship, found a bunk and turned in. A few minutes later the ship came to life, all was bustle and away you went, ready for another island in the morning.

On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog
Going ashore at the various islands in the district was sometimes a little tricky, for as there were no jetties or wharves except in Vila, you had to use the tiny dinghy that each ship carried. These were driven by a small outboard motor (2.5 h.p. I think), known, perhaps rather derisively, to my colleagues as "Le British Seagull". While these engines were reliable, they were not very powerful, and you could spend an awful lot of time trying to find the landing place. Fortunately many of the New Hebrides islands were high ones, very steep to, and therefore one could get in fairly close with the ship, but there were exceptions. At Mataso there was a considerable reef, and in inclement weather the young men would wade out onto the reef up to their chests, to grab the dinghy as it put-puttered its way inshore. Being steep to was not always an advantage either, for Tongariki beach was not only steep, but made up of fist-sized pebbles, which rolled up and down with the tide and waves. If you could not get into your boat easily, you would have to swim for it. Buninga, next door, was even worse, for the landing spot consisted of large boulders, each slippery and a trap for unwary legs. In spite of this my Waterloo came at Tongoa, where the beach was gently shelving; I went ashore in poor weather, the dinghy was upset, and I found myself being rolled upon by it, but I was younger then and no harm done!

The dinghy also served as the only method of unloading cargo, a long and tedious process, though sometimes assisted by canoes from the shore. Since it was so small, the skipper often had to use some ingenuity with his cargo. My colleague and I once went to Emai with a load of timber and aluminium roofing to build a clinic. This was to be on the weather side of the island, where four of the six villages lay, and there was no convenient beach and a difficult reef passage. This did not worry Guenet at all; he just made a raft of the timber, mounted the roofing on top and sent the dinghy off to tow it all inshore.
On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog
George Kalkoa
There was an unhappy moment when the roofing shifted and started to tip up the raft and seemed headed for the reef below. It was saved by the swift and efficient action of Willie, a crew member, a villainous looking and indefatigably cheerful 'man bush' from Tanna. Without a second's hesitation he leaped overboard from the dinghy, swam to the raft and put his weight onto the side lifting into the air, thus balancing the whole contraption and getting it ashore, only a little damp. Willie, not a man used to over-much praise, basked in our gratitude, and the clinic was soon built.

There were magical and happy days spent in touring, with a varied and congenial company. I have many memories of them, from my ever cheerful assistant, George Kalkoa, later the first President of Vanuatu, Francois Doumenge, geographer and latterly head of the Oceanographical Institute of Monaco, my colleagues, Fred Lamodiere of the shaven head (in hot weather only), his successor the level headed and witty Michel Lajus, and his assistant and successor too, the pipe smoking and amiable Jacques Fabre; then there was Guy de Preville -- a Condominium agriculturalist, a slave to seasickness but devoted to his work; Keith Woodward, normally a denizen of the British Office, but released for just one trip, spent singing sea shanties and rugger songs in a pleasing baritone - and many others, not least of whom was my elder son, on holidays from school in England. He had one alarming moment, too, when the Roginante shipped a wave over her stem, half submerging the after decking -- life was full of memorable incidents.

Nationally Nautical

On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog
MV Euphrosyne II
The British and French national services had their own touring vessels for the New Hebrides, but their usage was based on different attitudes. For us in the sixties there was the Euphrosyne II a handsome sixty foot or so motor vessel, meant for the British Resident Commissioner and captained by Harry Kirkwood, retired from the Royal Navy after a long and distinguished career - he had been in charge of the base at Singapore and had commanded the John Biscoe in Antarctic waters. A hospitable and sociable man ashore, at sea he was a fierce stickler for discipline - the crew were always smartly uniformed and quick to obey orders, as indeed did the passengers. I rather think that in his heart Harry felt that passengers aboard his ship should neither be seen nor heard, and while the Resident Commissioner found himself received with deference and courtesy, these were both rather formal, as if he were an admiral unwillingly accepted on board a fighting ship - his presence was perhaps necessary, but could he not have picked another flagship? When entering Vila harbour, the crew lined the side in their best uniforms and the officers saluting their distant masters - an event that on one occasion resulted in the ship bumping a buoy.

There was also a startling occasion when the helmsman walked away from the wheel at sunset one day; when Harry had recovered from his almost apoplectic fury he asked the miscreant the reason for this incredible behaviour, and received the improbable reply - "But Sir, I am a Seventh Day Adventist, and it is now my Sabbath, so that I may not work". All the same, long after Harry had left the country, and even after independence, Euphrosyne II continued to ply the waters when most of her contemporaries were wrecks, a tribute to the high pitch of efficiency that Harry had inculcated in his crew. Not only that, but the hero of the wheel episode just mentioned rose to command the ship! The II added to the ship's name commemorated her predecessor, the British Service ship of pre-war days. This was sold on the orders of London, on the grounds that it was too expensive - a decision that effectively marooned all the British officials in the country - without a ship they just could not do their job - apparently a matter of total lack of concern to the Colonial Office of those days.

Naturally it was impossible for French national pride to accept any position of inferiority, so they indulged themselves with two ships. One was the Aquitaine a sleek, custom built and fast ocean greyhound puppy. Before its arrival the French District Agent was wont to expatiate on its magnificence and virtues, most of them apparently due to his advice. After its arrival he invited me on an inaugural tour of the district with him. I will not call it a disaster, for we did return safely, but Aquitaine was an unsatisfactory sea boat, and extremely wet. The fore-cabin, where we slept, was stiflingly hot, and if the skylights were opened, was soaked with sea water at even a moderate speed. On top of that the seats and bunks were leatherette, hot sticky and uncomfortable. I heard no more of the ship's virtues, and she was soon palmed off on the FDA at Santo; I trust that he was duly grateful.

On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog
Don Quixote
About this time Vila was visited by a New Zealander with an old trading schooner, the beautiful and graceful Trade Winds, it took the acquisitive eye of the French Resident Commissioner, who summoned the skipper to his office and asked what he would take for the ship. This worthy, who had paid 7000 pounds (Australian) for the vessel quite recently, promptly asked 12,000 pounds; on observing that Delaunay did not even blink, he thought rapidly and added "Sterling, of course", which in those happy days was worth twenty-five Australian shillings, thus adding an extra 25% to the price. And so the deal was struck. The story and prices may be apocryphal, but were never denied by either side, to me at any rate. Delaunay may have paid rather a lot for the ship, but all the same she proved extremely useful. Whereas neither the Euphrosyne II nor the Condominium ships could carry much cargo, the Trade Winds, now renamed Alize, could manage about 70 tons. This was just what the French office needed, for after years of dolce far niente, it was entering upon a programme of educational expansion into the outer islands, and Alize was perfect for this sort of work.

She was also a good ship to travel on, for there was a large "owner's" cabin, a capacious saloon (with bunks) and a couple of single cabins, a little Victorian in their appurtenances, but entirely adequate, and she was as steady as a battleship. She is gone now, a total wreck on a northern island of Vanuatu, but her memory stays with me. I well remember how on one perfect evening Michel Lajus and I, together with another French Office man, sat on the deck with our drinks and watched the sun go down in glory over a tranquil ocean. The other fellow remarked with a contented sigh, "Et on nous paie pour faire gela". A week or two later Michel and I visited Emai aboard the Condominium work horse, the Roginante. Our business demanded that we go ashore, even though dusk was upon us and the rain was pouring down; it did not help either that we were anchored a considerable distance from our intended landing spot. As we made our miserable way, squatting on wet seats in sodden discomfort, with Le British Seagull driving us along at a good two knots, Michel turned to me and solemnly intoned "Et on nous paie pour faire gela''!

1943 Map of New Hebrides
Colony Profile
New Hebrides
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 75 and 76:
October 1997 and April 1998
See Also
On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog: Gracing the Gilberts


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