The British Empire Library

Coconuts and Coral

by Gwendoline Page

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by K.Nicholson (Gilbert & Ellice Islands 1947-1956)
When Mrs Page first went to Vanuatu in the Western Pacific in 1964, it was called the New Hebrides and was one of the world's anachronisms with British and French colonial governments and a Condominium administration, three kinds of currency, three sets of laws and - according to a 1944 guide - driving on the right (if French) or left "as was British and proper!". (These days it's on the right!) All this for some 40,000 people (mainly Melanesians with a few hundred French and considerably less British) in a land recorded by a post-war geographer as "one of the unhealthiest, wildest, most mistreated and most mismanaged spots on earth".

But much has changed since Independence in 1980 and therefore Gwendoline Page's account of her life in the New Hebrides thirty years ago when, with her three daughters, she accompanied her husband just appointed to the recently opened British Teacher Training College across the lagoon from Port Vila, the capital, gives a fascinating picture of the past.

She records - sometimes in considerable detail, sometimes with gently critical comment - the minutiae of colonial family life, people and events (such as the formalities of the Queen's Birthday and the joie de vivre of Le Quatorze Juillet, with remarks on British and French colonial uniforms!). The result is a valuable picture of expatriate (both British and French) life and contribution to this unique territory. Lots of names but alas no index, though there are helpful chapter headings, maps and numerous photographs.

But her book provides much more than this, for she was not content with happy domesticity at the college, but obtained a job with the British Works Department which gave her the opportunity to make - literally - flying visits to other islands. This enabled her, with the acknowledged help of islanders and other sources, to touch on many subjects - custom and legend, natural history, geology, cookery, the original bungee jumping... the list is long, but it is these inclusions that make the book of wider interest.

Unlike many who have written of their colonial life, Mrs Page was able to return 25 years later for a brief holiday, and her all too short final chapter describes the considerable changes she found and the old friends, both expatriate and Ni-Vanuatu, she was able to meet. Her own words as she departed in 1966 fittingly describe this delightful book - a "look back with tender nostalgia".

British Empire Book
Gwendoline Page
George R. Reeve Ltd.


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