The British Empire Library

Tufala Gavman: Reminiscences From The Anglo-French Condominium Of The New Hebrides

Edited by Brian J Bresnihan and Keith Woodward

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by The Rev Brian Macdonald-Milne (Co-ordinator, Pacific Churches Research Centre, Port-Vila, New Hebrides/Vanuatu 1978-80 Vice-Chairman, Pacific Islands Society of the UK and Ireland)
The New Hebrides became the Republic of Vanuatu in 1980. The country had a unique colonial history. Forms of joint control and administration by different powers are rare enough, but the New Hebrides had a British ‘national’ administration for those who had British citizenship (or ‘opted’ to be treated as British), the French had their parallel administration, and for those departments of government which could not be run separately (such as education and health were), there was the ‘Condominium’ administration covering public works, posts and telecommunications etc. The French and British Resident Commissioners could make Joint Regulations, when they agreed, and these could apply to everyone, including New Hebrideans. However, the indigenous inhabitants could not ‘opt’ to be either French or British, and so were stateless in their own country! There were French and British courts for ‘nationals’ and ‘optants’, and also ‘Native Courts’ with indigenous assessors assisting the District Agents, as they were called (not “District Commissioners”). There were problems when those of a different nationality, or New Hebrideans and others, were involved in court cases. Infringements of Joint Regulations were handled by the two District Agents sitting together in the local Court of First Instance. At the highest level the Joint Court was supposed to have a Judge appointed by the King of Spain, on the assumption that a Spanish judge would be impartial. When there ceased to be a King of Spain after the Spanish Civil War, the French and British judges had to sit together! As many people before the court would speak the local form of Pidgin, known as Bislama, and there was no requirement for either judge to have a knowledge of it - or of his colleague’s language - there was much dependence on translators and interpreters. The system should not have worked, and from time to time it nearly didn’t. What made it possible was the general good will and competence (and sometimes the rivalry) of the colonial administrators who were entrusted with this extraordinary situation and expected to make the best of it, although the two colonial powers often had different or conflicting interests or policies.

This book shows how the Resident Commissioners and overseas civil servants attempted to operate, how they co-operated (or sometimes refused to do so), and how they related to the indigenous inhabitants, who sometimes managed to manipulate the system to their own advantage.

This book is much more than reminiscences of Tufala Gavman (Two Governments). It has a valuable introductory historical note by Keith Woodward, who worked on the British Residency staff from 1953-78. The co-editor, Brian Bresnihan, an Irishman, worked in the British administration there from 1971-80. They have brought together contributions from a wide circle of people from the three administrations and elsewhere, both expatriate and indigenous, to provide an insight into the inner workings of a significant, and sometimes shameful, colonial experiment. The independence of the New Hebrides had implications for other French territories in the Pacific, which was one reason why it took time and was such a difficult process and why it left the ni-Vanuatu, as the citizens of the republic are known, with so much to sort out.

The University of the South Pacific published a book to celebrate independence in the three official languages in 1980 entitled just Vanuatu, as well as another book, researched by indigenous people from the Churches there, entitled YUMI STANAP: Some People of Vanuatu, which I co-edited. Together these three books, with others written by individuals, will stand as a tribute to what was achieved, in spite of the odds, by civil servants, politicians, the members of the Churches and others, to enable this small country to take its rightful place among the nations of the world. This volume is also a tribute to the enthusiasm and dedication of Will Stober who with Keith Woodward conceived the project, but who died in 1997 before it could be completed.

British Empire Book
Brian J Bresnihan and Keith Woodward
Institute of Pacific Studies
982 02 0342 2


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