Late Thursday evening (Central Time, that is) an earthquake struck near Vanuatu. If any Americans or Europeans have heard of that small island archipelago nation at all it is likely due to its stint as the setting of the 2004 season of Survivor, back when that show was at the apex of its popularity. The nation's reappearance in the news due to the earthquake is as good a reason as any to tell one of my favorite politics and government anecdotes. What I am about to tell you is true. I couldn't make this up if I tried.
(And don't worry, reports indicate no one was hurt in the quake. If that segue seemed Too Soon.)
During the golden era of empires European powers, especially Britain and France, were scooping up Pacific islands like kids grabbing candy at a parade. Both the UK and France claimed different parts of an island group off the eastern coast of Australia. Captain Cook "discovered" them in 1774 and christened them the New Hebrides, and by the late 1800s the two major colonial powers of Europe were deadlocked over who could add the hapless islands and their people to its trading card list of obscure colonies.
As the islands were too small and irrelevant to spark any kind of major throw-down between Paris and London, in 1906 the nations simply agreed (without consulting the Vanuatu people, naturally) to govern the islands under a rare arrangement called a condominium. When used in the political sense the term simply means any territory over which two governing bodies will exercise shared authority. In practice it meant that every single aspect of the state and government was duplicated; there was, for example, a French police force and a British one. They alternated days, each enforcing the laws of its own nation. Seriously.
Someone arrested in Vanuatu had three choices for legal proceedings. They could be tried in a British court under common law, in a "local" court under tribal law, or in a French court under the Napoleonic code. Every government act and document had to be provided in French, English, and the local Bisonia creole tongue, and public signs were similarly trilingual. Visitors had to pass through both French and UK customs separately. There was a British jail and a French jail (which served champagne). There was a British hospital and a French hospital (which also served champagne). The condominium agreement itself was overseen by a Spanish judge (the first of whom spoke neither English nor French) and a Dutch accountant. The only saving grace was that in the staggeringly hot tropical climate, nobody did much of anything.
Oh, and in 1942 the Americans showed up and essentially took over. Since all parties involved – French, British, or local – were actively terrified that the Japanese were about to invade, this was not unwelcome. The New Hebrides were phenomenally lucky in comparison to many other islands and atolls. Since 1942 residents have held in high regard the memory of a cow named Besse, supposedly killed when an American errant aircraft crash-landed in a farmer's field. This was the sole casualty of World War II in the islands. Not one human casualty was recorded.
A funny thing about decolonization in the Pacific is that the year in which many colonies received their independence coincided exactly with the depletion of the local phosphate (guano) reserves. Isn't it weird how it worked out like that? The New Hebrides – its unconventional and redundant governing arrangement having lasted 74 years, or 73 years longer than anyone predicted – took their turn in 1980 and chose to revert to the local name, Vanuatu. This was common among the islands who had been given meaningless European names. The nearby Gilbert and Ellice Islands, for example, gained independence in 1976 and immediately seceded from one another to become Kiribati and Tuvalu, respectively.
Colonialism was weird. The New Hebrides condominium might have been peak weird.