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.

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17 thoughts on “NPF: SPLIT PERSONALITY”

  • "Kiribati" isn't actually a case of reverting to the local name. The local language does not have a "g," and all consonants must be immediately followed by a vowel. Thus, "Gilbert" becomes "Kiribati."

  • I've known about Vanuatu since the early 1970s, when I read JMes Michener's excellent follow up to "South Pacific" – "Return to Paradise." Which I highly recommend as an entertaining summer read. You don't need to have read S.P. first; it's not a sequel.

  • I took a college class called Peoples of the Pacific, and this was mentioned as one of the weirder tales of colonialism. The Japanese who took over islands brought misery and better sanitation with the introduction of the toilets on the ends of docks, which were an improvement on the usual lack of systems.

    And on Vanuatu they drive on the right side of the road. I guess the French or the Americans brought cars there first.

    The other great note about colonization of Pacific Islands is that it was most often done for purposes of keeping guano from the Germans. And that led to Germany developing its chemical engineering industries to create gunpowder and chemical fertilizer during WWI and the years after, which is like so many 20th Century innovations, of mixed results for the betterment of humanity and the world.

  • Tuvalu-a-lu-a, Tuv-a-lu-a–lu…

    I suppose the people of Vanuatu should also be happy that the Americans didn't decide to test atomic weapons on their islands like they did in the rest of the South Pacific.

  • Tuvalu and Vanuatu also have the unique position of requesting they remain on the UN Least Developed Countries list (a list most are eager to get off of) because they would not be able to remain off the list without the preferential agreements afforded to them by being on the list – the developing world catch-22. They usually hit goals for the GNI per capita and Human Asset Index but fail based on economic vulnerability. In recent years this is owed to climate change fueled catastrophes – like the 2011 drought on Tuvalu which tossed it right back into the hole just as it was scheduled to get out.

    Tuvalu also has the questionable habit of submitting their official responses to UN reports in Comic Sans. Then again, maybe they've officially just given up knowing that all the small island developing states are going to be underwater in the next ten years.

    ps. my Russian coworkers were very excited that I was reading something called "Gin and Wontons"

  • schmitt trigger says:

    I would like to hear from any Canadian posters here what they think about St Pierre et Miquelon

  • Wasn't there an Anglo-Egyptian condominium in Sudan from the late 19th century, when England put down the Mahdi, until the the 1950s and the Suez crisis? Granted that was more of a legal fiction since Egypt, unlike France, was in no position to do much about anything England did. (Egypt, of course, used a combination of local law, Ottoman law and English law. It was probably just as confusing.)

    Colonialism was indeed largely about resources, but it was usually based on the local elite selling out the local citizenry to foreign masters. When the elite wasn't up to it or had weird ideas that kept them from selling out their homeland, the colonialists were more than happy to install a new local elite.

  • The guano may explain that bat crap crazy arrangement.
    Rimshot. Tip your waitress. I'll be here all week.

  • I've actually been to Vanuatu before, the diving is absolutely spectacular. While I was there I dove on the USS Calvin Coolidge, an ocean liner that had been converted to a troop transport ship. Unfortunately, while transporting soldiers it struck a US mine. The ship was so close to the shallow beach that many of the soldiers were simply able to walk off the boat. Two men died, one caught in the initial blast and another who left the ship, then returned to rescue men trapped in the infirmary. Unfortunately he never got out. I was diving out there… geez, must have been 2005 or so. In 2014 they recovered the body of Captain Euart, and returned him to be buried with his family.

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