The other day I found myself autographing copies of America Alone, After America and Lights Out for a reader in Port Vila who wished to chip in, rather generously, toward the costs of my legal defense in the upcoming trial of the century. You're wondering where the hell Port Vila is? Oh, c'mon, it's the capital of Vanuatu - or, as we old-school imperialists still think of it, the New Hebrides. I don't autograph that many books to readers in Vanuatu, so I began waxing rhapsodic to my bewildered office manager about the Anglo-French Coconut War of 1980, which isn't something that comes up every day in the course of her work.
The New Hebrides was an "Anglo-French Condominium", which doesn't mean a vacation home in St Tropez but a unique form of colonial administration in which the poor old natives have to put up with two imperialist overlords. On this little piece of turf in the South Pacific, it meant that various competing cargo cults found themselves in anglophone or francophone schools according to the vagaries of arrangements agreed between Paris and London. If, like yours truly in the DC Superior Court, you found yourself embroiled in a legal dispute, you could choose to be tried under either English Common Law or the French Civil Code. There was also a third Native Court, whose presiding judge was appointed, for obscure reasons, by the King of Spain.
The government of the islands was headed by two Resident Commissioners, one British, one French. In the late Seventies, as Vanuatu was moving toward independence, the Frenchman was a chap called Jean-Jacques Robert and the Briton was an old colonial hand called Andrew Stuart, a cool customer who'd won the Colonial Police Medal in Uganda for taking down a spear-wielding prophet. I hadn't thought about Mr Stuart in decades, but, a few days after autographing that book for my reader in Port Vila, I was browsing the Daily Telegraph obituaries column, and noticed that the long-retired colonial administrator had died at the age of 85.
Mr Stuart and M Robert did not get on, in part because the British chappie towered over the diminutive Frenchie in a way that made their joint appearances at New Hebridean ceremonial occasions somewhat lop-sided. The Telegraph's obituarist describes it thus:
Stuart stood 6ft 7in tall (loftier still in his red and white, cockatoo-plumed Governor's sola topi) and loomed above the dapper Insp-Gen Robert (even in his képi). For two years after their arrival in 1978, the two men had struggled from their separate residencies to remain on good terms despite the differing demands of their masters in London and Paris.
Spiffed up in the full cockatoo feathers, Stuart was over seven foot, while the Frenchman had no dress outfit at all. At any rate, relations deteriorated entirely in the weeks before independence, with the French covertly backing a wacky secessionist called Jimmy Stevens, a "francophone" (despite his name and the fact that he couldn't write in any language) who'd proclaimed the "Republic of Vemarana" on an abandoned air base. The British became convinced that the French were using "independence" as a cover to get the British out and maintain it as a French colony only. The French became convinced of more or less precisely the opposite:
Further violence, and the shooting dead of a French-speaker on Tanna island (where a different cargo cult revered the Duke of Edinburgh), convinced the French that the British had been planning a coup de maître based on the prestige of the British Royal family, to wield continuing influence in the region. A lengthy French memorandum detailing this purported British scheme was found left behind after independence.
Independence was scheduled for July 30th. In the days beforehand, Giscard d'Estaing ordered French paratroopers sent in to protect France's interest. In London, Mrs Thatcher dispatched 200 Royal Marines. The illiterate rebel leader Stevens met secretly with the French Commissioner, and they cooked up a scheme to greet the British troops on landing at the airstrip with native girls garlanded with bougainvillea. The Royal Marines appreciated this gesture, but enough of them managed to sneak off to Stevens' headquarters and saw down the flagpole of the "Republic of Vemarana". Father Lini, the incoming Prime Minister of the newly independent state, sent a strong letter to the Resident Commissioners demanding the immediate expulsion of both French and British forces from his country. Andrew Stuart claimed to have lost his glasses during all the kerfuffle, and so regretted that he was unable to read the Prime Minister's letter. The Royal Marines remained until the situation had stabilized.
The Telegraph is very good at obits of odd footnotes to history like Andrew Stuart. So much great-power policing was done in the fashion of Vanuatu's Coconut War - on the fly and on the cheap. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, we seem to have lost the knack.
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