Andrew Stuart CMG CPM
British Resident Commissioner 1978-80
The New Hebrides, when I arrived as Resident Commissioner in November 1978, was not a happy country.
The anglophone Vanuaku Party (ex National Party), despite having proved in consecutive elections that they were by far the strongest political force in the islands, had boycotted the political process altogether and were still stuck in the dead-end of their unrecognised and insubstantial "Peoples Provisional Government."(PPG)
The French, whether willingly, or driven by the logic of events, had accepted the principle of independence for the country, but had found it difficult to sanction any concrete steps towards it, beyond setting up a sham coalition government. This was dominated by francophones, but with a few token anglophones, as W.S. Gilbert would have said to "add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."
My predecessor John Champion, whom I knew to be one of the ablest and most humane of ex-African administrators, had departed in sadness and anger, having felt it necessary to take responsibility for the acts of others. And the ordinary people of the New Hebrides were confused, divided and insecure after more than seventy years of the absurd condominium system.
It was hard not to sympathise with the New Hebrideans. Some years before, Donald Kalpokas (later to be Prime Minister) had written a poem entitled "Who am I?" The disorientation of living in your own country but being technically stateless, and trying to co-exist with two colonial powers as different as the French and the British must have been stressful - at times almost beyond bearing.
The expatriate administrators too had borne their share of disorientation, to which was added, during my time, the chaotic process of preparing for independence while parts of the country were in open revolt. Independence in any country brings mixed emotions to the District Officers. In the New Hebrides, these emotions were more mixed than most.
Those of us with an African background will not forget the pride, the nostalgia and the hope with which, in those countries, we saw the Union Jack come down at midnight before Independence Day, followed by the Nation's flag rising under the spotlights, to the official strains of the new National Anthem.
In the New Hebrides, that was sadly not possible. The French have a different tradition. Their flag was lowered before Independence Day at a ceremony in the French Residency attended by the French Minister and "friends of France", but not by the Queen's representative or myself as British Resident Commissioner. Personally I thought that a pity. There is nothing to be ashamed of in independence, and the end of the Anglo-French Condominium deserved joint recognition. But that is the way they do it and that is the way it was.
When it came to the British turn on the eve of Independence, we tried to do it our way at an evening party on Iririki Island. I doubt if there were many without a lump in their throats when the Royal Marine band played the Last Post, as the Resident Commissioner's flag was lowered for the last time in the presence of the Duke of Gloucester, the French Minister and everybody else we could think of, Melanesian, French and British.
As a result, when the day of Independence dawned, the flag of the new nation of Vanuatu was raised in solitary splendour in the former British Paddock, (now Independence Park). Everyone did their best, but there was little feeling of a hand-over of mutual respect and the fighting companies of the French Paras and the Royal Marines were absent from the parade.
Instead they were in Santo, where their French commander had decreed that their only duty was to protect the flag pole where the same flag was raised, leaving Jimmy Stephens and his boys to whoop it up all over the island, proclaiming that if anyone was independent it was Nagriamel, and that France was their protecting power. To all who wished Vanuatu well, it was an unsatisfactory and rather shameful moment.
Regardless of the circumstances, however, at the end of any colonial period there is a certainty of change. If the District Officer is any good at his - or her - job, he will be glad that his work is done. Even if, as many of us did in Africa, he stays on to serve the new independent Government for months or for years, there is at least a shift in his feeling of personal responsibility. Having spent most of his career training the people (admittedly according to his own egotistical lights) to meet the challenges of Independence, that moment has now arrived and from now on the prime responsibility lies elsewhere.
There is pride in this, but there is also disorientation. He may have believed himself enlightened enough to follow the Melanesian way and to question his received values. But instinctively he has held to those values and believed that he and his kind knew best. Otherwise what was he doing there in the first place?
Now he finds those values questioned in good earnest and often rejected by politicians whom he may privately have distrusted, but who now have the power to say, as Nyerere did in Tanzania, "give us your Westminster model, and we will change it to suit ourselves."
Suddenly a lot of what he has spent his life doing - ensuring that the court work is up to date, the taxes coming in, the land disputes settled, the district headquarters clean and well ordered - seems almost irrelevant in the urgent task of creating a new nation.
And all this was even more the case in the New Hebrides. There were times when the whole edifice seemed to be crumbling beneath us. Even leaving aside the confusion and disruption of the attempted rebellions in Santo and Tanna, it was simply impossible to hand over a working administration and say, "there it is; this is the best we can do; use it as you will, it is at least a basis for administration; it will serve you until you wish to change it for something better suited to the needs of your new nation".
Even if the administration of the latter-day New Hebrides had been workable, with its four governments, British, French, Condominium and fledgling Independent, (and it was not) it was just impossible to hand on that system even for initial use by the independent state of Vanuatu.
Instead, in the midst of all the turmoil, the unfortunate Government-to-be and their advisers had to sit down and plan a unified "Melanesian" administration from scratch, to enter into force at the moment of Independence.
We had had a preliminary shot at unification within the structures of the District Administration. In the period of the Government of National Unity, leading up to the Independence elections, we agreed to replace the British and French District Agents by a single government Agent, who would become answerable on Independence to the government of Vanuatu. But my French colleague, Inspector General Jean-Jacques Robert, torpedoed that - I suspect on instructions from Paris, by leaving the former French District Agents in place and calling them instead his "Personal Representatives". These "Representatives" occupied the old French District Agents' houses and offices, and, (since they were usually the same people) continued to exercise much the same functions, and to be regarded by the people of their districts in much the same way as before.
One consequence, which was surely not intended by the French, was that although the British (by nationality) District Agents were withdrawn, the new "Government Agents" had to operate almost exclusively from the former British district headquarters and were usually, though not invariably, Ni-Vanuatu who had worked for the British in the past.
Coupled with the fact that the largely anglophone Vanuaku Party decisively won the pre-Independence elections, this inevitably led to the conclusion in the islands that the British had somehow "won", and would control the post-Independence Government.
This feeling of having been circumvented must have been galling for the French and no doubt made it difficult for them to feel no sympathy for the separatist movements in the outer islands. The Nagriamel in Santo and the Tafea movement in Tanna tried at the last moment to make those islands independent of the Government of Vanuatu and keep them under French influence. Their attempts failed in the end, but it was a chaotic time.
All this must have put an extra strain on the former British District Agents who were still there - people like Chris Turner, Brian Bresnihan, David Browning and many others. Not only had they to come to terms with inevitable change, but the whole condominium system of co-operation and joint action with their French colleagues, which they had operated as loyally as circumstances would permit, fell apart under the pressure of events and was replaced by the power game of politics and mutual metropolitan misunderstanding.
Moreover, as the last British Resident Commissioner before Independence, I fear I must personally have been a grave disappointment to the British District Agents. Despite my own background as a District Officer in Africa, I was by that time a senior member of the Diplomatic Service and was sent to the New Hebrides to help them to Independence as quickly as possible. Inevitably, therefore, my priorities were diplomatic rather than administrative.
When I arrived, the Vanuaku Party, despite being overwhelmingly the strongest political group in the islands, was still trapped in the dead-end of its PPG. The way to Independence by consensus seemed closed. A possible way out of the mess seemed to be offered by the "Plan Dijoud", put forward by the French Minister for the Colonies (DOMTOM), Paul Dijoud. But the Vanuaku Party refused to operate it, and the puppet government created by the metropolitan powers under French influence was quite incapable of action.
The first few weeks of my two years in the New Hebrides were therefore passed in a haze of negotiations. The first job was to get everyone to agree to meet (oh those long sessions at meals round the table in the Residency at Iririki - where a major diplomatic problem was to decide whether a Catholic, an Anglican or a Presbyterian would say grace - while an anti-clerical Frenchman spluttered at the end of the table) Then we had to agree first to the formation of a Government of National Unity (GNU), then on a Constitution for Independence and finally on pre-Independence Elections; after which we naively assumed we would together greet the rosy dawn of Independence.
In all this the British District Agents should have been the essential leg-men and advisers for a Resident Commissioner new to the South Pacific. And indeed they were, particularly Chris Turner, who by that time was Deputy Resident Commissioner. How he managed to steer the draft of the law controlling the final elections through the discussions with the French Residency, I shall never know but shall always appreciate.
But when I read the list of questions prepared for ex-Resident Commissioners by the Editors of this book, I am ashamed to say that I can answer "yes" to practically none of them. "Did you convene periodic meetings of District Agents at the Residency - or did face to face meetings occur on a one-to-one basis?" "Were the normal channels of communication with District Agents adequate?" "Did you issue general or specific guidelines to District Agents?" No, I fear not, Gentlemen. In self-defence, I can only plead the pressure of events and the lack of time.
Before I came to the New Hebrides, I knew it was an unusual Diplomatic posting, even for a former colonial administrator. John Champion had already warned me. He wrote of the biting flies and of the lap-lap, "looking, tasting and feeling like a foam-rubber cushion", from which a fruit bat's neck protruded in agonised appeal. But he had been having a difficult period when, not for the last time in the history of the New Hebrides, a British police force had tried to keep two opposing crowds apart, only to be blamed for the riot by the French police, who had pointedly absented themselves; so he was understandably jaundiced.
But the full oddity of the situation was only brought home to me in the last stages leading up to the Santo rebellion. By this time the British District Agent at Luganville (David Browning) had been replaced by a New Hebridean Government Agent (a former member of the British service who had perhaps best remain nameless.) Jimmy Stephens had not yet declared UDI, but Nagriamel strong-arm groups were already largely in control of Luganville township and the island. About a hundredweight of dynamite had disappeared from Burns Philp's store and Stephen's private radio station (believed supplied by his American friends) was broadcasting nightly that "The Lini Government's Agent" in Luganville was about to be driven from his office.
An earlier attempt to have the French and British Police Mobile units deployed in Santo had failed, when both had set sail in their respective Residency boats, only to have the French unit ordered, by my colleague, to return to Port Vila when halfway to Luganville, on the ground that they were no longer needed.
This change of plan, on which I was not consulted or even informed, left me angrier than I have ever been before or since. But I had little option but to order the British police to return as well, since if they had gone on to try to deal with the situation on their own, they would undoubtedly have had to hit on the head a number of French citizens, who were actively encouraging Jimmy Stephens to rebel, with diplomatic consequences that were not to be contemplated.
But the boy-scout, or Kiplingesque hero lives in all of us. And when Jimmy Stephens renewed his threats to the Government Agent and to the former Luganville British Paddock, I decided that the best solution was to persuade the co-operative French Deputy Resident Commissioner (Robert was away at the time) to accompany me to Santo to interpose our official presence between the person of the Government Agent and Nagriamel, who wished to expel him - I naively imagined that our very presence would ensure Jimmy Stephen's good behaviour.
I should have known better. The expulsion had been announced by Vanafo Radio for eleven o'clock in the morning and by nine the Frenchman and I were seated on the veranda of the District Agent's office, with the Government Agent ostensibly at work inside. We sat there until one, by which time nothing had happened. Whereupon my French colleague announced that clearly our mission had achieved its purpose, and he was returning to Port Vila.
We had come by separate aeroplanes and I absurdly decided that I might as well make at least some use of the visit and go diving on the wreck of the S.s. President Coolidge, which is lying in Santo harbour. I was already kitted up with wet-suit and diving gear, when it was announced that Nagriamel troops (obviously informed that my French colleague had left) were forming up in the township and about to advance on the Government Agency.
Again foolishly, I decided to go down to the township to see if this was true, as indeed it was. Whereupon I returned to the office, only to find that the Government Agent had, perhaps prudently, run away into the bush.
There followed a pantomime worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, as the Nagriamel platoon, with arms akimbo and equipped with some rather desultory bows and arrows, marched up to the office and demanded to see the Government Agent. I replied that he was not there and asked why they wanted to see him. They said that they wished to chase him away - I answered that they seemed already to have achieved that effect.
There was then a pause for reflection, after which they announced that in the regrettable absence of the Government Agent they proposed to make the office unusable by nailing Namwele leaves to the main door, thus imposing a powerful taboo. I pointed out, however, that since taboos did not affect Europeans I was quite at liberty to take them down again.
There followed a hiatus, which was not resolved until the Government Agent emerged from the bush three days later, obviously considerably shaken, and had to be replaced by another New Hebridean, of possibly stronger nerve. Unfortunately, however, the overall situation remained unresolved, and the next thing that happened was a more serious attack on the ex-British Paddock in which considerable damage was done and the Government Agent at least temporarily taken hostage.
But in case this absurd story should give the impression that the Government Agents, as successors of the British District Agents played an altogether unheroic role in the last days of the Condominium, it should also be recorded that there were occasions when they displayed considerable personal courage.
The John Frum, and other less eccentric but also less likeable groups in Tanna, also decided - again with a certain amount of encouragement from French citizens - to follow the Nagriamel lead in Santo and declare themselves independent of Port Vila under the title of TAFEA after the islands of Tanna, Aneytium, Futuna, Erromango and Aneiwa.
They certainly had no warrant to claim the leadership of the other Southern islands, all of which had just decisively voted for the Vanuaku Party, as indeed did the majority of Tanna. But a firm grip of reality was never the strongest characteristic of Tanna - (A BBC cameraman remarked to me after witnessing a particularly weird session with John Frum, interspersed with rumbles from the nearby volcano, that unfortunately he had been unable to get the full flavour of the conversation, as he did not speak volcano).
As in Santo, there were some rather bizarre attempts to assert this Independence, most of which, like the dynamiting of some dustbin-sized holes in the grass airstrip, were preceded by the rapid departure of the French Mobile Unit from the location that was about to be attacked, and the arrival hot-foot of the British police to try to plug the gap.
There was also, almost by coincidence, a final chapter in the saga of the "Tribe who see the Duke of Edinburgh as a God", which the international press seemed to find particularly fascinating. In his contribution, John Champion has recorded how he had given Chief Kalpapung of Ionanen, (a different branch of the Jon Frum) a portrait of the Duke, thus strengthening their belief that HRH had something to do with their religion, (some said that in his white naval uniform, he must be the pilot of Jon Frum's aeroplane).
There exists a fascinating research paper on this by the French Residency which concludes that "One can only admire the way in which the British take political advantage of the credulity of the Custom people of Tanna", and it is perfectly true that there have been times when the cargo cults of Tanna have created problems for both the Metropolitan powers.
It was however pure chance that, long before the troubles began, Chief Kalpapung had sent the Duke of Edinburgh a Nal-nal, (pig killing club) and asked in return for a new portrait of HRH holding it. This had caused a few problems at Buckingham Palace, where no one really knew how a Nal-nal should be held. However fortunately a former Resident Commissioner, Roger du Boulay, was on hand to give advice as Head of Foreign Office Protocol.
So in the middle of our other preoccupations a sealed package arrived from Buckingham Palace, which I was instructed to deliver personally to Chief Kalpapung. Scenting a good news story, Jim Biddulph of the BBC asked me to join him to film the presentation. But a security meeting with Walter Lini prevented that, and instead Jim had himself filmed separately at Ionanen in a hilarious first confrontation with the effects of kava drinking, which appeared on the six o'clock news.
So in the end I presented the new portrait to Chief Kalpapung unobserved by the world's press and, hopefully, by the French Residency. And on the whole I was not sorry. Ionanen's people have a gentlemanly naivety at which it is too easy for sophisticates to sneer. Even at their weirdest, the various branches of the Jon Frum do not deserve to be dragged into the quarrels of the modern world. And if by respecting the beliefs of Chief Kalpapung, we encouraged his people to stay quiet and uninvolved in the troubles, who is to say that we were not doing them a service?
And though, for much of the time, those troubles could be treated as pantomime, occasionally that pantomime did slip into tragedy, as when Alexis Yolou, a Francophone member of the Representative Assembly and the only casualty of the pre-Independence disturbances, was killed leading an attack on the District jail. No one ever discovered who killed him. His party blamed the British police, but he was shot by a .22 bullet, with which none of the Police were armed. But, as I said in the Representative Assembly next day, none of us could escape some responsibility for his death - the British police because they were there; the French police because they were not; the TAFEA secessionists who attacked the jail and the Vanuaku Party supporters who defended it; the Metropolitan powers who still carried responsibility for security, and the fledgling Vanuatu Government who had failed to resolve their internal differences. It was a tragedy pure and simple, but one which I remember with no comfort at all.
Associated with these disturbances, however, were others that had, in the end a happier outcome. Once again a Government Agent was in place and occupying the old British District Headquarters, while the former French District Agent remained in situ under the new title of the French Resident Commissioner's personal representative.
Inspired again by Santo, the TAFEA secessionists took the Government Agent hostage and this time hustled him away into the dark bush in the middle of the island.
The British Police Mobile Unit, under the imperturbable Ian Cook, rapidly reasserted control over the District Headquarters, and Ian told me over the radio that if I would allow him into the middle of the island, he was pretty confident that he could regain possession of the Government Agent. Having consulted Brian Graves, the Commissioner of Police, I agreed.
There followed a day-long silence, which severely tried the nerves of us at Police Headquarters in Port Vila. Towards evening, we demanded a situation report from the police station in Tanna, and were told that nothing had been heard or seen of Ian Cook and his men except a couple of loud explosions up in the hills in the course of the afternoon. In a small way I experienced the apprehension of the Government of India, when they sent an expedition to Afghanistan from which only Surgeon Bryce returned. But my fears were rapidly relieved by hearing Ian Cook's voice on the radio, safe and back in the Police Station in Tanna, but without the Government Agent.
It appeared that Ian and his men had indeed reached the secessionist headquarters where a home made dynamite mine had exploded in the road in front of them, fortunately before the leading Landrover had reached it. They were then pinned down for a while by some rather desultory fire, again mostly by .22 sporting rifles, but had eventually been able to withdraw in good order and without casualties on either side.
We were relieved that the men were back, but continued to be concerned about the Government Agent. Fortunately, however, we need not have worried. Next day he turned up, having taken advantage of the confusion to make his escape and survived a fairly hair-raising journey through the bush. The attempted rebellion in Tanna had failed in its objective and more or less collapsed on the spot.
Largely, thanks to the steadiness of the Government Agent and the Police, the TAFEA attempt at secession had failed in Tanna. But the rebellion in Santo was not disposed of until after Independence, when the new government of Vanuatu were able to bring in some troops from Papua New Guinea. They dealt with Jimmy Stephens in a couple of days, with one almost inadvertent casualty, when his son was killed after failing to stop at a roadblock.
The new Government were understandably cock-a-hoop at this, but were less than generous in claiming that this proved the superiority of Melanesian soldiers over the Paratroopers of France and the crack Royal Marines of Great Britain, who had been unable to quell the rebellion.
The Marines were understandably miffed at the suggestion that they were good only for guarding flagpoles. But French operational control made this inglorious role inevitable. And in the end the Marines fulfilled their function. After Independence, Whitehall and Port Vila allowed them to stay on to guard the Luganville airfield, so that the PNG troops, who had no political limitations, were able to deploy in Santo without having to fight their way ashore.
Moreover, the fact that the British and French troops ever came to the New Hebrides in the first place was, I am confident, the result of a miscalculation, probably by my French colleague, but perhaps also in Paris. Santo and Tanna apart, the newly elected Government of Vanuatu, which was about to lead the country to Independence, understandably became nervous about security, even in the central island of Efate. There was an abortive attempt to sabotage New Hebrides Radio and various other signs of growing unrest.
Walter Lini, the new Prime Minister, therefore summoned Inspector-General Robert and myself - pointed out that we were still jointly responsible for security and asked what we were going to do about it. In his opinion, troops were now needed, both to deal with the rebellions in the outer islands and to ensure stability at the centre. Regretfully, I agreed with him, and so to my surprise did Robert. The Resident Commissions therefore sent off a joint appeal for troops to London and to Paris.
With hindsight I am pretty sure that Robert reasoned as follows - "There are French paratroops in New Caledonia 300 miles away. They can be here within the day at almost no cost. The British on the other hand have no troops nearer than the U.K. or perhaps Hong Kong. They are never going to send them half way around the world. (This was before the Falklands war and before the world had taken the measure of Mrs. Thatcher). So the French troops will be here alone and will be able to dictate events."
A fair assumption one would think, but they had reckoned without the stalwart reactions of the Thatcher Government. The next thing they heard was that the Spearhead Company of the Royal Marines was in Honolulu en route for Port Vila. (This involved, I believe, my only ultra vires act in the whole sorry chain of events. According to the book, the runway at Bauerfield was not capable of bearing the landing weight of the RAF's V.C.10 aircraft. I altered the book unilaterally and declared that the runway was strong enough. I therefore watched the troops touch down with, I hope, well concealed concern).
There must then have been some very rapid telegraphing between the French Residency and Paris, after which Inspector-General Robert, without apparently any flick of embarrassment, protested to me by formal note that since the French force was being withdrawn (24 hours after they have arrived), he must object to my unilateral act in bringing British troops to the territory without his consent.
Fortunately London found this as ridiculous as I did. They allowed me to reply publicly that it was not the business of Robert or myself to make policy, but to carry out our joint instructions, (I rather enjoyed that, though I did at Robert's urgent request, cut out a passage reminding him that the original request for troops had been made jointly by the Resident Commissioners). The Royal Marines arrived, and were most efficiently billeted in the grounds of Malapoa College. There is no doubt that their presence stabilised the situation, at least on Efate, and we heard no more about any withdrawal by the French.
But again we could not commit the Marines to unilateral action in Santo, against not only the Nagriamel, but also against a number of French citizens. So until the immediate pre-Independence expedition to guard the Santo flagpole, the Marines stayed on Efate. There, at least, they were under the most sensible control of my temporary Military Adviser, Charles Guthrie, later to become the head of all the British armed forces, the Chief of the Defence Staff.
It was, of course, absurd to have two companies of the finest fighting troops in the world, the British Royal Marines and the French Para-Military Police, sitting twiddling their thumbs in Efate, when the rebellion was hundreds of miles away in Santo. Inevitably the international press and television, who were by then swarming over the islands, made the most of it with headlines like "The Coconut War", and farcical interviews with Jimmy Stephens. Even the French reporters seemed affected by this atmosphere of unseemly levity. By this time Walter Lini's government had acquired their own press spokesman, one John Beasant, whom the francophone reporters seemed to find particularly risible. They would address him at press conferences as "Monsieur Baisant", and then roll about laughing, to the mystification of those unacquainted with French off-colour slang.
Nor were the New Hebrides Government themselves, though understandably anxious to justify the presence of the troops, always a help. They put out a press release to say that the Marines were clearing paths and building bridges on Efate, prompting a rather tart inquiry from the press as to whether this was the best use of fighting troops, brought half-way round the world.
And when the R.A.F. Hercules pilots, who had to keep up their flying hours anyway, offered Vanuatu Government Ministers a ride around the islands so that they could see their villages from the air, the Government replied to Francophone criticism of joyriding by announcing that the aircraft had been searching for a French submarine, which they believed was in the area to bring help and comfort to the Santo rebels.
The Hercules crew were greatly diverted at this account of their transport aircraft being employed in an anti-submarine role, and painted "Sub-Hunter" on the nose of their aircraft. But in truth these absurdities had beneath them a very real feeling of frustration that a situation, which should never have been allowed to rise in the first place, was in danger of getting out of hand.
Independence Day was approaching. The Royal Marines were still sitting in Port Vila, two hundred miles from Jimmy Stephens' headquarters. It looked as if, because of their internal differences, the Metropolitan Powers would do nothing effective to end the rebellion, so that the new State of Vanuatu would be born with its largest and riches island, Santo, in a state of open and successful revolt. I was by that time making myself rather unpopular with the Foreign Office by insisting that something must really be done. A succession of my senior colleagues was sent out from London, all clearly with the brief, though they were too polite to say so, that that fellow Stuart must be making a mess of things. All left again, shaking their heads in disbelief, after futile attempts at negotiation.
At some stage, therefore, although I was not privy to the negotiations, they must have succeeded in convincing their opposite numbers in Paris that Britain and France could not simply walk away from the situation. The New Hebrides was very nearly the last British Territory to be granted Independence. Apart from Israel and Aden, where force majeure had been too much for us, we had never left a newly independent government unable to control the territory it had inherited. I was therefore informed with pride, that the French forces would be reinforced from New Caledonia, and that both they and the Marines would go hand-in-hand to Santo, to restore the situation before Independence Day.
There was only one condition, that the whole force would be under French command. On the face of it this too was understandable, even desirable. The Condominium was still in force. Neither the French nor the British could act independently. If there had to be military action, French citizens supporting the rebellion would inevitably get hurt. It was obviously desirable that this should happen under French command, if it had to happen at all.
The only problem was that the French Commander's actions, and therefore presumably his orders, were to guard the airfield and the flagpole and nothing else. So the rebellion remained unquashed and the rebel standard flew unchallenged within sight of the new flag of Vanuatu. (though I believe, without being supposed to know, that the Marines mounted a clandestine and successful operation against the Vemarana flag on Independence Day).
The other essential for the French authorities was that the landing of the joint force should not be opposed. If Jimmy Stephens had blocked the airfield, as he had against the Lini Government Ministers, the Metropolitan forces would have had to fight their way in, and could hardly have avoided taking over the whole island.
So my colleague, Inspector-General Robert flew to Santo, via a mysteriously unblocked airfield, to persuade Jimmy and the colons not to oppose the joint force. Unfortunately for him someone took a tape recorder into his meeting with the rebels, and this was produced at the subsequent trial of Jimmy Stephens.
I have no idea whether the tape recording was genuine, or was tampered with in some way. But according to the trial report, Robert told the Santo meeting that they had nothing to fear; that France was in control and would remain so after independence; that the soldiers under French command came as friends, and that the Lini government would have no power over them.
At the trial it was suggested that the British in general and I in particular had been duped by Robert, just as those who heard and believed him in Santo eventually turned out to have been deceived when the Papua New Guineas troops arrived. It is true that I had no idea what Robert was going to say in my absence. But, with hindsight, while regarding his actions, and indeed the whole French policy towards Santo as being foolish and mistaken, largely because they were so manifestly self-defeating, I do not find them hard to understand.
I imagine that his instructions must have been at all costs to persuade the rebels to welcome the troops and thus avoid the need for military force. And this he successfully did. When the Anglo-French force landed unobstructed at Luganville Airport, they were greeted with garlands and dances, and must have felt exceedingly foolish.
Robert was a tough guy and an experienced operator, (it always used to annoy me when he managed to get the international press to refer to him as a distinguished former rugby player, when my casual attempts to mention my own Rugby career seemed to fall on deaf ears). But I did not, and still do not regard him as devious. I believe he was representing the interests of France as best he could in a very unpromising situation; and in his successful, if misleading ploy to make it possible for the troops to land without a battle, I think it was very probable that in the end he saved lives, some of them British. And that has been the proper function of Colonial Administration since time began.
So looking at the final days of the Condominium what are we to make of everything that went before? Was it a complete waste of time? Were the British District Agents and their French counterparts with their concern for good administration, justice and development simply indulging in an ego-trip at the expense of the unfortunate Melanesians, who had been compelled to suffer the absurdities of the Condominium system for over three quarters of a century?
Certainly, as my wife Pat and I boarded the Duke of Gloucester's aircraft on the day after Independence, without even time to say goodbye to our friends, I had a real feeling of guilt. It was all very well for us. We were leaving - we might even have time for a rest (as it happened we didn't. Eight days after leaving Port Vila I was greeting the British Foreign Secretary in Finland on the Arctic Circle).
But for Walter Lini and his new Government there was no respite. They had to tidy up the Santo affair, thank Papua New Guinea for sending their troops, negotiate for aid from the Metropolitan countries, create new systems of law, unify the administration, take their place as an independent nation on the world stage and above all fulfil the expectations of the people that the coming of Independence would make a real difference to their lives. It is small wonder that the Prime Minister suffered a stroke soon after. Like I suppose all District Officers who care about their jobs (and that means all District Officers) we wished we could have been there to help.
So, at the end of the day, what is the balance? What did we achieve in the New Hebrides? Were they, to quote Asterisk's depressing book, no more than the "Isles of Illusion". Did seventy-five years of the work of the British District Agents create no more than shadows in the fire, which vanished with the dawn of Independence?
And what of the British District Agents themselves? Were they no more than "Third-class minds with third class degrees and a Blue in some minor sport"? Were they really arrogant, insensitive, uncaring of the culture of the people among whom they lived?
That certainly is the modern myth. I well remember, while I was working for the Government of Uganda after their Independence, some of my African colleagues being taken aside by the bright young gentlemen of the new British High Commission, who said to them "Please understand, we are not like those wicked people who have been oppressing you all these years - we are your friends".
Certainly it is true that at times we were arrogant. Which of us could claim that we never lost our temper or acted insensitively towards an alien culture. Probably we fussed too much about things that really did not matter. We were not always free of pomposity. Every time they turn up a photograph of me in a white tropical uniform, crowned with ostrich plumes, my children and grandchildren remind me that in Bichelamar these are "grass blong arse blong cock".
And few of us really took the trouble to look at the New Hebrides through French eyes. To a logical Frenchman, conscious that to be French is the highest state of civilisation, there is a certain illogicality even in Independence. But to opt for a largely Anglophone independence, when Francophonie is available, is to go beyond illogicality into humiliation. We should have been more conscious of that and taken more care of French and Francophone pride.
But the only real way of judging whether the British District Agents did a good job is to look at the people they left behind. Structures change, but the quality of all those Melanesian officers trained by the British, and their children and grandchildren is lasting evidence of the quality of that training.
I think of the Melanesian Government Agent trekking through the bush after his escape in Tanna. I think of those policemen, staying disciplined in Santo after being humiliated by Jimmy Stephens and by the failure of the Metropolitan powers to back them up. I think of the Ministers and civil servants longing to make sense of their chaotic inheritance after the Resident Commissioners had gone.
Even more recently, I think of the quality of the Ni-Vanuatu students, the sons and daughters of our former colleagues, who have begun to find their way to Britain. One of them, a scholarship student at Atlantic College, where I found myself as Principal after my retirement from the Foreign Office, won the Nobel Award for International Students, and attended the ceremonies in Stockholm with the great and the good from all parts of the world.
These people are the fruits of the British District Agents and by those fruits we may know them and the measure of what they achieved. Sir Christopher Wren's epitaph in St. Paul's is "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice" - "If you want a memorial, look around you". Let that be theirs too.