Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The condominium again

The Anglo-French condominium or joint administration of the New Hebrides formed between 1904 and 1906 against a sinister backdrop. The southwestern Pacific islands of Melanesia had for decades attracted the attention of nineteenth-century Church of England, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic missionaries, whose motives ranged from the genuinely enlightened to the expedient and nakedly sectarian. At the enlightened end was a deep concern for indigenous people who were target and victims of the criminal trade in indentured labor for the cane fields of Queensland and indeed many other places and purposes, a form of illegal serfdom that had existed since the 1860s to which successive colonial governments turned a blind eye. Annexation by Australia or by Britain was urged upon Whitehall therefore as a way of eradicating this form of modern slavery. At the same time it was also feared that if annexation did not take place the islands would be turned into a French penal colony, possibly worse even than Devil’s Island, and a further concern was obviously that the indigenous people would inevitably become francophone and therefore Catholic. Ironically considerable opposition to annexation came from the “White Australia” lobby, which was sufficiently developed at this date to argue for the abolition of the traffic in kanak labor not upon humanitarian grounds but rather for the purpose of racial purification. Beyond this hideous rationale, the White Australia lobby had already succeeded in persuading inter-colonial legislatures to enact impossibly high tariffs on maize, coconuts, and other crops from the New Hebrides so as to discourage trade with the coloured islanders, a state of affairs to which the French gleefully responded by encouraging and extending the flow of commodities back and forth between Port Vila and Noumea, the chief port in their thriving nickel and copper colony of New Caledonia. According to the veteran Scottish missionary Dr. John Gibson Paton, the New Hebridean islanders used to call themselves Queen Victoria’s children, and by 1904 were calling themselves the children of Queen Victoria’s son. No doubt they had long been encouraged to do so by British missionaries, but he thought annexation was in the best interests of the islanders, of the Commonwealth, and of the Empire, and that the proposed condominium was a thoroughly bad idea. Of course this view did not prevail in the end, and it is interesting to observe that the condominium was at first interpreted by the Conservative opposition to the Liberal government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman at Westminster as a dangerous concession that undermined British imperial interests everywhere, particularly in the partly French-speaking colony of Newfoundland (not yet a part of Canada), and by the predominantly white dominions themselves as a potentially unwelcome threat to “progressive unity” between their interests and those of the imperial capital. Old debates can be extraordinarily revealing, and battle-lines over long-forgotten issues not necessarily easily comprehended. In these circumstances, and balancing these arguments against current orthodoxies, it is hard to know whether one would have been for or against the annexation of the New Hebrides, or indeed for or against the Anglo-French condominium. Fortunately the issue is unlikely to arise again in this particular form, although the Republic of Vanuatu, as the New Hebrides are now known, is seriously threatened by the gradual but inexorable rise in sea level, so the fate of its gentle Melanesian population may again claim the moral attention of the world.

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