Monday, February 4, 2013

The condominium

One of the most bizarre consequences of the Entente Cordiale of 1904, that set of friendly agreements between France and Britain mostly relating to the two nations’ colonial possessions all over the world, and especially those that abutted, was the establishment in 1906 of the “condominium” by which France and Britain jointly administered the New Hebrides. That island group in the South Pacific achieved independence in 1980 and has since been known as the Republic of Vanuatu. The first European encounter with the islands took place in 1605 when a Spanish expedition named them Espiritu Santo. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville “re-discovered” the locality in 1768, and Captain James Cook followed in 1774. Cook named the islands New Hebrides. The French and British showed little interest in the islands before the 1860s, and both laid claim to the New Hebrides in the 1880s, but with distinct lack of enthusiasm. The condominium effectively resolved this competition, and divided the New Hebrides into two separate but nevertheless intermingled communities—English- and French-speaking. For most of the remainder of the twentieth century this curious arrangement insured that there were two currencies circulating side-by-side in the same tills, two sets of immigration procedures for bemused visitors to choose between, two justice systems, two education systems, effectively two colonial governments, each exactly mirroring the other, but naturally reflecting the different methods of colonial administration practiced in London and Paris. The British and French each appointed a co-equal “resident” from the Foreign Office in Whitehall and from the Quai d’Orsay, and their staff on the ground in Port Vila emphasized dualism to the point of farce. Every European official in one residency had an opposite number in the other with whom he was required to consult but with whom he rarely agreed. The condominium thus shared jurisdiction over the postal service, for example, but postage stamps were either British or French, and paid for with pounds sterling or francs issued by the Banque de l’Indochine. Indigenous people could choose whether to be tried under the British common law or the French civil law. Nationals of one country could set up corporations under the laws of the other. In addition to these two legal systems, a third court existed to handle cases involving traditional Melanesian customs and usage. Further, Britain and France agreed that the judge presiding over this native court should be appointed by the King of Spain in order that he could also decide with impartiality certain cases in which the French and British judges’ opinions or even whole branches of law were in conflict. The origin of this otherwise inexplicable arrangement was picturesquely historical. As well, there were two prison systems to complement the two different “national” courts. The police force was technically unified but consisted of two co-chiefs and equal numbers of officers wearing different uniforms. Each half strictly alternated their duties and assignments. The Union Jack and the Tricouleur were raised each morning in perfect synchronization, and flew side-by-side. When one or the other had to fly at half-mast, the other gallantly followed suit. Language was not the only barrier to the operation of this crazy system—because all documents had to be translated once to be understood by one side, and the response translated back again for the other. Bislama creole created further complications, although for those who could speak it Bislama did form an informal bridge between the British and the French administrations. The condominium was further strained by the radically different purpose each country had for being in the New Hebrides in the first place. Britain’s colonization of these and many other islands in the South Pacific was driven not by the Colonial Office in Whitehall, which consistently resisted their gradual annexation, but rather by pressure placed on the imperial government through the 1870s and 1880s by Australian and New Zealand colonists with voracious commercial ambitions, and a corresponding need to prevent them from doing too much harm. The French, by contrast, took a much more active interest in the region, largely to protect their much larger commercial interests in New Caledonia, and in turn their even more profitable strategic presence in French Indo-China. We are still living with the consequences of that. During the post-war period the rationale for the Anglo-French condominium was somewhat extended by the dirty business of testing atomic devices in remote atolls, reefs, and islands—the anxious and increasingly paranoid quest for the H-bomb. However, that it worked for more than seventy years, or even at all, seems to me utterly remarkable.

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