New Hebrides

Vanuatu, a small volcanic island group in the South Pacific, was named for the Hebrides Scottish archipelago by James Cook. The first Europeans, a Spanish expedition, arrived in 1606 to be greeted by a Melanesian lineage spanning three millennia.

Location of the New Hebrides in the South Pacific
The New Hebrides archipelago
Espiritu Santo is the largest and northern most island in the archipelago.

On his return trip to New Zealand in 1774, Cook landed at Tana, one of 80 islands, charting the archipelago and giving it its name.

The Landing at Tana in the New Hebrides, William Hodges [Wikimedia Commons]
In 1839 the first Christian Missionary to the islands, Reverend John Williams, was cannibalised.

New Hebrideans were some of those coerced, tricked, or plain kidnapped to work as labourers, particularly at the sugar cane plantations of Queensland and Fiji. Blackbirding, as it was known, was a thriving industry between 1842 and 1904, not limited to a specific locale.

Both the British and the French colonised the islands independently, before agreeing to an Anglo-French condominium (1906–1980). For almost 20 years before that, part of the New Hebrides had been a French protectorate, and another part claimed by the United Kingdom. In 1853, France had formerly taken possession of nearby New Caledonia which, from 1860 until the end of transportation in 1897, became a penal colony. France had constructed its own Pacific convict colony, and the New Hebrides was part of that.

Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, 1942 [Image: United States Navy]
F6F-3 Hellcats of VF-40 at Espiritu Santo, 1944 [Wikimedia Commons]


Flag of New Hebrides, 1966 [Wikimedia Commons]
The condominium allowed for three separate governments—a French, a British, and a joint administration (both local and European officials)—before Vanuatu was granted its independence on 30 July, 1980. This was the culmination of a rebellion that broke out on the island of Espiritu Santo, to which the local government asked of Britain and France for assistance.

Not keen to get involved in any skirmishes, the French in particular tarried. [It was revealed later that they were behind the rebellion all along.] The local government, however, received assistance from soldiers of nearby Papua New Guinea. But the Coconut War, as it came to be known, fizzled as one Melanesian combatant identified with the other.

The Republic of Vanuatu is now a parliamentary democracy with a written constitution, and a member of the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Commonwealth of Nations. Australia, France, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are Vanuatu’s main benefactors, with China coming on the scene as the UK looks away from the Pacific. Otherwise, the economy runs on the basis of agriculture, tourism, financial services and its cattle farming.


Further Reading

Appendix — New Hebrides (Wikipedia excerpt)

New Hebrides, named for the Hebrides Scottish archipelago, was the colonial name for the island group in the South Pacific Ocean that now is the nation of Vanuatu. Native people had inhabited the islands for three thousand years before the first Europeans arrived in 1606 from a Spanish expedition led by Pedro Fernandes de Queirós. The islands were colonized by both the British and French in the 18th century, shortly after Captain James Cook visited the islands.

The two countries eventually signed an agreement making the islands an Anglo-French condominium, which divided the New Hebrides into two separate communities: one Anglophone and one Francophone. This divide continues even after independence, with schools teaching in either one language or the other, and with different political parties. The condominium lasted from 1906 until 1980, when the New Hebrides gained their independence as Vanuatu.


The New Hebrides was a rare form of colonial territory in which sovereignty was shared by two powers, Britain and France, instead of just one. Under the Condominium there were three separate governments – one French, one British, and one joint administration that was partially elected after 1975.

The French and British governments were called residencies, each headed by a resident appointed by the metropolitan government. The residency structure greatly emphasized dualism, with both consisting of an equal number of French and British representatives, bureaucrats and administrators. Every member of one residency always had an exact mirror opposite number on the other side who they could consult. The symmetry between the two residencies was almost exact.

The joint government consisted of both local and European officials. It had jurisdiction over the postal service, public radio station, public works, infrastructure, and censuses, among other things. The two main cities of Santo and Port Vila also had city councils, but these did not have a great deal of authority.

Local people could choose whether to be tried under the British common law or the French civil law. Visitors could choose which immigration rules to enter under. Nationals of one country could set up corporations under the laws of the other. In addition to these two legal systems, a third Native Court existed to handle cases involving Melanesian customary law. There was also a Joint Court, composed of British and French judges. The President of the Joint Court was appointed by the King of Spain until 1939 when the post was abolished after the retirement of the last President, partly due to the abolition of the Spanish monarchy in 1931.

There were two prison systems to complement the two court systems. The police force was technically unified but consisted of two chiefs and two equal groups of officers wearing two different uniforms. Each group alternated duties and assignments.

Language was a serious barrier to the operation of this naturally inefficient system, as all documents had to be translated once to be understood by one side, then the response translated again to be understood by the other, though Bislama creole represented an informal bridge between the British and the French camps.


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