The Coconut War
Tuesday 27 April 2021
Jim Flannery’s excellent story on flying with a surly Duke of Edinburgh round the South Pacific mentioned his “god-like” status. On one island in the Vanuatu archipelago, he was literally venerated as a god by a local cargo cult. Villagers, who expressed condolences to Britain on the duke’s death, are now considering the difficult choice of whether to transfer their veneration to Prince Charles.
The South Pacific was part of my beat when I was based in Sydney for Reuters in the early 1980s and it was a mine of exotic stories from Papua New Guinea to New Caledonia. Vanuatu’s independence was one of the most colourful.
The islands were previously called the New Hebrides, one of the most absurd results of European colonialism, where Britain and France settled their rival claims by sharing the administration in the world’s only “Condominium”, dubbed “Pandemonium” because it was so chaotic.
There were dual systems for everything from law and order to education, medical care, and government. French speakers could refuse to be arrested by English-speaking policemen if they committed an offence.
I went there in 1980 to cover independence. Shortly before it was declared on 30 July, a charismatic former tractor driver called Jimmy Stevens led a violent secessionist rebellion on the biggest island, Espiritu Santo, backed by French plantation owners, former pieds-noirs from Algeria, and the right-wing US Phoenix Foundation.
Stevens had helped dispose of millions of tons of military equipment which the United States ordered to be bulldozed into the sea when they left Espiritu Santo after using it as a front-line base during the Pacific War against Japan. The operation caused bewilderment amongst the locals and fostered cargo cults, like the one that revered Prince Philip.
The rebellion led by Stevens and dubbed the Coconut or Bow and Arrow War, was allegedly backed by France, which opposed the ascendancy of Anglophones in the post-independence government.
Britain sent troops to quash the revolt but France obstructed their deployment and Walter Lini, the first leader of Vanuatu, became so frustrated at squabbling between the colonial powers that he asked for help from the fellow Melanesian nation of Papua New Guinea. In August it sent a battalion of soldiers and Australia agreed to transport the troops to Espiritu Santo.
A small number of the hack-pack in Port Vila were offered a ride in one of the C-130 transport aircraft ferrying the Papua New Guinean army at dawn the next day. We duly arrived at the airstrip and I noticed one of my chief rivals, from another global agency, was missing. It seems that he was in the arms of the pregnant wife of a diplomat in Port Vila and had overslept. Good news for me but maybe not for his career.
That was not the only strange incident. We took off and after a while noticed the lumbering C-130 was performing rather erratic manoeuvres. I went up to the cockpit and was told the pilot was having a bit of fun with another C-130 which we could see to our starboard, by simulating a dog fight for which the aircraft was not well-suited.
Nevertheless we made it to Espiritu Santo and a detachment of PNG troops lined up on the tarmac in full combat gear. I remember thinking they looked somewhat terrifying. That thought also quickly crossed the minds of the insurgents, who were mainly armed with bows and arrows, and there was little fighting. Stevens surrendered when his son was shot dead driving through a PNG roadblock and the rebellion ended. Stevens was sentenced to 14 years in jail.
He was released early, in 1991, apparently having sired some of his more than 40 children while in jail, and died in 1994.
A peaceful Espiritu Santo is a now a mecca for divers, exploring the rusting American military wreckage as well as beautiful coral fish. ■