The World at War

NEW HEBRIDES 1606 - 1948


1606May 3 A Spanish expedition sailing from Peru under Pedro Fernandez de Quiros lands on the island of Espiritu Santo. De Quiros thinking he has discovered the great southern continent believed to exist names it Tierra Austral del Espiritu Santo.
1766A French expedition under Louis Antoine de Bougainville discovers the islands which he names Les Grande Cyclades; Maewo, Pentecost, Ambrym and Malekula Islands. Bougainville sails through strait dividing Espiritu Santo and Malekula proving that Santo is an island an not the fabled continent of Tierra Austral as believed by de Quiros.
1774July 16 A British expedition under Captain James Cook sights Australia del Espiritu Santo. Cook spends the next several weeks exploring the surrounding archipelago which he names the New Hebrides. He discovers that Pentecost and Ambrym are separate islands, that Ambrym has twin active volcanoes and mistakenly identifies Paama and Lopevi as one island. Cook becomes the first European to visit Epi and the southern islands of Efate, Erromango and Tanna.
1826Irish trader and explorer Peter Dillon lands on Erromango looking for remains of the French explorer La Perouse who disappeared in the region 40 years earlier. Dillon finds no trace of the missing Frenchman but notes that the island is covered with valuable stands of sandalwood an aromatic wood much prized by the Chinese. Dillon’s discovery unleashes a rush of sandalwood traders to the New Hebrides.
1839November 30 The Reverend John Williams and James Harris of the London Missionary Society are killed and eaten by cannibals at Dillon’s Bay on the island of Erromango. Their martyrdom comes shortly after the murder of five natives by European sailors.
1847Australian banker Benjamin Boyd recruits 65 Tanna islanders to work as shepherds on his station along the banks of the Murray River in New South Wales.
1853September 24 Admiral Auguste Fébvrier Despointes issues a proclamation taking possession of New Caledonia in the name of France which includes the New Hebrides among the new colony’s dependencies.
1863Captain Robert Towns, a pioneer sandalwood trader, fires his German workers and recruits indentured laborers from the South Sea islands including the New Hebrides to replace them on his Queensland cotton plantation. Pacific islanders become the backbone of tropical agriculture in the colony during the 19th century. In theory, they are hired on contract for a term of three years. In practice, they are as often as not, “blackbirded”, i.e. kidnapped and practically enslaved.
1878France and Great Britain declare the New Hebrides neutral territory despite pressure from planters, who favor French annexation, and missionaries in favor of annexation by Great Britain.
1870s Intertribal warfare and disease have reduced the native population that numbered an estimated 1,000,000 at the time of Cook’s discovery to about 650,000. The islanders lack of immunity to diseases introduced, at times deliberately, by the European sandalwood traders and blackbirders is a major factor in the decline.
1882John Higginson, a French citizen of Anglo-Irish origin, founds la Compagnie Calédonienne des Nouvelles Hébrides which soon acquires more than 20 % of the cultivated lands in the islands.
1883June 6 A delegation of churchmen and political leaders who are alarmed by the Compagnie Calédonienne des Nouvelles Hebrides’ acquisitions in the New Hebrides meets with Victoria Premier James Service seek his support for British seizure of the islands. Service and his Cabinet endorse a scaled down version of their proposal.
July The Victoria legislature calls for annexation of New Guinea and the islands between it and Fiji.Queensland’s premier, Thomas McIlwraith, opposes annexation of the New Hebrides which he views as the first step in a plan by missionaries to suppress the trade in indentured labor from the islands for work on the colony’s sugar plantations. The proposal fails to win support in the other Australian colonies as well. Victoria Liberal leader George Higginbotham delivers an address to a meeting of 2,000 annexationists in which he stresses the danger posed to Australia by the escaped felons from penal colonies in the Pacific.
1885March The Conservative opposition in Westminster stirs uproar over suggestions leaked from the Government that France might receive a free hand in the New Hebrides. Gladstone is obliged to rule out such a concession without the consent of the Australian colonies.
December A Franco-German agreement is concluded under which Germany renounces all claims in the New Hebrides and France agrees to respect the rights of German traders in the islands.
1887January The first Roman Catholic missions in the New Hebrides are established by four Marist priests sent by Monsignor Fraysse, the Vicar Apostolic of New Caledonia.
November 16 An Anglo-French convention establishes a joint commission charged with the protection of British subjects and French citizens in the New Hebrides. The French and British naval commanders in the region will preside over the Commission which is to be composed of two French and two British naval officers on an alternating basis.
During the Year British missionaries, alarmed by growing French influence in the New Hebrides, persuade the Victoria and New South Wales governments to subsidize shipping services between Australia and the islands.
1888The Australian United Steam Navigation Company begins carrying cargo, passengers and mails between the New Hebrides and Sydney. The steamship service is subsidized by the governments of New South Wales and Victoria.
1889The Australasian New Hebrides Company is formed to encourage Australian trade and settlement in the islands. The company’s Victoria backers included former premier James Service, two ministers, four other members of the colony’s legislature and merchants James Burns and Robert Philp.
1894La Compagnie Calédonienne des Nouvelles-Hébrides is renamed la Société Française des Nouvelles Hébrides. The company’s holdings now include 55 % of the cultivatable land in the New Hebrides. Ten people are killed in volcanic eruptions on Ambrym Island. Six are struck by flying debris and four are overtaken by lava flows.
1895The Naval Commission vetoes a proposal to establish courts of arbitration to settle civil disputes, a matter left unaddressed by the 1887 Paris Convention. French and British settlers are given the right to approach courts presided over by judges of their respective nationality but no tribunal is as yet established to deal with matters in common or with the natives.
1897September 30 Burns, Philp & Company Limited take over the assets of the bankrupt Australasian New Hebrides Company.
1890s The decline of the native population continues dropping to an estimated 100,000.
1900September 1 Burns, Philp & Company Limited signs a 10 year agreement with the Government of New South Wales to carry the mails between Sydney and the New Hebrides. The mail steamers also carry tourists who pay £25, Saloon class, for a 7 weeks round trip from Sydney to the New Hebrides.
1901December 17 Governor General John Hope of Australia assents to the Pacific Island Labourers Act barring their entry into the country and requiring the deportation of those already present in Australia within five years.
1903March 20 New Caledonian postal authorities begin stationing a postal agent on board the Messageries Maritimes vessel Pacifique which operates between Nouméa and ports in the New Hebrides.
1906March 24 New Caledonian postal authorities establish an agency in Port Vila.
October 20 An Anglo-French convention establishes a condominium to rule over the New Hebrides. The convention creates a joint court composed of British and French judges presided over by a neutral judge appointed by the King of Spain and a joint executive administration but French and British residents remain subject only to their respective national authorities.
1907March 22 The French Resident Commissioner for the New Hebrides is made subordinate to the Governor General of New Caledonia.
1913December 6 Massive volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in the Ambrym Island caldera kill at least 21 people and leave hundreds without shelter.
1914August 5 A new Anglo-French convention requires each of the powers to pay the cost of their respective administrations and the expense of joint services to be defrayed by local taxation.
The pound Sterling and the French franc become the legal tender currency of the condominium. Australian currency is also in widespread circulation.
1920s The Santo Naked cult appears on Espiritu Santo. The cult’s leader Runovoro predicts the return of ancestors who will arrive after a deluge in a great white ship loaded with cargo and the end of white rule on the island.
1923Six leaders of the Santo Naked cult are executed for the murder of a British planter.
1932Demand for the condominium’s principal commodities drops sharply in the midst of the worldwide economic crisis. The quantity of copra exported drops 16% from 1926 levels, cocoa 11%, cotton 87% and coffee 22%. Overall export earnings drop to £78,601 (19% of 1926 earnings).
1933Henri Sautot is named French Resident Commissioner.
1935The Australian pound is made legal tender in the condominium.
1938The condominium’s economy improves only slightly despite record copra exports of 11,448 tons (136% of the 1926 level). Cotton exports drop to a mere 27 tons which net £491. Overall export earnings climb to £120,211 (up 153% since 1932 but still only 31% of 1926 income).
1939The estimated population of the condominium is 40,000 Melanesians, 687 French, 218 British and 1,050 Vietnamese.
1940April Tanna Island tribesmen meet to receive the message of John Frum who they regard as the representative of Karaperamun, the god of Mount Tukosmeru. John Frum prophesizes a cataclysm in which Tanna becomes flat, the volcanic mountains fall and fill the riverbeds to form fertile plains, and Tanna is joined with Erromango and Aneityum to form a new island. After this John Frum will reveal himself, bringing in a reign of bliss. The natives will regain their youth. There will be no sickness or need to care for gardens, trees or pigs. The Whites will go. John Frum will establish schools to replace mission schools and will pay the chiefs and the teachers. Only one difficulty prevents the immediate attainment of this happy state, the presence of the Whites, who will have to be expelled first. The use of European money is to cease and ancient customs such as kava drinking, dancing and polygyny now prohibited by the missionaries restored.
June 24 Commissioner Henri Sautot convenes a meeting of 400 Frenchmen in Port Vila which supports de Gaulle’s Free French movement.
July 20 Commissioner Henri Sautot convenes a second meeting in Port Vila. This time only 3 out 600 attendees refuse to support the Free French.
July 22 Commissioner Henri Sautot telegrams General de Gaulle to announce the New Hebrides rally to the Free French Movement. Sautot declares that he will no longer follow orders from his superior, Georges Pélicier the Governor of New Caledonia, unless he also rallies to the Free French.
September Commissioner Sautot leaves Port Vila on board a Norwegian tanker for Nouméa where he will direct the Gaullist take over of New Caledonia.
1941May John Frum cultists on Tanna go on a spending spree at the local trading stations in order to rid themselves of European money which is to be replaced by John Frum's own with a coconut stamped on it. Some hurl their savings into the sea, believing that when there is no money left on the island the White traders will have to depart.
May 11 Sunday services at the Presbyterian and Dominican missions on Tanna go unattended after an influential chief joins the John Frum cult in calling for abandonment of the mission schools.
May 18 The British Agent on Tanna visits Green Point to find the mission abandoned except for a few women and children. He calls in police from Port Vila who arrest a native named Manehivi who claims to be John Frum. Agent Nicol has Manehivi tied to tree for a day to expose him as a fraud, fines him £100 and makes five chiefs sign a statement renouncing John Frum. Manehivi is later sentenced to three years in prison and five years exile from Tanna and nine followers are sentenced to a year in prison.
October 1 The New Hebrides franc, New Caledonian banknotes overprinted with the Cross of Lorraine, becomes the sole legal tender currency in the condominium.
December News of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reignites the John Frum movement among the natives of Tanna who credit the attack to the Germans who they believe will be victorious in the war. Agent Nicol has twenty Frum followers arrested and taken to Port Vila and recommends the assignment of a permanent police force to quell anti-British sentiments on Tanna.
Missionaries on Tanna intercepted messages sent from the Port Vila jail by Joe Nalpin, a prisoner purporting to be John Frum, addressed to a west coast chief and two other men. They contained a new theme: John Frum is King of America, or will send his son to America to seek the King, or his son is coming from America, or his sons are to seek John Frum in America. Mount Tukosmeru will be covered by invisible planes belonging to John Frum.
1942January The appearance of Australian Catalina flying boats on patrol over Tanna sparks rumors that three sons of John Frum; Isaac, Jacob and Lastuan had landed by plane on the other side of the island from Green Point and that John Frum’s arrival is imminent.
May The unannounced arrival of an American taskforce sends many residents of Port Vila fleeing to the hills in fear of an early morning Japanese invasion. The initial force of 2,600 soldiers and 1,200 sailors and marines stationed on Efaté and 500 soldiers Espiritu Santo quickly outnumbers the local population and grows to nearly 100,000 in a matter of weeks. Over 500,000 Americans pass through the islands during the war.
The arrival of American troops reignites the John Frum movement on Tanna. A man is arrested for reporting that Mount Tukomeru is full of soldiers, it will open on the Day and the soldiers will fight for John Frum. The islanders are most astounded by the news that many of these U.S. troops are black! It was prophesied that large numbers of black Americans were coming to rule over the natives. Their dollars would become the new money; they would release the prisoners, and pay wages.
More arrests are made. The prisoners are sent to Port Vila where many are allowed to work for the Americans.
August 3 The American destroy USS Tucker strikes a mine in a newly laid field at the entrance to Segond Channel off Espiritu Santo. Six crewmembers are killed in the explosion.
August 4 USS Tucker breaks up while under tow and grounds near Abnetare, Malo Island.
October 26 The American Liner SS President Coolidge, carrying 5,050 U.S. Army troops and 340 crewmembers, strikes a mine in the entrance to Segond Channel off Espiritu Santo. The Captain manages to ground the crippled liner on a reef giving the company enough time to abandon the ship before it sinks. All but 4 men on board survive.
October The return of British Agent Nicol to Tanna sparks clashes between police and armed followers of the John Frum movement.
Neloaig, a new leader of the John Frum cult in the north of Tanna, proclaims himself John Frum, King of America and Tanna. He organizes an army which conscripts labor for the construction of an airfield that he claims the Americans had told him to build for planes bringing goods from John Frum's father. Agent Nicol radios for help and arrests Neloaig after several natives are wounded while resisting “conscription”. Condominium police reinforcements arrive in Tanna with two American officers. The police disarm the 200 Frum followers who are still busy constructing an airfield and the Americans attempt to convince them of their folly. The police take forty six prisoners and the rest of the assembled flee in panic after a burst of machine gun fire destroys a John Frum poster pinned to a nearby tree. Neloaig is given a two year prison sentence.
1943August Marine Fighter Squadron 214, Major Gregory Boyington’s “Blacksheep Squadron”, spends the month training at Turtle Bay on Espiritu Santo before going into combat in the Solomon Islands.
During the Year Condominium authorities execute two men for impersonating cargo cult figure John Frum.
The John Frum cult continues to flourish. Missionaries on Tanna attempt to reopen schools. Only fifty children out of a total population Of 2,500 attend. Dances and kava-drinking continue and villages are allowed to fall into disrepair.
1947December American forces complete Operation Roll-up, the disposal of surplus military equipment stored on the islands in anticipation of the invasion of Japan. Most of the surplus is dumped in the sea after the administration of the Condominium rejects an offer to purchase it for a pittance. A major dumping ground off Luganville on Espiritu Santo Island is renamed “Million Dollar Point”.
1948April Neolaig aka John Frum is committed to a lunatic asylum. His wife is detained in Port Vila, but the people of north Tanna continue to pay her homage.

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