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Indentured labour and the development of plantations in Vanuatu : 1867-1922. - article ; n°82 ; vol.42, pg 41-63


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Journal de la Société des océanistes - Année 1986 - Volume 42 - Numéro 82 - Pages 41-63
This paper examines the phase of plantation development in Vanuatu based on the employment of indentured ni-Vanuatu labourers, a phase which lasted from 1867 to 1922, after which planters turned increasingly to Vietnam to meet their labour requirements. During this period the French reversed the initial British domination of the plantation economy but, like the British, they were never able to close the gap between their labour needs and the labour supply. The result was that neither British nor French planters were ever able to establish the sort of economic hegemony to which they aspired. Indeed, far from the development of a prosperous expatriate planter class, what emerged for many planters was a pattern of mere subsistence survival if not total failure, with the key economic role in the group being increasingly assumed by the ni-Vanuatu themselves.
Le sujet traité est le développement des plantations au Vanuatu pendant la période caractérisée par l'emploi d'ouvriers ni-Vanuatu sous contrat. Cette phase dura de 1867 à 1922, après quoi les planteurs recoururent aux Vietnamiens de manière croissante pour satisfaire leurs besoins de main-d'œuvre. Pendant la période considérée les Français s'assurèrent la domination de l'économie de plantation qui avait d'abord appartenu aux Britanniques, mais, comme ces derniers, ils furent toujours incapables de combler leur déficit de main-d'œuvre. De là suit que ni les planteurs britanniques ni les planteurs français ne réussirent jamais à établir la sorte d'hégémonie économique à laquelle ils aspiraient. Il y a plus, loin qu'elle crée une classe prospère de planteurs expatriés, l'histoire réservait à de nombreux planteurs un destin de pure subsistance sinon d'échec total, cependant que le rôle économique était joué de plus en plus par les ni-Vanuatu eux-mêmes.
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Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Ron Adams
Indentured labour and the development of plantations in
Vanuatu : 1867-1922.
In: Journal de la Société des océanistes. N°82-83, Tome 42, 1986. pp. 41-63.
This paper examines the phase of plantation development in Vanuatu based on the employment of indentured ni-Vanuatu
labourers, a phase which lasted from 1867 to 1922, after which planters turned increasingly to Vietnam to meet their labour
requirements. During this period the French reversed the initial British domination of the plantation economy but, like the British,
they were never able to close the gap between their labour needs and the labour supply. The result was that neither British nor
French planters were ever able to establish the sort of economic hegemony to which they aspired. Indeed, far from the
development of a prosperous expatriate planter class, what emerged for many planters was a pattern of mere subsistence
survival if not total failure, with the key economic role in the group being increasingly assumed by the ni-Vanuatu themselves.
Le sujet traité est le développement des plantations au Vanuatu pendant la période caractérisée par l'emploi d'ouvriers ni-
Vanuatu sous contrat. Cette phase dura de 1867 à 1922, après quoi les planteurs recoururent aux Vietnamiens de manière
croissante pour satisfaire leurs besoins de main-d'œuvre. Pendant la période considérée les Français s'assurèrent la domination
de l'économie de plantation qui avait d'abord appartenu aux Britanniques, mais, comme ces derniers, ils furent toujours
incapables de combler leur déficit de De là suit que ni les planteurs britanniques ni les planteurs français ne
réussirent jamais à établir la sorte d'hégémonie économique à laquelle ils aspiraient. Il y a plus, loin qu'elle crée une classe
prospère de planteurs expatriés, l'histoire réservait à de nombreux planteurs un destin de pure subsistance sinon d'échec total,
cependant que le rôle économique était joué de plus en plus par les ni-Vanuatu eux-mêmes.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Adams Ron. Indentured labour and the development of plantations in Vanuatu : 1867-1922. In: Journal de la Société des
océanistes. N°82-83, Tome 42, 1986. pp. 41-63.
doi : 10.3406/jso.1986.2822
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/jso_0300-953X_1986_num_42_82_2822Indentured labour and the development
of Plantations in Vanuatu — 1867-1922
In 1979 Michel Panoff argued against what under indenture than in any previous year.
might be called the Canberra interpretation of Thereafter the numbers went into a steady
the recruitment of Melanesians for plantation decline as planters turned increasingly to Vie
labour. Specifically, he singled out for criticism tnam for labour; so that 1922, as well as
Stewart Firth, Malama Meleisea and Kerry marking the climax of the phase of plantation
Howe — and by implication Deryck Scarr and development based on the employment of
Peter Corris — for their suggestions that national labour, also marked its end. Examinat
ion of this phase enables us to test Panoff s Melanesians had recruited of their own free
will for plantation work, that recruiters tended contention, and to conclude that the differ
ences between Panoff and the 'Canberra School' to employ fair methods, and that both recruits
and recruiters came to realize the possibilities is at the semantic rather than the interpretative
level. At the same time it is important to take for mutually advantageous cooperation '. For
the debate a stage further 2 and to ask whether Panoff, given the economic conditions under
which the plantations operated, it was imposs its overall interpretative framework, which
ible to imagine any convergence of interests tends to reduce planter-labourer relations essent
between planter and labourer and, in relation ially to class relations, is not imposing a
concept rooted in a European construction of to his investigation of the Bismarck Archipel
ago, he argued that neither at the time of their political reality and historical discourse. Of
recruitment nor during their period of work course, given that we are, after all, dealing with
European employers of labour, some form of had Melanesian workers entered into freely
'class' analysis is inescapable. But from a negotiated contracts. The debate is relevant
to discussion of plantation development any specifically ni-Vanuatu perspective, the ques
tion of the extent to which indentured labourwhere, given that any planter's wealth is de
rived primarily from the labour of his workers. ers entered into freely negotiated contracts
(from which a conclusion is derived as to the It is particularly pertinent to consideration of
convergence or divergence of planter-labourer plantation development in Vanuatu, where for
the first half century of the process, planters interests), may be less important than the
question of the extent to which recruits' inteand administrators were pre-occupied with
rests, as defined within their own cultural narrowing the gap between labour needs and
context, were being met. In other words, labour supply. As this paper will show, from
1867, when Europeans first set about planting planter-labourer relations need to be assessed
and cultivating crops in the group as a busi not only as an example of class relations, but
also as an example of culture contact, in terms ness, the plantation labour force was almost ex
of which the ni-Vanuatu construction of reality clusively ni-Vanuatu, drawn from other islands,
is allowed its own autonomy. and working mainly under indenture for up to
three years. The high point was reached in
1922, when more ni-Vanuatu were engaged
* Sociology Department, Western Institute, Melbourne.
1. Panoff 1979, Firth 1976, Meleisea 1976, Howe 1978, Scarr 1967, Giles 1968 [1877], Corris 1973.
2. In the direction suggested by Bonnemaison 1984, 1985a, 1985b. SOCIÉTÉ DES OCÊANISTES 42
called a 'town', with its cluster of cottages, The possibility of the islands of the South
stores and warehouses, and its steam-powered west Pacific supplanting the Confederate States
as the main source of cotton for European gins and mill for working coconut fibre. By the
mills had struck a number of entrepreneurs end of 1874 Efaté could boast thirty-one
almost as soon as the first shots were fired in European settlers, twenty-nine of whom were
British. Ten plantations employed nearly 300 lthe American Civil War3. Rev. John Inglis,
abourers from other islands working under long-time resident missionary on the island of
Aneityum in southern Vanuatu succeeded in indenture for one to three years. Hebblewhite's
station at Port Escema was the most import1863 in persuading wealthy Presbyterians in
ant, with forty hectares under cotton and Scotland to subscribe 1500 £ to establish the
corn, and 121 contract workers. G. H. Davis's New Hebrides Cotton Company Limited. As
well as providing seed and basic implements, Botany Estate came next, with fifty hectares of
cotton and yams and forty-six labourers. The the Company sent out a European manager to
remaining plantations averaged twelve hectares instruct the Aneityumese in the cultivation of
cotton on individual plots set aside in each actually under cultivation, with labour
ers apiece — mostly on two year contracts. family's subsistence garden 4. Geared as it was
But the plans at least were grand, with estates to the existing scale of native horticulture, it
of up to 2000 hectares envisaged for the near was anticipated that the scheme would extend
future 5. to the adjacent islands, and the initial enthu
There was not the same concentration of siasm of the Aneityumese seemed to confirm
activity on Tanna, though Lewin had quickly expectations. They dug the plots, planted the
attracted around him at Lenakel a band of seed, and weeded around the bushes once or
fellow planters and hangers-on. Other planters twice. But they did not take to the monotony
were scattered along the north-west coast, of collecting the cotton pods day after day and
the Company eventually folded in 1868. Henc particularly around White Grass where the
open and apparently fertile grasslands promieforth, the cultivation of cash crops in Va
sed the best sites for plantations. It is impossnuatu was to proceed along conventional plan
ible to give precise figures, but it is clear that tation lines, with larger-scale planting carried
out by imported contract labour supervised by upwards of twenty Europeans, including at
least six women and one child, had settled European planters or overseers.
The process began with the purchase of along the west coast of Tanna by the early
1870s6. With fifty-five hectares actually under 730 hectares on the west coast of Tanna by
Ross Lewin in 1867, and the settlement of cotton (and plans for a further 800) Lewin was
McLeod and his partner Trueman at Havan- the most substantial planter, followed by Do
nald McLeod with twelve hectares of cotton in nah Harbour Efaté in the first half of 1868.
full-bearing in September 1872 (expanded to The Efaté settlement was abandoned in 1870
twenty-four by August 1874), and George after McLeod shot Trueman during a drunken
quarrel, but it was re-established the fo Blair, who was exporting cotton by 1873. Of
llowing year by a number of Europeans, includ the remainder, many of whom had come out as
members of two separate Melbourne syndiing Benjamin Hebblewhite, representing the
cates, what they lacked in experience and Sydney firm of Scott, Henderson and Comp
any. By the end of 1871 Hebblewhite had achievement they made up for in rather naive
erected a substantial house and large store for confidence. In their mind's eye they were
furnishing ships and local traders, and had destined to become lords and masters in a
group of islands which, with their unlimited installed steam-driven cotton gins. By this time
most of the coastal land suitable for planta natural resources and proximity to the growing
tions had been purchased by Europeans, six or markets of Australia, would one day assume
the commercial pride of place in the southern eight of whom were already in residence. By
hemisphere 7. 1873 the settlement might almost have been
3. Cf. Anon 1868 : 35; Parnaby 1972 : 126; Toullelan 1984 : 168-169.
4. New Hebrides Cotton Company Ltd, Prospectus; cf. Inglis to Kay, 5 December 1868, RPM 1869 : 179.
5. Markham 1873 : 87, 228; Campbell 1872 : 129-132, 172 ff; Thompson 1970 : 27; Wawn 1893 : 50; Farquhar,
24 October 1871 ; Suckling to Stirling, 31 July 1873, Adm. 1/6261 ; Wood 1873 : 91 ; Nowell to Goodenough, Report on the
Islands of the New Hebrides, July-November 1874, RNAS 33.
6. Edgar C. Bates and wife, the brothers Bell, G. W. Blair and wife, J. C. Daggett and family, Dana (Danna),
Fitzpatrick, Ross Lewin, Donald McLeod, S. B. Morrison, Victor Nissen, Fritz P., William D. Pritchard and wife, Captain
Ree, Ross, Edward S. Smith and wife, Robert Soden, Patrick A. Stern(e) and wife, Owen Strickland and wife, George
Washington (an American negro).
7. Moresby to Normanby, 23 September 1872, Adm. 1/6230; Wood 1873 : 93; Campbell 1872 : 183. INDENTURED LABOUR IN VANUATU 43
The planters who did in fact enjoy a measure month in order to obtain some of the red ochre
of success were the hard-headed, and often available on that island, but they had been
hard-hearted, men like Lewin, McLeod and forced ashore at Elizabeth Bay where they
Hebblewhite. None was totally dependent on a worked for nine months before making their
return from cash crops : Hebblewhite was first escape l0. Another Smith — William Smith,
mate of the Zephyr — was brought to trial in and foremost a merchant, and Lewin and
McLeod continued their recruiting operations Sydney for beating to death a Lifuan woman
for as far afield as Queensland and Fiji. and two Tannese recruits on an Efaté planta
Perhaps even more importantly, each had tion in January 1872 ". In September 1874 two
" bush boys " from either Epi or Ambrym access to a steady and cheap supply of labour
— the fundamental precondition for the est were sold against their will by a coastal tribe to
ablishment of a plantation economy 8. As Inglis Donald McLeod, who forced them into his
had found on Aneityum, Islanders did not take boat and carried them off to Efaté as planta
to plantation work on their own islands, tion hands. Confronted with the allegation,
making it necessary to import labour, prefe McLeod excused himself by pointing out that
he had at least paid for them. On the less- rably for as long a period of indenture as
possible. Removed from the distractions and frequently visited islands to the north, accord
supports of their own communities, placed in a ing to Commodore Goodenough, the usual
strange and often hostile environment where practice for recruiters was to
they were largely stripped of community based pull along the shore with tomohawks, knives, toprestige and power, forced to conform to an bacco and cloth and enter into parley with the alien and rigorous work routine if they were to Natives by speech or sign and explain as well as they
be fed and rewarded, some Islanders began to can, that they will give one, two, or three articles for
be transformed into Workers. It was not a a man. If the bargain is concluded the man steps into
uniform metamorphosis, and a number made a the boat and the goods are distributed to his friends
run for it when they realized what was entailed. who remain... If there be a chief professing any
influence a small present is made to him l2. But most appear to have accepted the restric
tions and deprivations of plantation life, and
entered into something of an implicit conspi Goodenough was not surprised that Islanders
engaged in this manner should "shew and racy by which they assumed an inferior and
submissive position vis-à-vis their 'masters' — express doubts of their being engaged for any
a position evocatively summed up in the term certain or definite time and should afterwards
endeavour to get home again ". Significantly, 'boy'.
however, Lt. Nowell, who went out of his way Initially the movement of labourers between
to investigate abuses of the system in 1 874, was islands was confined mainly to Tannese going
to work on Efaté plantations and Efatese unable to entice any engaged labourer away
to Tanna plantations — movements well with from his employ with the promise of repatria
tion. Other naval officers had similar expein the range of customary journeys, and proba
bly regarded as part of normal mobility, as riences. Captain Moresby found no evidence of
conceived by traditional society9. kidnapping, or even of Islanders being acquir
The missionary view — which was also at ed through false pretences, among the 400 l
times the official British view — was that the abourers on Efaté, Tanna and Erromango in
labourers had all been kidnapped and then 1872. In his experience the Islanders under
stood the nature of the labour traffic as held in virtual slavery. There were indeed cases
thoroughly as the planters. While it is probably of kidnapping, of labourers being retained
against their will, and of ill-treatment. Four true that men like Moresby tended to side with
Tannese working on Edward Smith's planta the settlers, and to use them for their sources of
tion on Erromango in 1874 had originally information, critical naval minds reached simi
agreed to work in his small steamer for a lar conclusions. Lt. Markham found among
8. Wawn n.d. : 60; Suckling to Stirling, 31 July 1873, Adm. 1/6261 ; Moresby to Normanby, 23 September 1872,
Adm. 1/6230; Campbell 1872 : 186.
9. Hebblewhite to Stirling, 22 January 1873, enclosed in Stirling to Admiralty, 25 June 1873, Adm. 1/6261 ; Suckling to
Stirling, 31 July 1873, Adm. 1/6261 ; Moresby 1876 : 116; Bonnemaison 1985a : 67.
10. Sanders to Goodenough, 23 August 1874, enclosed in Goodenough to Admiralty, 19 January 1875, Adm. 1/6345.
1 1 . Though, as Goodenough anticipated, the Water Police Court in Sydney refused to accept the unsworn evidence of
the Tannese witness. Cf. Sydney Morning Herald, 21 and 30 December 1874; Goodenough to Admiralty, 24 December
1874, RNAS 33.
12. Goodenough to Admiralty, 24 December 1874, 24 May 1875, RNAS 33. SOCIÉTÉ DES OCÉANISTES 44
Hebblewhite's workers several who had been make no allowance for sickness, hurricanes,
to Sydney, Brisbane and Fiji and who spoke drought and other adverse circumstances, such
some English — and none of them complained as theft 15. Still, it was possible for a planter to
make a good return on his investment — about their conditions. There were always
Efatese keen to engage for Lewin — he assuming that he had the capital to invest and
had 120 on his Lenakel plantation in 1873 — that he was able to obtain a steady supply of
and McLeod's gangs at Black Beach appeared cheap labour. In reality, however, only a small
well fed to Moresby and happy enough in the proportion of planters and prospective planters
prospect of acquiring a musket or two at the were able to meet both these conditions.
end of their year's engagement I3. Most of the new settlers were young, inexpe
Officially, the agreed-to wage was between rienced men and women, ill-equipped to sur
2 £ and 3 £ per annum, though it might be vive, much less prosper as planters. Men like
assumed that the conversion of that amount Robert Soden, an Englishman who had made
his way to New Zealand whence he had into trade goods (including guns), bought from
departed in July 1870 for Fiji via New Caledonthe planter at his marked-up price, effectively
halved the cost. There were other expenses, ia. Nouméa pleased him so much that he
such as the payment to the recruiter of, say, 5 £ decided to try for his fortune at Tanna. There
per head — though obviously the cost was less he found the soil 'splendid', the vegetation
'profuse', and the 'natives' for men like Lewin and McLeod who did their simply begging for
own recruiting. There were also establishment white protectors to settle among them. He
costs. Hebblewhite, with his steam-driven gins, immediately purchased land at Black Beach for
was one of the better-equipped (and heavier- a cotton and coffee plantation. With him at
capitalised) planters ; but a smaller hand gin, Black Beach were two other young men,
capable of turning out forty-five kilograms of waiting to be repatriated to Auckland, and one
cotton a day, could be bought for between 15 £ Lucas, apparently an old family friend in the
and 20 £. There were also freight costs, which last stages of consumption. With nothing to eat
at the time averaged about twopence or more but pig the hapless Lucas lost his appetite and
per kilogram. The planter also had to feed his died forthwith, and the remaining three all
came down with malaria. Within a few weeks labour force which, according to Hebblewhite,
his two companions had boarded a ship for cost 2 £ per man per annum for a daily
allowance of about three kilograms of yams Fiji and Soden had removed to the house of
another west coast settler — possibly Ross and other native produce. There were other
incidental expenses. At Havannah Harbour Lewin at Lenakel. From there he made his way
there operated a system of inducements to to Brisbane, still clinging to the belief that
there was a fortune to be made on Tanna " for encourage speedy work : a ticket to the value
of about twopence was given to every man who young men who can really rough it ". He
worked in the colonies for the next two and a picked over fifteen kilograms of cotton a day,
half years, and was on the point of returning to the accumulated prizes being paid weekly —
presumably in trade goods. In addition, a knife New Zealand with his savings when a rumour
or similar article was awarded to the individual of imminent British annexation, with recogni
who picked the most cotton during one week. tion only of those land holdings actually being
Taken together, the various costs were substant worked, sent him scurrying back to Tanna. In
ial. But on the basis of 560 kilograms of Nouméa he met up with Ross Lewin who
ginned cotton per hectare, at something like talked him into settling alongside his Lenakel
property, with the expectation that within a four shillings and five pence a kilogram (which,
according to Hebblewhite, was not a high year he would have sufficient ground under
price), a planter stood to gross upwards of cultivation to provide a very decent income.
120 £ per hectare. Allowing for two to three Soden also picked up in Nouméa talk of
imminent French annexation of the group and labourers per hectare, this amounted to a
possible gros return of 30 £ — 50 £ per annum of plans for New Caledonian colons to move en
per each man employed 14. masse to Tanna. Unperturbed by the prospect
of French control — " to render it properly These represent possible gross returns and
13. Nowell to Goodenough, Report on the Islands of the New Hebrides, July-November 1874, RNAS 33 ; Moresby to
Stirling, 12 September 1872, Adm. 1/6230 ; Moresby to Normanby, 23 September 1872, Adm. 1/6230 ; Markham to Stirling,
10 February 1872, Adm. 1/6230.
14. Campbell 1872 : 182-183 (information from Hebblewhite).
15. E.g. Blair, while absent in Fiji, had his cotton stored at Lenakel stolen by a German sailing under French colours,
and sold in New Caledonia as a native product fairly-bought. Cf. Goodenough to Admiralty, 11 May 1874, Adm. 1/6303. INDENTURED LABOUR IN VANUATU 45
safe and really valuable it is necessary it should havoc on Efaté where, as early as October
be under some Government" — he bought 1871, several settlers had died and the r
emaining seven or so were all " 240 hectares to the south of Lewin's property very sickly ". In
the absence of belligerent hill tribes as on for 50 £ worth of trade. The surviving contract
of sale is a paragon of legal exactitude. But Tanna, the planter community increased to
such precautions could not guarantee good more than thirty by November 1874, though
health, and Soden soon suffered a relapse of thereafter the numbers decreased just as ra
malaria. With three other sick settlers he first pidly, reportedly falling to just nine in 1876,
took refuge in the house of Ross Lewin, who before rallying to about fifteen the following
himself had just been killed by the Tannese, year. Leo Layard, son of the British consul in
and then took to sea, where the four were Nouméa, reported to his father in July 1877
picked up by a coaster heading north. One of that only five of the planters were actually
the men died on board and the other two died producing anything : John Young and Arthur
soon after landing on Efaté. Soden was taken Hebblewhite at Havannah Harbour, Robert
by the sugar planter Joubert to his property Glissan at Undine Bay, and McLeod and
near Nouméa, to recruit 16. William Ford at South West Bay (Vila). Others
For Soden and most of the other European had either gone the way of Benjamin Hebblew
men and women attracted to Tanna and Efaté hite, who had died six months before, or had
in the late 1860s and early '70s dreams were been driven out by ill-health 19. But as Scarr
not matched by reality ; and if the collection of has argued 20, malaria only served to hasten the
buildings and laid-out fields of the better-to-do demise of a community already stricken by an
like Lewin gave the visitor an impression of inability to recruit sufficient labourers. With
out labour Glissan was reduced to cultivating luxury it was really only against the backdrop
of the miserable huts of the other settlers. After less than half a hectare of cotton, Young was
five years at Wagus, Tanna, the planter Fitz- unable to start his proposed sheep and cattle
patrick could only boast a " miserable ... business for the Nouméa market, and Hebble
" bare except for two bamboo beds. white was planning to abandon his holdings shanty
Even McLeod, with his twenty-five hectares of and return to Sydney. Only Ford, who had
cotton and his forty indentured workers, was placed his property nominally under the French
forced to live out a sparse, solitary existence in flag and had obtained forty labourers from a
his small wooden house built of discarded French vessel, appeared confident21. ships' barricaded by an outside fence Initially there had been no official impediplanks,
designed to stop a rush from the ever-threa ments in the way of planters recruiting whom
tening hill tribes 17. The Tannese, in fact, they pleased, and all 400 plantation labourers
preferred to pick off the invaders along the in the group in 1872 had been obtained
bush tracks, and after the murder of the without licence. But the 1872 Pacific Islanders
settlers Bell and Ross in 1871 the remaining Protection Act made British planters liable to
Europeans on the west coast left, with the fines and imprisonment for unlicensed recruit
exception of Lewin and Morrison, manager for ing. The difficulty for planters was that a
McLeod's plantation. In December Morrison licence could only be issued, on a 500 £ bond,
too was shot dead, near his house, and by 1874 by a British Consul or Governor — though
a total of six settlers (including Lewin) had Captain Moresby appears to have ignored
been killed for encroaching on native land, both restrictions by issuing licences himself in
cutting down fruit trees and using threats 1872 to the Efaté planters. His successor,
against the Tannese 18. If planters were not thus Goodenough, acquiesced in this strictly illegal
killed or driven away, they were forced to flee arrangement to the extent of allowing vessels
by their inability to cope, in their dirty isolated repatriating labourers to engage others in lieu,
huts, with recurrent attacks of malaria. in order that sufficient produce might be made
The anopheles mosquito wreaked similar to pay the wages of the time-expired men. But
16. Years later, Soden's widow began a protracted correspondence from Lower Saxony with the High Commissioner
for the Western Pacific, pressing a claim to her late husband's Tanna land. WPA 49/1903.
17. Westwood 1905 : 12, 19-21 ; Wawn n.d. : 20; Moresby 1876 : 116.
18. Neilson to Kay, 11 December 1871, RPM 1872 : 213; Goodenough to Admiralty, 16 November 1874,
Adm. 1/6304; Moresby to Stirling, 12 September 1872, Adm. 1/6230.
19. Suckling to Stirling, 31 July 1873, Adm. 1/6261 ; Farquhar, 24 October 1871 ; R. B. Leefe, 'Report on the New
Hebrides and Solomon Islands', 10 March 1878, WPA 4/1878 ; Leo Layard to E. L. Layard, 28 July 1877, enclosed in
Foreign Office to Colonial Office, 14 November 1877, CO 83/15.
20. Scarr 1967 : 182.
21. Leo Layard to E. L. Layard, 28 July 1877. SOCIÉTÉ DES OCÉANISTES 46
Goodenough was forced to toe the official line presented an opportunity for others willing and
when the Foreign Office issued instructions in able to diversify. Ford, due to his continued
ability to obtain labour under the French flag, May 1874 totally prohibiting recruitment ; and
in October Lt. Nowell was despatched to the had sixty hectares under maize, sugar cane,
tobacco and vanilla in 1 877, with 6000 coconut group to repatriate all time-expired labourers
on British plantations. One hundred and fifty- trees planted out and 200 pigs being fattened
for the Nouméa market — which absorbed all four workers were removed from Efaté. The
that he could produce in the way of food 25. planters responded by threatening to make
Ford's subterfuge 26 foreshadowed the subsetheir plantations over to the French, or by
quent ascendancy of French interests. The recruiting under the French flag, and Goode
nough was forced to issue a 'Notice to British Anglo-French Agreement of 1878 had provid
ed for political equality, but it was the deserted Settlers in the New Hebrides Islands', warning
them that it was a felony to engage labourers Hebblewhite cotton estate, with its buildings
outside the provisions of the 1872 Act. Like in ruins and its machinery rusting on the
ground 27, which provided the more accurate other naval officers who visited the group,
guide to the economic balance of power. The Goodenough personally believed that the disci
pline of plantation work (at least on British future was seen to lie with individuals like
Ferdinand Chevillard, " a man apparently of plantations) was an effective way of bringing
superior social position, said to be exceptiothe Islanders under the influence of civi
lization, and he pressed for the appointment of nally kind and attentive to his labourers, but
a Consul on Efaté or for the senior naval not very popular with them, as he is thought to
officer in the group to be authorised to issue be too much addicted to excessive supervision
and the giving of orders " 28. Chevillard, who labour licences 22. However, plans for a consul
ar appointment at Havannah Harbour under had moved to Vila from New Caledonia in
the Western Pacific Order in Council came 1880 to establish 'Franceville', had thirty hec
unstuck when Sir Arthur Gordon was instruct tares under maize by 1882, and 15,000 coffee
ed to appoint representatives only to Samoa bushes and 12,000 coconut trees being tended by
thirty-three labourers. McLeod, with fifty labourand Tonga ; and Gordon himself (acting on the
advice of the Foreign Secretary) refused to ers, twenty hectares of maize, 35,000 coffee
issue licences on the grounds that he could not bushes and 30,000 coconut trees, was still the
adequately supervise the proper recruitment pre-eminent planter, followed by Glissan with
forty-five labourers and twelve hectares of and fair treatment of labourers during their
period of indenture. A solution, on paper at coffee. But apart from Ford, with thirty labour
least, was found early in 1878 when the ers, none of the remaining British planters
employed more than three indentured workers, Governor of New South Wales was authorised
to issue licences on the recommendation of or grew anything other than maize 29. Moreo
Consul Layard at Nouméa. But up to 1882 it ver, within a year nearly all of them had
would seem that no more than seven licences sold out to John Higginson's Compagnie Calé
had been issued under this system which, in donienne des Nouvelles-Hébrides (C.C.N.H.),
which had recently embarked on an aggressive any event, did not operate after 1883 23.
Meanwhile, another collapse in the number policy of buying up the best land in the group
for the eventual settlement of French colons. of British settlers on Efaté in 1879 confirmed
the downward trend in British fortunes24. The period of French expansionism spear
Cotton had by now given way to other cash headed by Higginson coincided with a policy
crops which, while it represented a significant of active discouragement of British planting on
the part of the Western Pacific High Commisscapital loss for settlers like the Hebblewhites
ion (W.P.H.C.) in Suva 30. Besides the prohibi- who had invested heavily on cotton machinery,
22. Moresby to Stirling, 12 September 1872, Adm. 1/6230; Suckling to Stirling, 31 July 1873, Adm. 1/6261;
Goodenough to Admiralty, 11 May 1874, Adm. 1/6303, 24 December 1874, 23 July 1875, Adm. 1/6345; Hoskins to
Admiralty, 18 February 1876, Adm. 1/6380; Digby to Commander-in-Chief, Report of Proceedings of H. M.S. Sappho,
May-October 1876, RNAS 33.
23. Admiralty to Hoskins, 6 November 1876, transmitting Colonial Office to Admiralty, 28 October 1876; Hoskins,
General Memo., 7 January 1878, RNAS 33; cf. Scarr 1967 : 178-181.
24. Giles 1968 [1877] : 51 ; — to Hoskins, 'Plantations in the New Hebrides', 29 October 1876, RNAS 33.
25.1968 : 112-113; Queensland Patriot, 8 January 1878; cf. Scarr 1967 : 181-182.
26. Similar ploys were tried by other British planters — cf. Admiralty to Hoskins, 3 April 1878, RNAS 33.
27. Bridge to High Commissioner, 27 July 1882, WPA 112/1882.
28. Bridge to High Commissioner, 9 August 1882, WPA 136/1882.
29.to 27 July 1882, WPA 112/1882.
30. Cf. Scarr 1967 : 183-190. INDENTURED LABOUR IN VANUATU 47
tion on recruiting, British settlers were further Ambrym, Malakula, Aoba and Santo, who, for
an outlay of between 3 £ and 4 £, would make disadvantaged vis-à-vis the French by more
strictly-enforced prohibitions on the supply of a tonne of copra, for which the Company
arms, ammunition and alcohol to Islanders. As would pay them 9 £ M. However, the success of
Consul Layard in Nouméa observed, the result the French copra dealers was tied to the
of such restrictions was simply an increase in Company's fluctuating fortunes, and after 1889
the British were again exporting more copra the profits filling the pockets of the French
than the French 35. Most of the dealers, French men, Americans, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians
and Italians trading in the group. But Layard's and British, were small-time traders, much like
observation fell on deaf ears in Suva where, in the individual described by Layard who,
line with the prevailing Colonial Office view, it finding a quantity of coconut trees in full
was assumed that the New Hebrides would bearing, " builds a little hut close by, makes all
" 36. pass inevitably under the control of a federated the nuts into coprah, and then goes away
Australasia 31. With coconut trees taking up to ten years to
The only real inevitability was that French come into profitable bearing, at a cost (exclud
interests would continue their ascendancy over ing the planter's supervision) over that time of
35 £ per hectare, actual planting was the British, as the non-missionary expatriate popul
ation figures suggest : preserve of a small minority of substantial
settlers. For the few large French planters who
did have the time and money to invest pros
Table 1. — Pre-condominium non-missionary pects were good : in 1905 it was estimated that
expatriate population 32. an established coconut plantation of eighty
hectares would yield ninety tonnes of copra
French British Other Nationalities which, at around 10 £ per tonne, would give a
clear income of 600 £ or 700 £ per annum. In 1882 24 16 8
1913, when copra was fetching up to 20 £ per 12 1886 18 8
tonne, the eighty hectares would have been 1889 45 29 13
1890 22 33 8 returning 1000 £ per annum. On these figures it
1891 94 56 16 was possible for establishment costs to be
1894 126 26 13 recouped in three years 37.
1897 142 67 22 But there were very few large coconut plan1902 212 80 tations, and for the great majority of settlers
the only way of cashing in on high copra prices
If anything, the figures underestimate the total was to trade in the native-grown product.
population 33, but they indicate that the French Throughout the 1880s a trader had been able
to buy ten coconuts for 'one penny' — one enjoyed between a three to two and four to one advantage over the British during stick of tobacco in the prevailing medium of
the period. exchange, which in fact cost the trader a little
This crude numerical advantage was translat over a halfpenny. However, when a number of
ed into an economic one, particularly within missionaries began trading in tobacco — which
the plantation sector. In 1886 it was reported they were able to buy at the freight-free rate of
that the French handled more than 60 % of the twenty five sticks for one shilling, compared
with the traders' cost of one shilling and group's exports, worth an estimated 15,000 £.
threepence — many ni- Vanuatu began to insist Much of it was copra collected from native
producers by S.C.N.H. agents placed on Epi, on the one penny cash for each ten coconuts.
31. Layard to High Commissioner, 20 February 1889, WPA 64/1889; cf. Scarr 1967 : 188.
32. Sources : Bridge to High Commissioner, 27 July 1882, WPA 112/1882; Brooke to Tyron, 3 August 1886,
Adm. 1/6814 (cf. Cross to Tyron, 31 March 1886, Australian Station Report for 1886); Romilly to High Commissioner,
31 December 1889, WPA 33/1890 ; 'List of known traders', Australian Station Report for 1890 : 84; Wilson to Victorian
Premier, 10 September 1891, Correspondence respecting afiairs in the New Hebrides (Victorian Parliament, 1891) : 9-12;
Davillé 1895 : 160-162 ; Appendices III, IV, V, Australian Station Report for 1897 : 41-43 ; Picanon 1957 [1903] : 262-265.
33. E.g. Brooke and Romilly did not include women and children. Also, with frequent inter-island movement, a
number of settlers would have escaped enumeration.
34. Cross to Tyron, 31 March 1886 (printed), RNAS 34; [James] 1886 : 213.
35. The British and French each exported 900 t. of copra in 1889 ; by 1900 the British were exporting 1500 t. cf. 500 t.
exported by the French.
36. Leo Layard to E. L. Layard, 28 July 1877.
37. Rason, 'Report on the trade of the New Hebrides for 1905', Cd. 3289, London 1907 ; Lucas to Hart-Davis,
9 September 1913, WPA 1780/1913; King to Consul-General for the Netherlands, Dutch East Indies, 26 March 1915,
enclosed in King to High Commissioner, 15 June 1915, W.P.A. 1908/1915. 48 SOCIÉTÉ DES OCÉANISTES
Previously 2 £ worth of tobacco had bought to by-pass the local Europeans by dealing
something like 8000 nuts — more than enough directly with Vila : selling their own copra and
for a tonne of copra. With each labourer able even buying European goods wholesale to set
to make a tonne of copra a month, at a cost of up in competition with the traders on Tanna 40.
around 1 £/15/— , which the S.C.N.H. would Increasingly the merchant firms in Vila had to
buy for 9 £, a trader stood to make 200 % deal directly with such ni-Vanuatu middlemen,
profit. But by the mid- 1890s 2 £ would buy less who thus obtained more of the profits to be
than 5000 nuts on many islands, and at Vao made from copra. Of the 705 tonnes exported
(off the north-east coast of Malakula) less than on British ships in 1910, 55 % was 'native
2300 — from which a trader could expect to grown'. In 1914 the figure was 80 %. It is
make only 50 % profit. As Captain Rich impossible to calculate how much of this was
remarked in his 1900 Report on the New still being channelled through local traders, but
Hebrides, the trader in copra " does not make from a statement by the British Resident
such enormous profits as heretofore, owing to Commissioner in 1915 that the ni-Vanuatu
the natives having learnt its value, and now themselves collected and sold the nuts, and
also prepared the copra — either over fires or exacting money transactions instead of trade
" 38. stuffs as formerly by sun-drying — it might be assumed that
At some places, ni-Vanuatu became sub- Europeans were increasingly being by-passed 41.
agents for local European traders. In 1883 at Indeed, as early as 1883 the villagers of Eratap
Whitesands, Tanna, 'chief Koukari was paid on Efaté were selling dried copra directly to the
S.C.N.H. for 6 £ cash a tonne — an amount 3 £ a month, plus tobacco and kava allow
ances, by the trader Kyhn (who himself lived at which one man, with his wife and children
Port Resolution, to the south) to buy coconuts bringing in the nuts, could process in a month 42.
from the local people and to 'boss' three of A ni-Vanuatu with access to coconut trees had
Kyhn's contract labourers from Pentecost, who the advantage over a European planter of
made the nuts into copra. Some years later being able to sell as little or as much copra as
Willie Yalu enjoyed a similar arrangement with he wanted, depending on his needs at any given
the Pearse brothers on the west coast of the time. If his subsistence gardens were bountiful
and he was well-off for cash, he would make island 39. By such means, enterprising ni-Va
nuatu began to assume an entrepreneurial little or no copra. In 1921 it was estimated that
position previously the preserve of Europeans. less than half of the available coconuts in the
Some ni-Vanuatu coastal dwellers attempted group were being exported as copra 43. If his
gardens failed or if he needed money, he would to cut the copra trader out altogether, by
pooling their savings and acquiring whale make as much copra as he could dispose of.
boats, which they would work around the On the larger islands cultivation of the
coconut tree was confined to the coastal areas, coasts picking up copra and feeding it directly
to the inter-island steamers. By 1902 there were the inhabitants of which eventually came to
so many of these co-operatively owned vessels realize that it was easier and more profitable to
that Captain Noel of the Royal Navy consider sell nuts or copra to the scores of traders
ed them a navigational hazard. The develop scattered throughout the group than to recruit.
ment reached a new level of sophistication in As the local storekeeper at Dip Point, Am-
1915 when a number of Tannese, in the face of brym, where there was hardly any recruiting,
strong opposition from all the European sett commented in 1911, "the natives here have
lers on their island (including the missio plenty of copra and are too well off to engage
themselves to labour " 44. Copra production, naries), subscribed 500 £ and purchased an old
60 tonne schooner. They planned to spend an which was actively encouraged by the local
additional 250 £-300 £ in fitting it out and then Presbyterian missionaries, also gave 'man sol
38. Rich to Commander-in-Chief, 3 October 1900, Australian Station Report for 1900 : 26 ; Cuddy to Commander-in-
Chief, 29 November 1894, Australian Station Report for 1894 : 12 ; Rason to Commander-in-Chief, 27 November 1896,
Australian Station Report for 1896 : 19; [James] 1886 : 244; Campbell 1872 : 183.
39. [James] 1886 : 255; Affidavit of R. A. Pearse, 28 October 1904, enclosed in Rason to High Commissioner,
6 December 1904, WPA 13/1905 ; Foot to Commander-in-Chief, 11 July 1905, Australian Station Report for 1905 : 16.
40. Noel to Beaumont, 22 October 1901, Australian Station Report for 1901 : 55; Noel to Commander-in-Chief,
10 August 1902, Australian Station Report for 1902 : 48; King to High Commissioner, 26 June 1915, WPA 2157/1915.
41. King to High Commissioner, 30 November 1911, WPA 318/1910; King to Consul-General for the Netherlands,
Dutch East Indies, 26 March 1915, enclosed in King to High Commissioner, 15 June 1915, WPA 1908/1915.
42. [James] 1886 : 299.
43. King to High 11 February 1921, WPA 2643/1920.
44. High Commissioner (citing storekeeper Carmichael) to Colonial Office, 3 November 1911, WPA 788/1910. INDENTURED LABOUR IN VANUATU 49
wara' economic independence from and a land for coconut planting, and year by year the
degree of leverage over the planters, whose growing band of Aoban Christian planters
very presence after the large-scale settlement of won over more and more converts, so that by
the 1890s threatened further alienation of 1940 only two kastom villages were left on the
coastal land. west of the island47.
Unable to compete in copra, a number of Le cocotier devint ainsi un arbre politique : celui qui
French settlers turned once more to cotton, le plantait le premier pouvait ensuite faire état de
which became the second biggest cash crop droits préalables sur la terre. De nombreuses sociétés
after copra by 1920. Again ni-Vanuatu played littorales agirent à l'exemple de celle d'Aoba : la
plantation était d'ailleurs tout autant un moyen de the Europeans at their own game. By 1919
bloquer la revendication éventuelle d'un Européen native-grown cotton was on the market, and
que d'étendre ses propres droits sur le sol. Là il y eut by the middle of the following year " extensive
l'ouverture d'un cycle qui ne cessa par la suite de se tracts of land " had been planted out in cotton
développer, même lorsque toute menace d'aliénation by ni-Vanuatu, apparently with the mission's foncière de la part de la société coloniale eut encouragement. As was the case with copra, ni- disparu 45.
Vanuatu cotton producers were less at the
Not only did the coastal dwellers themselves mercy of market fluctuations than European
planters, being able to abandon cotton cultivaretreat from their earlier enthusiasm for recruit
tion as suddenly as they had taken it up48. ing, but, from the early Condominium years
on, they even attempted — again with the In relation to other plantation crops, like
support of the missionaries — to prevent the coffee, French planters had little difficulty in
bush people engaging for planters. On Tanna maintaining the early lead they had established
the 'skulboy' police force blocked access to the over the British. On Efaté during the 1880s and
'90s only a handful of British plantations, landing places, dealt roughly with those who
desired to recruit, and imposed fines on ex- chiefly at Undine Bay, held out against the
French economic hegemony, centred on the labourers when they returned home46. For
'man bush' recruiting was often the only means districts of Mêlé, Vila and Tagabé. Roxburgh's
eighty hectares on Epi and forty on Malakula of acquiring cash and European goods. Moreo
appear to have been the only British plantaver, faced with Christian hegemony, alliance
tions being successfully worked elsewhere in with the planters was an effective counterbal
the group, nearly all the plantations outside ance to the missionaries and their coastal
Efaté being in the hands of French colons neophytes, who were perceived by the inland
people as constituting the gravest threat to lately settled by the Société Française des
Nouvelles-Hébrides (S.F.N.H.) — successor to both land and 'kastom'.
Native control of copra production was the S.C.N.H.49. In the early years of the
especially pronounced on West Aoba, where twentieth century the government of the newly-
federated Australian Commonwealth made a numbers of coastal ex-Queensland labourers
— mostly young men of low rank — turned to last-ditch effort at large-scale British settl
ement, on land acquired from Burns Philp and cash-cropping as a means of establishing a new
the Deutsche Handels-und Plantagen-Gesell- power base in a society which denied them
schaft, and by March 1904 forty-seven settlers traditional authority. Encouraged by an Aust
had been placed on Santo and a smaller group ralian Christian trader and, after 1911, a
had settled in the old British stronghold at Church of Christ missionary, they began to
systematically plant out coconuts. They were Undine Bay, Efaté. But, despite a 60 % sub
sidy on freight costs in 1905 and a rebate on joined by traditional leaders in 1911, when the
principal men of the Walaha region on the Commonwealth import duties on maize from
west coast decided to abandon the 'road 1906, and assistance in preparing their land
custom' and to follow the 'road belong claims for registration, many of the new arribelong
vals had left their holdings within a few years. money'. After a large feast at which they killed
and ate all their pigs, they began to establish By 1915 only fifteen Commonwealth leases
coconut plantations on their land. In 1912 were still being worked — two by the same
person 50. inland villagers purchased a strip of coastal
45. Bonnemaison 1985b : 450.
46. Mahaffy to High Commissioner, 30 December 1912, WPA 208/1913.
47. Allen 1968 : 32-38 ; Bonnemaison 1974 : 163.
48. [Fletcher] 1923 : 268 ; Presbyterian Synod to King, 19 June 1920, WPA 1817/1920; New Hebrides Report for 1920 : 9.
49. Rason to Commander-in-Chief, 27 November 1896, Australian Station Report for 1896 : 18-20; Meryon, 'List of
Islands, showing the number of white residents and their employment', Australian Station Report for 1895 : 50.
50. Rason to High Commissioner, 24 October 1906 ('Report on the trade of the New Hebrides for 1905'), Cd. 3289 : 7.