THE NEW HEBRIDES - A TRAGICOMEDY

         

Prologue

The island of Efate came up as a blur, resolved itself slowly into shores of jungle green, and then the Qantas flying-boat was banking in over the still blue bay where Vila stands. From the air the town had the look of having been dropped on the foreshore from a great height, of its shops and bungalows having fallen higgledy-piggledy and slid down the hill to the water's untidy edge. The gappy main street followed the shoreline, narrowing at the end where the little Chinese shops are and losing itself entirely among the shacks where the Tonkinese live. the front of one shop with blind boarded-up windows was painted bright china-blue, dulling everything round it except the red splash of a poinciana, shaming the rust-streaked roofs.

Coconut palms, streaming with the sou'-east trade, stood up here and there in the town that is also waved over by two flags. The Union Jack flew from the British Residency and from the French waved the Tricolor-or vice versa. Vila had changed hardly at all since I saw it sixteen years before. there were some Quonser huts that hadn't been there in 1924, but apart from that the war had made little apparent difference to the capital, if you could call it that, of the New Hebrides. Vila I remembered chiefly as a place where that most curious form of government, the Ango-French condominium, manifested itself in ways that served to accent its French side rather than its British. I had gone to the post office and bought pale blue stamps with a design of native log-gongs on them, stamps marked 50 Centimes in one corner and 5d. in the other and which, for some reason that had to do with the value of the New Caledonian franc, cost twopence. The post office was being painted. A Wet Paint notice scrawled in a piece of cardboard hung by two strings over the front steps. It did not say Wet Paint in English, only in French. the main British store, the ubiquitous Burns Philp emporium, seemed about the same size as tthe Comptoir Franquis Nouvelle Hebrides establishment, and the barber's shop said, impartially, Coifleur on one side of its signboard and Hairdresser on the other. 

I remembered one exotic little bar, a white rotunda flanked by hibiscus that trailed inside as if it sought to drop its scarlet blossoms in your glass of Australian beer or in the green Pernod with the innocuous aniseed cordial taste belying its absinthe cont4nt. English cigarettes had cost only a shilling for fifty; or you could get a package of twenty much stronger French ones for sixpence. Part of vila's air of lying forgotten in the farthest corner of European civilization was due to the spider webs-they festooned the telegraph wires, and in the centre of each web sat a large, fat, harmless spider. Nature, I was told, had somehow neglected to provide the New Hebrides with enough spider-eating birds. the doctor who now came out to the flying-boat for medical inspection was a woman., French. She looked at our hands, and down our throats with a torch, and that was that. We could go ashore. the copra shed on the wharf had the same thick sweet smell of smoke-dried coconut kernels. the air, under a thin overcast sky, was moist but not too hot. This was April, which meant that the wettest and stickiest months had ended and the months that were not as wet or as sticky had begun. "The new Hebrides islands (says an official report) are classed as unhealthy." They need not be, with modern prophylaxis.   

I was not on landing by the Britich Commandant of Police, the British District Agent, the Acting Judge of the Lower-Court, and the Immigration Officer. His name was Peter Colley. the one man held all these offices. He sat at a small table in his Police Commandant's uniform of khaki shorts and shirt and a jaunty cloth forage cap. He met me in his Immigration Officer capacity: he asked to see my passport. Afterwards-there were no discernible taxis-the good Colley drove me to the one and only hotel. In vila the traffic runs, French fashion, on the right side of the street-at least that is the law. the truck that came tearing into the main street from the downhill road was left of the middle. Colley braked his jeep and yelled, "Stop!"

"Won't be a minute," he said, getting out. He went across to where the truck had pulled up. I heard a few sharp words in pidgin-English, or as the French call it bich-la-mar, to the sheepish-looking native driver of the truck that had nearly skittled us. Then Colley came back with an Australian pound note in his hand. He put this in his pocket and wrote something in a small black book.

"Fine 'em on the spot," he said. "It's new regulation. He gets the option-he can take the case to court if he likes. but he knows if he's guilty, that it'll cost him more if he does." I said at the time, "Seems like a good idea." When I thought about it afterwards I wasn't so sure. for parking offences and such minor matters, yes. But for offences that menace human life, wasn't it better for the Law to take its more serious, more inconvenient-to-the-culprit course. And British Justice, I had been taught to believe, rested on the right of trial by some detached judicial person, not a prosecutor or a policeman. then I found out that, under the condominium, if the native driver-with whom I had no sympathy and whose driving licence I would have suspended had I been on the Bench-would have had to appear not at a magisterial court, but at a court with two judges, two French and one British. Anything he said in his defence would have had to be translated into English, French and pidgin. And one of the judges would have been, in this case, the Police Commandant who apprehended him!

There was no other traffic. A European in whites came down the steps of the post office: it needed painting again. We passed a couple of natives in shorts and singlets and a little Tonkinese woman in black trousers and the wide conical bamboo bamboo hat. sometimes on Saturday afternoon there are bike races, but this wasn't Saturday. The grass grew untidily between between the earth road and the water's muddy edge. The Hotel Rolland was a low rambling weatherboard place with a rusting iron roof. M. Albert Rolland, an amiable, easy-going Frenchman, apologized for his hotel and said he hoped I would be comfortable, he did not get many guests. I liked him (in fact I liked everyone I met in Vila, which makes it harder to say some of the things I shall have to) and I liked the chambre he showed me to. It stood on its own away from the main building, high on wooden piles. Quite a flight of steps led up to it. the room looked out over the bay. It had a great double bed with brass knobs and a washstand with a flowery jug and basin. I washed and went over to lunch.

There was only one other person in the dining-room, and he was an Australian, too. We talked over the soya bean stew and the thin red wine. He had been in the Hebrides about nine months doing I-forget-what. I asked him how he liked it there. "It's all right," he said casually, "except for the morning mountain." After lunch I went back to my elevated chambre and lay on the bed and waited for the O.I.C. radio Telecommunications, also an Australian. I had met him at the wharf and learnt that he was training three New Hebridean natives as telegraphists. We had arranged to do an interview about that on the wire-recorder I had with me; on this trip I was doing a job for the Australian Broadcasting commission. As I lay there, looking down past my feet at the still grey-blue bay between the bars of the bed-end, I asked myself why I had wanted to come to the New Hebrides in the first place and why, after sixteen years, I had wanted to come back? the answer to the first question was that I had wanted to come to the New Hebrides after reading what a Mr Robert Stiles of London had found in going through a bundle of old Spanish manuscripts picked up at a sale at Sotheby's in 1925. It was published five years later as the journal of Captain Don Diego de Prado y Tovar.

Prado not only linked the New Hebrides with my own country in a romantically historical way, he was altogether fascinating reading. His journal rolled, from the start, in organ prose, and the story was as rich as the style. Even with allowances made for Prado's scorn-he was the most arrogant of dons-there could be no doubt that Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, the Portuguese navigator who discovered these islands, was a theatrical visionary, a dreamer in the grand manner. Quiros set out from Callao, a few days before the Christmas of 1605, with two ships. The San Pedro y San Pablo-Prado captained it-was only sixty tons, and San Pedrico, captained by Torres, was only forty tons. No wonder there was great praying and blessing of banners in the chapel of Nuestra Senora de la Buena Ventura on the eve of the voyage.

I was back in the Hebrides for the express purpose of writing a radio documentary fo the A.B.C., and the Quiros story would be part of it. I decided then, in Vila, that I would do that part in blank verse for two voices, Prado and Quiros, which I subsequently di. No poetic licence was taken with the faces as Prado gives them. It had to be the clearest kind of "speaking" verse, and I think it conveys the drama of the story better than straight narrative. In the broadcast it was introduced with chords of grandiloquent music. 

PRADO  
I, Don Diego de Prado y tovar,
Knight of Calarrava, from Madrid,
was captain with this Portuguese, this Quiros ...
At the order of our Lord, the King, Don Philip,
the Count de Monterey, Viceroy of Peru,
had fitted not two ships there in Callao
to make discovery of unknown lands.
Westward we sailed into a chartless ocean,
our standards flying andour hopes in God-
for we had no great trust in our commander.
QUIROS  
He schemes against me, Quiros, his commander.
I've seen the lip curl in this Prado's beard;
he speaks against me, disaffects my crew.
But I shall speak to overweight his guile ...
Ho, men!    
     I've words to lift your hearts! Those clouds
are token of our land! ... And give me land
and I shall give you more of gold and silver,
of pearls and all the treasure of these seas,
than you can carry home again to Spain!
PRADO  
On San Guillermo's Eve there was a shore
and smoke from it, betokening habitation
of Indians, who kissed our arms and breasts
 when we had landed ...
     Islands and more of islands to the west,
until upon the day of the Apostles
Saint Philip and Saint James, we reached a coast
and landed. Savages made rush attack
upon us.
     Ten of these we soon laid dead,
black, ugly men, their nostrils pierced with bone.
It is the one way to compel respect
for Spaniards!
QUIROS  
I had not wished them killed. I said, "Desist!"
to Prado and his Spanish crew. "My aim
is that they live to learn the love of Christ.
and through me, Quiros, they shall know the Cross."
PRADO:  
He talked of sending out three thousand friars ...
And on the shore he had built bowers of brandies,
the bronze artillery of the ships was fired,
volleys from arquebuses shook the air,
Masses were said and there was dancing then,
in Portuguese style ...
          What then did this Quiros
but institute himself a knighthood order!
Men-even I!-were robed out in blue taffeta;
he made us, there, Knights of the Holy Ghost,
investing all, right down to the black drummer.
then pointing to some white upon a cliff,
he babbled about marble.
QUIROS:  
Here shall I build a city all of marble-
It shall be named the New Jerusalem,
 with marble gates to enter it. The fences
of all fine houses here shall be of marble,
and of that marble I shall raise a church
to be the rival of Saint Peter's, Rome! ...
I now appoint you to your offices
in the City of the New Jerusalem----
     Campmaster-General, Luis Baes de Torres;
     Treasurer, you, our pilot, Juan Ochoa;
     Juan Seraon, Chief Magistrate of Mines...
PRADO:  
He went on, very tedious to relate,
exalted on the vapours of illusion ...
QUIROS:  
This is the great Australia we have found!
The land long searched for in the southern seas!
the Great South Land, is here beneath our feet;
I name it-Australia dei Espiritu Santo!
The south Land of the Holy Spirit!
PRADO:  
The unfurled standards floated out their hues
against the savage green of silent shore,
the men at arms stood-to to fire salute
when he had spoken out his wind of words ...
QUIROS:  
Be witness to me, Earth and Sea and Heaven!
All elements and animals, birds and beasts,
and you loyal vassals of the King our lord---
I take possession now of all this country
in the holy name of the Pope and of the King
Don Philip and Saint Francis of Assisi,
and all heirs to the Royal Crown of Castile
shall be the heirs to this discovered land
I name the Australia of the Holy Spirit--
Terra del Espiritus Santo!

That is the way it was when Quiros discovered not, as he thought, Australia but the largest and northmost island of the New Hebrides group. It is still called Espiritu Santo, though it seldom gets more than Santo, except on the maps. the Bay of St Philip and St James, as Quiros called it, is known to the planters as Big Bay. Not that there are any plantations in the region of Quiros's landing, which was just about the unhealthiest spot in these islands. there used to be a plantation near there, it was wiped out by a tidal wave. The marble that was to wall the city of the New Jerusalem and built a greater cathedral than Rome's St Peter's is nowhere to be found. What Quiros saw was doubtless coral, thrust up in some volcanic disturbance. the part he anchored in and named Vera Cruz has disappeared, for the same volcanic reasons. the river that used to flow into it is still called, as Quiros named it, the Jordan. the savage, silent shore looks very much the same as it did three hundred and fifty years ago, except that on it now are far fewer native people ...

No other white voyager came near Santo for 160 years after Quiros had left and Torres had sailed round it and shown it was only an island. then the French navigator Bougainville came through the northern islands, discovering Maevo, Pentecost, Aoba and Malekula. it remained for cook of England to discover and chart the rest of the group-Ambrym, Epi, Efate, Erromanga, right down to Tanna and Aneityum at the end of the 450-mile-long chain of islands to which Cook gave the dull and regrettable name of the New Hebrides. Any islands less like the drear, shivering Hebrides off Scotland it would be hard to imagine.

Cook anchored his ship Resolution in the port of Tanna in four fathoms. Today a launch will hardly float there. the volcanic disturbances did that, too, in 1870. An old trader of Port Resolution who was quietly drinking his way through the earthquake and had finished his second bottle of gin had a bad moment when he went outside and saw, as he said, "the rocks jumpin' out o' the water". there are three large active volcanoes, and earth shakes are common in th4ese islands that are not yet cooled off from the crucible of Creation. I said, two books ago, that God made New Guinea on Saturday night: I could have saved that for the New Hebrides. In fact, Creation there is still unfinished business. One of the Air France pilots on the run from New Caledonia had, not long before I got to Vila, looked down and seen an island being born. it was then coming up out of a steaming sea, and it was now a mile round and three hundred feet high. three men had recently landed on it, and named it Karua. One of them, Les Kerr, was in Vila and I talked to him. the volcano that had risen up from the sea-bed was still erupting, but not much. Les Kerr had had a precarious look down into the crater, which was full of b oiling seawater. the black sand of Karua's beach was still hot-"We co9uld feel the heat right through our sandshoes," he said. they had taken ashore coconuts to plant, but when they tried to scoop holes the earth was too hot for their hands. A strong smell of sulphur hung over Karua, the world's newest island.

So land came-and also went. If you asked Eugene (Jim) Lancon, the shipping agent at Burns Philp's Vila store, where he was born, he would tell you, "At Dip Point on Ambrym Island." But, if you went to Ambrym, there was no dip Point. he had lost his birthplace; it disappeared in the 1929 eruption. And that is about all the quiet, slim Frenchman would say. Others would tell you the rest of the story.

"Jim was there in '29 when Ambrym's volcano was acting up in a big way. A river of fire-molten lava, you know-came down the side of the mountain. then the lava disappeared underground, into a fissure, and it came out again about a quarter-mile away at a place called Craig's Cove. At this cove there was a big native village, hundreds of people. And they were cut off-it looked like they were for it!

"Well, Jim Lancon had his launch. he took it out-and there's not many men'd take a launch out in a sea with three submarine volcanoes playing up all round him. Jim took his launch across to the village and the people got in canoes strung one behind another, and Jim towed these strings of canoes and everybody was saved-or all except one very old woman. Y'know the French gave him a gong? yes, the Legion of Honour and Devotion. Reckon he earned it." Tanna's volcano is often active, too. I haven't been there but those who have tell me that the red glow and the fireworks from the crater at night can be spectacular.

"I was there once when she was on," an Australian planter said. "The earth was shaking and the natives were hanging on, to the coconut palms, hugging the trunks and calling out, and I asked what they were yelling and somebody who knew the lingo said, "They're calling on the Hairless Pig to save them.'" The planter did not know any more about the Hairless Pig.

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