New Hebrides - Encyclopedia

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NEW HEBRIDES, a chain of islands in the western Pacific Ocean, between 166° and 171° E., and 13° and 21° S., included in Melanesia, and under the joint influence of Great Britain and France. (For map, see Pacific Ocean.) From New Caledonia to the S.W. they are separated by a deep channel; but a comparatively shallow sea indicates their physical connexion with the Santa Cruz group (q.v.) to the N. The chain lies S.E. and N.W., but the main islands are arranged somewhat in the form of the letter Y. The south-easternmost island is Aneiteum; N.W. from this the main islands are Tanna or Aipere, Eromanga, Efate,' the Shepherd Islands and Api or Epi. At this point the arms of the Y divide, the western comprising the large islands of Malekula or Mallicollo and Espiritu Santo, 2 the eastern consisting of Ambrym, Arag and Maiwo or Aurora, with Aoba or Leper Island between the two arms. Espiritu Santo, the largest island, has an area of 875 sq. m. Irregularly disposed to the N. of the Y are the lesser islands composing the Banks groupGaua, Vanua Lava, Mota, Valua, &c., and the Torres Islands.

With their rugged outline and rich vegetation, the islands as seen from the sea are very beautiful. Excepting the small Torres group, which are low-lying and perched on reefs, but without lagoons, all the islands are of volcanic, not coral, formation, the larger ones lying on both sides of the line of volcanic activity. The coasts are almost free from reefs and the shores rise abruptly from deep water. Old coral is sometimes found elevated to a considerable height. The islands are formed chiefly of basalt and recent eruptive material; earthquakes and submarine eruptions are not infrequent; and some of the islands themselves have active craters. All have considerable elevations, the loftiest being the isolated cone of Lopevi, near the junction of the arms of the Y; its height is 4714 ft. The volcanic soil is very rich. Numerous clear streams water the islands, but some debouch upon flat ground towards the sea, and form unhealthy marshes there. Copper, iron and nickel are the most important minerals known in the group, and sulphur is of some commercial importance.

The climate is generally hot and damp, but there is a season (November to April) which is specially distinguished, as such, and is somewhat unhealthy. The trees - Casuarina, candle nut (Aleurites triloba), kauri pine (or Tanna), various species of Ficus, Myrtaceae and many others - are magnificent; the coco-nut is not confined to the coast, but grows high up the valleys on the hill-sides. Sandal-wood is also found. Besides the breadfruit, sago-palm, banana, sugar, yam, taro, arrowroot and several forest fruits, the orange, pine-apple and other imported species flourish; and European vegetables are exported to Sydney. Land mammals are scarce; they include bats, rats and pigs which have run wild. There are some lizards and turtles; birds include pigeons, parrots, ducks and swallows; locusts, grasshoppers, butterflies and hornets are numerous, and the sea abounds in fish, which, however, are generally inferior as food, and in some cases poisonous.

The native population is estimated at 50,000; in 1904 the British population was 212, the French 401. The island of Efate contains the seat of the joint government, Vila or Port Vila (formerly Franceville), and the majority of the French population. There are several British and French trading companies, and a considerable area is cleared and worked by settlers. The chief exports are copra, coffee, maize, bananas, timber, &c.

1 Efate, Vate, Fate, Efat or Sandwich island.

2 Abbreviated to Santo; native Marina.

The natives of the New Hebrides are Melanesians of mixed blood, and var y much in different islands. On Efate and some others Polynesian immigration has produced a taller, fairer and less savage people. In some parts, as on Aoba, isolated Polynesian communities exist. But the general type is Melanesian: black skin, woolly hair, low, receding forehead, broad face, flat nose and thick lips. The natives decorate themselves with nose-rings and ear-rings and bracelets of shells. The men are constantly fighting; their weapons are bows and poisoned arrows, often beautifully designed, clubs of elaborate patterns and spears. Their houses are either round huts, or rectangular with pitched roofs resting on three parallel rows of posts. The villages are 'scrupulously clean and neat, ornamented with flowering shrubs, crotons and dracaenas, and are often fortified with stone walls. In character the New Hebrideans are ferocious and treacherous, though most of their unhospitality and savagery is to be traced to the misconduct and cruelty of traders and labour agents. The women occupy a degraded position, and in some islands widows are buried alive with the bodies of their husbands. There is a great belief in sorceries and omens; but prayer and offerings (usually of shell money) are addressed mainly to the spirits of the (recently) dead, and there is another class of spirits, called Vui, who are appealed to when incorporate in certain stones or animals; of one of two such the divinity is recognized generally. By the villages a space shadowed by a great banyan tree is often set apart for dances and public meetings. A certain sanctity attaches also sometimes to the Casuarina and the Cycas. An important institution is the club-house, in which there are various grades, whereon a man's rank and influence mainly depend, his grade being recognized even if he goes to another island where his language is unintelligible. In like manner a division into two great exogamous groups prevails, at all events throughout the northern islands. It would therefore seem that the present diversity of languages in the group must be of relatively recent origin. These languages or dialects are numerous, and mutually unintelligible, but alike as to grammatical construction, and belonging to the Melanesian class. History. - The Portuguese Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, sighting Espiritu Santo in 1606, thought he had discovered the great southern continent then believed to exist, and named it Australia del Espiritu Santo. Louis de Bougainville visited the islands in 1768, and Captain Cook, who gave them the name they bear, in 1774. The subsequent visits of several explorers, the exploitation of the sandal-wood and other products by traders and the arrival of missionaries helped to open up the islands and to give them a certain commercial importance by the middle of the 19th century. Trade was mainly with New Caledonia, and France was thus indicated as the dominant power in the New Hebrides; even British planters pressed France to annex the islands in 1876, but in the following year some of the missionaries urged the same course on England. In 1878 the islands were declared neutral by Great Britain and France. The presence of British and French settlers under independent authority led to unsatisfactory administration, especially in regard to the settlement of civil actions and jurisdiction over the native population. As to the establishment of commercial supremacy, French interests clashed with Australian, and in 1882 M. John Higginson of New Caledonia (d. 1904) consolidated the former by founding the trading society which afterwards became the Societe francaise des Nouvelles-Hebrides. In 1886 one of the most serious of many native outbreaks occurred, necessitating a French demonstration of force from New Caledonia. An Anglo-French convention of the 16th of November 1887 provided for the surveillance of the islands (protection of life and property) by a mixed commission of naval officers. The Anglo-French agreement of 1904 had a clause providing for an arrangement as to proper jurisdiction over the natives and for the appointment of a commission to settle disputes between British and French landed proprietors. In this and the following year there was much unrest among the natives, and a joint punitive expedition was necessary.

Strong feeling was aroused meanwhile in Australia owing to the disabilities suffered by British settlers in the islands. British annexation, or at least a division of the group into British and French spheres, was urged. But on the 20th of October 1906 a convention was signed in London, confirming a protocol of the preceding 27th of February, and providing that "the group of the New Hebrides, including the Banks and Torres Islands," should form "a region of joint influence," in which British and French subjects should have equal rights in all respects, and each power should retain jurisdiction over its own subjects or citizens. The claim of other powers to share the joint influence was excluded by the provision that their subjects resident on the islands must be under either British or French jurisdiction. A British and a French high commissioner were appointed, each assisted by a resident commissioner; provision was made for two police forces of equal strength, and the joint naval commission of 1887 was retained for the purpose of keeping order. The high commissioners were given authority over the native chiefs. A joint court was established, consisting of two judges, appointed respectively by Great Britain and France, and a third, to be president, and not a British subject or French citizen, appointed by the king of Spain. Its jurisdiction covers civil cases (including commercial suits and those respecting landed property), native offences or crimes against non-natives, and all offences against the provisions of the convention. The sale of arms and intoxicants to natives is forbidden; and the convention regulates the recruitment of native labour. Provision was made for community of interests in regard to public works, finance and the official use of the English and French languages. The creation of municipalities on the application of groups of not less than thirty non-native residents was provided for, municipal votes being given to both sexes. The convention provided against the establishment of a penal settlement and the erection of fortifications.

This convention was bitterly criticized in Australia on the ground that many of the provisions which nominally established equality between British and French would operate in practice to the advantage of the French; and there was no little dissatisfaction on the ground that the Australian government was neither represented at the preliminary conference, nor fully consulted during the negotiations.

See Parliamentary Papers, France, No. i (1888 and 1906); and "Correspondence relating to the, Convention ..." (Cd. 3288), (1907).

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