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Obituary: Jimmy Stevens

Jimmy Stevens, political and religious activist: born c1916; died Fanafo, Espiritu Santo 28 February 1994.

THE SOUTH PACIFIC may not have produced quite so many raffishly charismatic characters as the rumbustuous Caribbean; but Jimmy Stevens of the Ripablik Blong Vanuatu (Republic of Vanuatu, formerly the New Hebrides) matches anything found in that other part of the world. He was initially perhaps the most astute and certainly the most fervent of pre-independence religio-activists in the South Pacific. Stevens was a part-Polynesian in a predominantly Melanesian country. This gave him an edge in flamboyant oratory and basic leadership skills. It left him organisationally dependent, however, on an extended family, much of his own procreation. They provided support but not much else in the 'coconut war' of secession in his home island of Espiritu Santo.

The progress to independence in 1980 of the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides was one of the more painful and fragmented in the South Pacific. For nearly 75 years, it had been arguably the ultimate colonial absurdity: not surprising perhaps in an island territory with 115 local languages and only 150,000 people. With no little justification it was known as the 'Anglo-French pandemonium'. The two metropolitan powers duplicated, if not replicated, their respective systems of law and order, education, medical care and basic government philosophy. There were three separate administrations: that of the joint Anglo-French Condominium, the British administration for British nationals and the French administration for French nationals. Missionary activity, in parallel with that of the two national administrations, was one of intense rivalry for the beleaguered souls of the indigenous New Hebrideans.

As independence came closer, Anglo-French, Anglophile and Francophile divisions grew deeper and more bitter. On the large island of Espiritu Santo, north-west of the capital, Port Vila, an indigenous cult movement, Na Griamel, exploded into a secessionist plan. It was allegedly assisted by French settlers who opposed the Anglophile Vanuaaku Pati (party) headed by the Rev Walter Lini; and financially supported by an American fundamentalist protest organisation, the Phoenix Foundation, whose object was the notion of founding an ideal community in Espiritu Santo free from formal government controls and tax burdens. They were strange bedfellows.

Land and wealth creation lay at the root of Na Griamel. It was named after two plants used in traditional ceremonies. A return to ancestral 'dark bushlands' which had been occupied by foreigners was its central aim. Jimmy Stevens was its leader and self-styled Moses. In June 1980 he declared himself head of the 'Independent state of Vemarana' and of his own Royal Church of Na Griamel. Vemarana supporters kidnapped the government representative and occupied Fanafo, the main town on Espiritu Santo.

Vanuaaku people fled; British and Australian citizens were evacuated. A peace-keeping force of British troops was dispatched to Espiritu Santo, an action criticised by the French, who objected to British unilateral use of force where French interests were involved.

In August, with Walter Lini installed as prime minister of the new republic, raw young troops from Papua New Guinea replaced British soldiers in Espiritu Santo. Nervously fingering their rifles, the Papuans came ashore not knowing what to expect. The Santo girls greeted their fellow Melanesians with cries of the pidgin equivalent of 'whoopee' and placed garlands of flowers round their necks. The secession of Espiritu Santo was over, Vemarana no more. Truckloads of bows and arrows were confiscated. Stevens was arrested, tried and sentenced to 14 years in prison. His failure left Lini as the surviving champion of opposition to colonial rule.

No longer considered a threat, Stevens was released in 1991, having been, he proudly proclaimed, the South Pacific's longest-serving political prisoner. There had apparently been compensations. Some South Pacific gaols being what they are, Stevens's procreative capacities appear not to have been totally undermined by his lengthy incarceration, even though he was now an old man with a crinkly grey beard, leaning heavily on a walking stick. He died after a long illness. His funeral at Fanafo was attended by officials of governments he had resisted for so much of his later life.

The national anthem of Vanuatu is 'Nasonal Sing Sing Blong Vanuatu'. It is reasonable to suppose that Jimmy Stevens never joined in.

(Photograph omitted)