The colonial experience in the New Hebrides has created a complex society resulting from the interplay of the various facets of that social order.
From peaceful demonstrations to barbaric threats imposed towards the Anglo-French Government, the New Hebrideans were revolving and were on the verge of reclaiming back more than the land that was taken from them, it was the idea of regaining their pride and integrity by law.
Well-known long time investor and owner of the Plantations Réunies de Vanuatu (PRV), which is most probably the largest coconut plantation company in Vanuatu, David Russet is one of the famous independence figures who aided in the fight for our country’s freedom.
Born in 1957 in Efate Island, Russet comes from an Australian background and has long lived his youthful and erstwhile years in Vanuatu.
The 63-year-old has spent and invested his lifetime work in Agriculture, Manufacturing and Farming in Efate, Santo and Malekula.
As a former student of the Saint Jean D’Arc French School, Russet was offered 4 years of technical education in the newly-built institution of Lycee Louis Antoine de Bouganville in 1968.
Once he completed his studies, he took up a job working at the Efate Industry and helped in building the first part of the Vanuatu Abattoir Limited in Port Vila.
Later on, he was sent to Malo for 15 months to manage his farm.
In 1976, during his time in Santo, he had witnessed the first Independence Demonstration.
A few months later, he returned to Vila with his brother.
In the following year, he started the Horse Riding Ranch in Port Vila that offers riding programmes for kids.
The institution started off with just 20 horses and grew on to become very popular during that time, with 124 registered students.
Sadly, the business institution lasted for only a period of 10 years.
Afterwards, Russet joined a gold mining company – United City Resource, which was based in South Malekula and Santo.
In 1992, with the money earned from mining, he established himself at Belleview and shifted his entire focus to farming.
In the later years, he expanded his farm and bought other plantations.
During the 1850s-60s, New Hebrides was colonised under the dual regulations of British and French and signed the Condominium for 80 years.
“In my opinion, since France and Britain were at war many times in the past, the fact that they are governing a country together, especially during the cold war period has shown very little promise of an efficacious governance system.”
“It is quite difficult to govern a country, specially when there are no simple negotiations between two opposing Government.”
Russet assured “the best thing we’ve achieved from the colonial powers, was our Independence.”
As a fact, before we gained our independence and during the colonial years, there were more English missionaries established in the islands of Vanuatu than the French, this explains how the English language has influenced and dominated a wider range of the native population.
After 70 years of colonial dominance in the New Hebrides, 60% of natives were speaking English and 40% were French speakers.
Indeed the French had its own approach that was far different to the British, which was mainly to invest more into cattle, cocoa, copra and coffee farming.
“Today, thanks to the French influence, our economy in particular the Agricultural Sector, has seen the benefits of substantial farming, mostly centred on the four commodities.”
The English colonialists on the other hand, were mainly traders and were not really fond of devoting their money in investments.
“Despite all, we can say the French were eager to develop, to improve our country and to simply make something great from it.
“For instance, in 1953 the French had established a mine at the East Coast of Efate which lasted for 10 years (1955-1965).
“They discovered that the ratio of mechanism in the soil was too poor to keep mining, so the business winded down, but we can at least agree they tried to do something.”
In 1965-1970, the United Nations had requested the Colonial Powers to decolonize their territories.
“In theory, the British Government has no interest in the New Hebrides, they were planning to leave but waited on the French to take the first exit.”
In 1971, the first Demonstration of Independence took place in Port Vila.
In 1975, a referendum was made by the dual Governance requesting the country to remain under the Colonial Powers, but instead the people voted for Decolonization and for the country’s Independence.
Factually, the social order in the New Hebrides was divided along linguistic of French and English. However, this division became indistinct over the recent years due to the break-up of political parties and the evolution of a post-independence nationalised identity.
All in all, political coalitions in Vanuatu today are unstable and driven mostly by electoral convenience rather than mindful ideology.
The two main parties during that time were:
1. New Hebrides National Party – led by Ati George Sokomanu
2. Union of Moderate Party – Led by Maxime Carlot Korman
“The funny thing is, if you are English speaking you would be part of the National Party, but if you are French then you would join the Moderate Party.
The undertakings for the country to gain its Independence intensified between the years of 1975-1979.
During that time, the people from Mele wanted the French to return their farms so they revolted and did quite a lot of demonstrations to secure back their land from the colonialists.
“In 1976, the story got a little bit sour when the people prearranged a plan to burn down the farm manager’s house.”
The French army had to send in troops to protect the area.
The famous November 29th 1977, when the New Hebrides National Party (NHNP) changed their name to Vanua’aku Pati (VP).
“It was then that they decided to officialise their flag by raising it in Port Vila town (next to Fung Kuei building).
“The Union of Moderate Pati (UMP) pposed of such behaviour and didn’t allow it.
UMP was the Opposition group that negated the fight for Independence.
“All the French speakers were restricted to join the fight for Independence, they were told the consequences were serious and would cost more than they could bear, this was also for the English speakers but with a far different philosophy.
“As far as I was concerned, my brother and I were ordered by our parents to stay away and to decline the revolution of Independence.
“But I must say, at the end of the day, it was probably a mistake, the best thing we achieved so far was our Independence.”
Early in the morning of November 29th 1977, the VP assembly gathered around town to raise their flag.
Without prior notice, the UMP members took their stand that morning on the far end of the road.
“Everyone was armed with crowbars, metal poles, pieces of wood and various types of disarmaments.
“I recall standing at the front line of our group and I could see Barak Sope standing on the far end of the street and we were trying to communicate but my recollection of memory was so vague, I couldn’t remember exactly what we were trying to say.
“The British and the French troops were watching, the French were waiting to see how the cards will unfold while the British were eager to disperse of the crowd.
“The British troops came up from behind us and started shooting with teargas, the problem was the soldiers were shooting at the crowd not towards the sky, a man from Pango died from the chemical burn, at the end of the day, the demonstration turned into a big mess.”
Later on, a march took place to the British Office in the Independence Park requesting immediate departure of the British Police Commissioner.
“After that day, my brother and I returned to our farm to confront our father.
“We told him we had lost the first fight, but if we want to stay in this country then he should ally with Father Walter Lini.
“And that is exactly what we did.”
The French Administration represented by the French High Commissioner and the Police Commissioner started to conduct meetings in Port Vila, which covered the farmer’s lease systems.
“We had no idea about the Lease systems but we were told that farmers would lose their property titles and would get a lease for 75 years.
“We weren’t familiar with that type of lease, so we were aided with the assistance of Alan Ward, an Australian who during that had organised meetings to elaborate more on the lease system.
“Alan and his team were very polite but weren’t much of a help.”
On the other side, the French Commission had a meeting with the French community to explain what may or will happen when the country gains its independence.
“It was all basically just negative talks.”
Since Santo was the economic backbone of the country during that decade and was made up mainly of French farmers and businessmen.
After the soundings, a lot of people in Santo were not happy with the country gaining its independence.
In 1978, VP held another demonstration with the Nagriamel Movement (they become more connected).
After meetings held in Port Vila by the French High Commissioner, he travelled to Santo to conduct similar meetings with the people there.
“This is where the mistake occurred.
“I personally believe that the French and the Police Commissioner looked at the issue as a more personal matter, they realised they would lose everything under their title if New Hebrides had gained its Independence.
“They even announced during the talk sessions that we have a possibility to have Santo as a remaining part of French even after the Independence.”
The French Commissioner told the people in Santo to “remain with the French and if they are faced with any trouble or problem, the French troops will assist them.”
One way or another, the people took their word for it.
“Somehow, it happened that a student of mine at my Riding School was in fact the French Commissioner’s daughter.
“One day the High Commissioner came to my school and said: ‘why not you people set up a movement to help the people of Santo remain loyal with the French?’”
Russet’s response was simple, he said “in this side story, you will gain an extra medal but in our case, we will lose everything.”
Turns out in November 29th 1977, the first General Election took place.
Russet had recalled by then; the transition period grew a bit difficult.
“Locals have become Nationalists and others have ruled antagonistically.
“Every Friday and Saturday night, the road was blocked at the Tagabe Cooperative. It was no surprise that the people were getting more aggressive, but all this was normal for any country trying to fight for its freedom.”
With his Ranch established at Mele, Russet had also experienced a few problems with the people there who revolted against any corporate establishment in their area.
“I’ve received threats from time to time.”
And as the years elapsed by, New Hebrides finally gained its Independence in July 30th 1980.
Nonetheless, in Santo, there were still some conflicting issues with the Nagriamel Movement where the members had destroyed the British paddocks.
Late Father Walter Hyde Lini, who took the role as the first Prime Minister had sent Barak Sope to Santo to ask the people of Nagriamel to surrender their weapons, then again they refuse to listen and thoughtlessly chased him away.
Seeing how crucial the situation was escalating, PM Lini then requested the Papua New Guinea troops to step in and assist in reconciling the hostile crowd.
“Which in my opinion,” Russet revealed, “was a total legitimate manoeuvre.
“If I was Father Walter Lini at that time, I would have approached the United Nations and appealed for the French to repair the damage made in Santo.”
He explained since it was the personal affairs of both the French and Police Commissioner, who interrupted with the ongoing negotiations by VP on the road of gaining our independence, this had caused problems and had made the situation more difficult than it should be.”
During the rebellion in Santo, things abruptly turned sideways.
“Slowly but surely, the group of rebels were arrested and send back to Vila, though it did not help in the economy of the New Hebrides at all, nevertheless this was the only way Walter Lini can establish law and order.”
After the independence, the economy escalated suddenly.
The people of Ifira had set up a body called Vila Urban Land Cooperation (VULC) which is responsible in establishing leases in all urban areas in Port Vila town.
After meeting arrangements, it was suspected that every year, VULC had been earning a large income of money.
PM Lini was disappointed at the fact that the money was not contributed into the Government’s budget but were kept only for the people of Ifira.
In 1987, when Barak Sope placed a chain on the French Embassy, PM Lini decided to cancel VULC and has requested all the money has to be paid directly to the Government.
“The people of Ifira got very cranky about it all, they organised a big march in Vila where they destroyed and demolished the streets, windows and computers.
“PM Lini countered by setting up troops around the sea wall and ordered the people of Ifira to remain at the island.
“In time, as the years go by, the two parties later got into an arrangement.”
After 1987, the country’s economy flourished as more people converged their capital spending into internal investments.
Russet recalled that at one point of stage in his life, he was a member of a French Committee trying to expand investments in the country.
“Every year, we have an international conference with neighbouring countries such as New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, Australia and New Zealand.”
During a conference held in Port Vila, Russet was responsible in delivering the opening speech.
“The subject of my speech was: ‘Vanuatu independent country, emerging country in the South Pacific.’
“Even so, at this progressive stage, every population is willing to take the reign of their own country but the leaders weren’t quite ready for it.
“The leaders felt a sense of abandonment, the logic behind this was the relinquishment of colonial power.
“The UN said every population needs to be merged and united, to be able to govern themselves and to have every fundamental right to run their own country, all this is considered normal, but as I said, even then, the local population weren’t ready for it either.
“This was recognized and should be classified as a failure gained after our Independence, when the British and the French failed to pass the reigns of the country.”
Until then, the French population lived in the New Hebrides, with a good number of people who lived in Santo, “there were 3 night clubs so that should prove how large the population was in Santo, especially with the involvement of many activities like sports.”
In terms of Vanuatu now paving its way for Economic Development, Russet as the former Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce for many years said it was the unsettled differences with Government leaders that slows the progression of work.
“The Government leaders at that time weren’t paying much attention to the Chamber of Commerce which is the only official body that is a representative of employment.
“At the edge of it all, if the Government and the Private Sector had worked together and formulated concessions, our country would probably be a leading country in the South Pacific.”
Despite of it all, Russet recalled a brief encounter he had with one of the Political Leader’s missus.
“I was driving to town when my truck suddenly broke down at Mele road.
“I decided to make my way back home by foot to retrieve my tools. Along the way, I noticed the Presidential car with the flags driving by, the car slowed down and pulled up beside me.
“The window rolled down and to my surprise, I was met with Ati George Sokomanu’s wife, Leitak Sokomanu smiling back at me.
“She insisted to give me a ride back to my house, I agreed and during the next few miles, we had many discussions about the political governance system.”
As memorable as it sounds, this kind gesture shows that no what title you hold, what matters is being respectful to others, after all, respect is honourable.
For this 40th Anniversary, Russet personally believes in the future of the country in the hands of our great leaders in next upcoming years.
“I am quite pleased with what I did, I have invested my time and money because I live in a country that I love and a nation I am proud of.
David Russet would like to remind the people of the 40 years of peace we have had between the communities.
“Let us try and strive for another 40 years.
“To the leaders, Education plays a very significant role in the society, we need to educate our people, for without education we will not go anywhere, our priority should be invested in Education.
“As a citizen of this country, I am proud of our achievements earned over this 40-year long journey, I wish everyone a happy 40th Anniversary and hope we will celebrate another 50th Anniversary together.”