The inside story on what really
happened in Coconut War in 1980
By David Ricquish
What led to the secession movement? What prompted the 'rebels' to break away from a 'democratically elected' government, and why weren't there such activities during colonial rule? Firstly, it must be understood that the condominium was a classic tropical bungle of mountainous magnitude.
Throughout the 74 years of joint rule, the British and French governments did practically nothing to develop the region.
There were continued colonial conflicts and rarely any major common agreements.
It was, in fact, the final battle ground between the British and French.
If one said YES, then out of principle, the other said NO.
Consequently, there were few joint signatures agreeing to new laws or to proposed developmental projects.
Massive bureaucracies were duplicated all for the sole purpose of colonial pride.
It would not have surprised me were there two road systems, one for the British, one for the French.
These, of course, would have led to the respective hospitals, schools, and police stations.
To the westerner, living in the New Hebrides was the absolute tropical paradise.
You did what you liked, provided that you stayed within the law.
If, for some particular reason, you didn't see eye to eye with the law, then there existed the alternative, depending upon your nationality, of being able to switch to the legal code of the other colonial master.
The westerner enjoyed such privileges, but the New Hebridean had no such advantage.
He was governed solely by colonial joint rulings.
It was his life, his custom, to be ruled by the custom chief, hence the beginning of conflict with the white men.
The New Hebridean was expected to adhere to the rule whilst the British and French had their own laws imported from native lands.
They were a happy, but frustrated people.
The natives wanted a return to their true custom, a return to their traditional life.
If this were to be secured by an elected government, then so much the better.
However, perhaps surprisingly, the people didn't want independence.
The deep rooted suspicion and distrust of 'brothers' from other islands governing their lives and island lingered on from the tribal wars of past.
It wasn't part of their custom for their chief to be ignored and dictated to by other islanders.
It should be noted that it wasn't only the 'primitive' natives, but also the 'educated' ones who didn't welcome independence.
A government minister extending his control over other islands wouldn't be tolerated.
Hence, the massive demonstrations on Espiritu Santo, particularly in 1979 and early 1980, against the moves towards independence.
These were organized by Molli (Chief) Jimmy Stevens, a half-caste, but most importantly, the recognized chief of custom chiefs on the island.
He is a brilliant, but humble man with charisma that caused the sun to hide behindthe clouds when he spoke.
And, for the people he did speak - he spoke courageously.
The people claimed that they hadn't been prepared sufficiently for independence - and they most certainly hadn't.
They demanded a delay.
If independence were to come, then the natives felt it only reasonable that they be nurtured to a reasonable degree of maturity by the responsible colonial powers.
Rumblings of Rebellion All of these claims seem very reasonable, but do they justify what happened on and continued after May 28 1980? The issue that kindled the fire began with the November 1979 elections.
Within days, claims were made of fraudulent elections, perpetrated by officials of one of the colonial powers.
Evidence was produced showing cases of people voting more than once, of children of 14 and 16 years voting (where the minimum age was 18) and of certain colored voting cards not being available in particular regions.
In the above case of the 14 and 16 year olds, they were the children of a Vanuatu government minister from Santo.
All such evidence was carefully accumulated and then presented to the government, through the court, within the legally required period.
For weeks, and then months, there was no government response.
Finally Molli Jimmy Stevens approached Father Walter Lini about the matter, and he replied that it was out of hands, claiming that the files had been handed over to the colonial powers who had transferred them to London and Paris for consideration.
With the proposed independence only months away, Jimmy Stevens flew to Europe, only to discover that Walter Lini's claims were blatant lies. No files detailing the electoral fraud had ever been presented to the colonial masters.
Infuriated by the treachery, he returned to Santo whilst his representatives flew for talks at the United Nations.
The people of Santo had been betrayed by a man from another island.
Fresh elections were called for and were refused.
Negotiations on the question of autonomy (under a central government) were demanded and initiated, but delayed by government tactics.
The simple, peace loving melanesians on Santo had suffered enough abuse. Their custom way of attempting to negotiate to avoid conflicts had failed.
On the evening of May 28, natives armed with bows and arrows and nulla-nullas surrounded and 'peacefully' captured the British police station.
There was never any intention to injure the police, merely to frighten them into running away and leaving the island.
The custom men stormed the building and took captive the police who were virtually unarmed.
After this brief exercise, the natives reboarded their buses and headed east to the ''British Paddock' , housing the native government employees.
After surrounding the houses, they were detected by resident police who fired gas grenades blindly into the shadows.
With weeping eyes, the men pounced upon the houses and smashed the buildings until the occupants ran off into the night.
Had the grenades not been fired, the buildings wouldn't have been damaged.
As it was, the damage was only superficial - a few broken windows.
The natives had only one intention - to frighten the government employees into leaving the island.
This was the beginning of and the end to the 'bow and arrow war'.
Whilst we were weeping, the world was laughing.
War begins The war, that had no fighting and saw no casualties, had begun.
Father Walter Lini had been expecting and dreading this course of events, but he was totally unprepared.
The British colonial power had also been expectant and had acted with foresight.
Months earlier, it had removed all police officers and colonial administrators including officials who had been implicated in the electoral fraud.
In response to the coup, Walter Lini imposed a total blockade upon Santo.
This tiny island was totally cut off - completely isolated from the outside world.
The world heard on Radio Vanuatu, the anglican priest, Father Walter Lini, urging all Australians, New Zealanders, British subjects and native government supporters to leave their homes, properties and possessions and depart the island.
At first, there was no response.
Without refugees, the Prime Minister couldn't attain world wide media attention.
He continued his daily broadcasts, assuring the people of Santo that their lives were in danger.
Finally, panic did set in., with scenes like a British doctor shooting his dog and then rushing with his family to an evacuation point.
The native government supporters panicked and abandoned everything, opting for refugee status.
Had some whites not left the island, I doubt that Walter Lini would've received any refugees.
While all of this chaos was left to be tidied up by the evacuation boats, Molli Jimmy Edwards, on Radio Tanafo, assured the people on Santo of their safety.
He said that no-one, irrespective of his political belief, would be hurt - those who wished to leave would be permitted to do so without hindrance - and those who wanted to stay and to live in peace as before would be most welcome.
Many did stay on and weren't harmed, but many natives followed the dog shooting doctor to Port Vila.
There they became refugees and were eligible for Red Cross blankets.
At last, Walter Lini had his refugees.
From all over the world, journalists and photographers descended on Santo.
However, they found no war, no blood - only the sleepy little town of Luganville.
They wondered why on earth they'd been sent. Disappointed, they returned to Vila to join the cocktail circuit and to attend John Beasant's '4 o'clock follies'.
Radio Vemerama Is Born Without reliable media coverage, the voice of the people couldn't be heard.
Their desperate pleas for help, justice and new, properly supervised elections couldn't be heard.
Accordingly, in early June, Radio Vemerama was born and broke into the airwaves on 3522 kHz.
For a couple of weeks, there was only the French and Bichelamar (ie: Pidgin English) language sessions between 6-8pm Local Vemerama Time (0700-0900 GMT).
Driving to my first broadcast, I adopted the radio alias 'Derek Hodding'.
Five minutes before going on air for the first time, I was aware that intelligence agents in Vila knew my true identity.
But, if they were to play a game, why shouldn't I? And so, Derek Hodding came into existence on 3522 kHz.
The world was listening.
But, were foreign journalists tuning into 3522 kHz with pen in hand each evening.
No! In the capital of Port Vila, they were content to sip highballs, travel the cocktail circuit and rely on press releases from John Beasant (Walter Lini's press spokesman, advisor and government policy man).
Those who relied upon him and attended his '4 o'clock follies' were deceived.
His official press releases were more often than not totally fabricated.
To the north, on Espiritu Santo, I was shocked by the blatant lies broadcast by Radio Australia.
One heated evening on air, I called that station a propaganda radio station.
I was unaware of from where the Radio Australia correspondent was obtaining his grossly distorted stories.
I wasn't to learn this until much later when I was in jail.
There, John Beasant boasted that he'd fabricated certain reports to further his and the government's cause.
In his words, "rebels that weren't rebels had to become rebels".
Yellow Submarine Radio Vanuatu (strictly controlled by Walter Lini's government) was a pure propaganda station.
For weeks, it didn't acknowledge that Radio Vemerama existed.
Despite the fact that most of the New Hebrideans were twisting the dial onto our frequency.
Radio Vanuatu pretended that Radio Vemerama couldn't be heard - until I broadcast a sensational news item that forced the government station to attempt to squash our news.
The news item that caused all the fuss was that foreign and unidentified submarines had been sighted cruising off Santo and nearby islands.
From very reliable sources, I learnt that they were neither British nor French vessels.
Further, I was horrified to learn that such sightings had regularly been reported over the past few years, and, that in the early months of 1980, the number of sightings had been alarmingly increased.
The British and French governments were aware of such activity in their waters, but were powerless to intervene.
Whose submarines were they, and what were their cargoes? One can only guess, but intelligence rumors had it that Walter Lini would gladly accept Cuban assistance if western powers (particularly Britain and France) weren't prepared to back him.
The day following my sensational news bulletin, I nearly choked over my midday meal.
Radio Vanuatu gave a most incredible news item.
It reported that PM Walter Lini had just returned from a flight aboard a British transport C130 Hercules in a search for submarines.
The sounds of laughter echoed through the streets of Luganville.
We imagined the PM taking his tea on the flight deck of a Hercules, and occasionally raising his binoculars to find those nasty submarines.
The report continued, claiming that the plane was fitted out with a maze of electronic equipment, and that no submarine vessels had been found.
The PM had been alarmed by the 'f'alse' sightings broadcast by Radio Vemerama, and had personally conducted the hunt.
Unexpectantly, Radio Vanuatu also announced that the Vila parliament had erupted in outrage at that day's sitting being cancelled so as to allow the PM to go fishing.
After a couple of days of research, it was discovered that the plane upon which Walter Lini flew, didn't have the capacity to detect submerged submarines.
On air, I accused the PM of lying, of deceiving the people and challenged him to prove that his submarine hunting C130 actually had the necessary electronic equipment aboard.
This challenge was maintained (accompanied by the track Yellow Submarine) until the PM's credibility had been further eroded.
Beautiful Downtown Luganville Despite the presence of the 200 British and French commandos, life in Luganville was as chaotic and normal as usual.
Patrols occasionally cruised the streets, but only to order and purchase supplies for the men.
It was a crazy situation.
The British forces were armed to the hilt whereas the French were unarmed.
They were confined solely to the town limits.
Generally, they had a rather pleasant stay - whilst some sun bathed on the roof of HQ, others guarded a few key installations and the Burns Philp supermarket and motor-cycle shop.
The soldiers had absolutely no powers of arrest, which undoubtedly added immensely to the friendly atmosphere A letter sent by Jimmy Stevens in appreciation for Radio Fanafo in 1977 Two prime ministers, Walter Lini (left) and Julius Chan (PNG) inspect the radio transmitter which Santo rebels used.
(c) Pacific Islands Monthly, March 1981 5 that pervaded Luganville.
When they had arrived, the forces had been smothered by women bearing kisses and garlands of hibiscus and frangipani flowers.
Naturally, they were nervous - they'd been expecting arrows and rebel fire, not the warmth of women.
They'd been sent half-way around the world on a mission to squash the rebels and to destroy Radio Vemerama - but it was a mission that was never to eventuate.
They were to leave several weeks later with no battle scars other than a few severe cases of sun burn.
Prior to the arrival of the colonial forces, the people of Santo had been told that the island wouldn't be gaining independence along with the rest of the New Hebrides on July 30, 1980.
Due to the electoral fraud, the worsening relations with the central government of Walter Lini, and a breakdown in diplomatic relations between the colonial powers, Espiritu Santo
would go it alone, but under the protective umbrella of Britain and France. The people were told this by colonial officials, and were deceived.
Weeks after the townsfolk had cleared Pekoa Airfield and showered embrace upon the foreign troops, the treachery was discovered.
Action on Air Whilst the British and French commandos were on Santo, Walter Lini was furious about their lack of action.
However, he was even more furious to hear Radio Vemerama broadcasts which had boosted its power from 350 to 1000 watts.
Trying to bottle his anger, the PM contacted London and 'requested' that the rebel radio station be destroyed.
London's response was to order the British force on the island to jam our transmissions.
Whilst the natives enjoyed my broadcasts, the Vanuatu Party government didn't.
Relying on press releases from John Beasant, foreign correspondents labeled me as being one of the rebel leaders.
I didn't get the radio job for being a rebel - besides, I could never match the leadership qualities of Molli Jimmy Stevens.
My heart was crying out for the people and their voice had to be heard. They'd suffered enough through fraudulent elections and the antics of a one party central government.
They needed someone who understood the English language - someone who could be an extension of their voice and match the wit of the left-wing Englishman, John Beasant.
Given the very low standard of the English education system in the islands, it was obvious that a white man was destined for the position.
My voice was the voice of the people. They needed help, not weapons, from their friends in the pacific area.
They demanded that foreign governments put pressures on Walter Lini to cease his open flirtation with communism.
On the western political scale, the basic equivalent to native custom and tradition is so distantly removed from communism.
Wishing to preserve their custom, the natives were horrified of the consequences of the central government's flirtation with the reds.
These were some of the messages that I broadcast.
Just as we often changed frequency, the radio station location was varied, crossing in and out of the town limits.
Sometimes I found myself broadcasting from a bedroom, other times from a lounge room or kitchen.
It was probably such incidents that spurred Radio Vanuatu to announce that Radio Vemerama had been destroyed.
However, until it was obvious that we were to be over-run by PNG troops (whose first priority was to destroy the station), we continued broadcasting.
Due to the worsening relations between the New Hebrides, Britain and France, Walter Lini ordered the colonial troops out of the country.
He did this after obtaining Australian and PNG assurances of military support.
Australia was to provide advisors, and Papua New Guinea was to send in heavily armed men.
Now, with British Hercules out of the scene, and Australian transports winging their way across the Pacific, the scene had changed.
I know that life wasn't meant to be easy, but it was becoming more nerve wracking and less bearable.
Each night, an Australian spotter plane skimmed across the coconut palms, homing in on the 'rebel' station's location.
As the rats that had been feasting on the fleshy coconut meat fell to the ground in terror, I knew that the tide had turned - that Molli Jimmy Stevens (despite his increasing international support), had failed, and that Radio Vemerama was soon to die.
The station was to die gracefully, its transmission periods decreased each evening.
As the PNG troops dispersed themselves throughout the town, we switched locations and back to the 350 watt transmitter.
Each night the risks were higher.
We stayed on air until it became obvious that it would be sheer suicide to continue.
Whilst I've accused the British and French governments of totally ignoring New Hebrideans and of irresponsibly allowing independence without first nurturing the country to a reasonable degree of maturity, Radio Vemerama was a political time bomb.
It did explode, but I escaped the shrapnel. Relying on a very old friend of mine (who was, incidentally, a member of Walter Lini's police force), I knew the orders had been given that I was to be shot on sight.
There was to be no kangaroo court, merely a coffin to be flown across the Pacific.
Naturally, I didn't enjoy entertaining such thoughts.
I went into hiding just before a green light signaled a special task force to commence its hunt for Derek Hodding.
I stayed in hiding and communicated with the Australian High Commissioner.
After a week of continual negotiations, I agreed to surrender on the condition that my safety was assured.
At 10am on Thursday, August 28 1980, I surrendered to authorities at the Luganville British police station.
After being interrogated, I was thrown into the French prison.
Two days later, I was flown aboard a PNG Defence Forces DC3 to Port Vila. There, I was detained a further eleven days.
No charges were laid against me.
Given that I'd been detained illegally, I sought the assistance of the Australian High Commission, and was finally released and departed the islands on September 10.
Jimmy Molli Jimmy Stevens was given 14 1⁄2 years and New Hebrides was given life.
According to the Pacific Islands Monthly magazine (October 1980), Radio Vemerama was closed down on August 19, 1980 when Papua New Guinea Defence Forces captured the transmitter.
The last reported reception by listeners in New Zealand was on August 14, 1980, signing on at 9pm NZT on the frequency of 3577 kHz to avoid jamming attempts.