Islands of Freedom: An Alternative for New Countries

When independence comes to the New Hebrides in 1980, it may provide a rare opportunity to give liberty and private property another chance.


Imagine a chain of tropical islands, with ample rainfall, excellent soil, lush vegetation, beautiful sandy beaches, and many other features that would make them perfect for tourism as well as for human habitation. All such places on this planet are already occupied, you say? Not so. The islands I speak of are populated, all right, but grossly underpopulated—fewer than 100,000 people in more than 100 islands and a territory of some 4,000 square miles. They are the New Hebrides, 500 miles west of Fiji and north of New Caledonia, and more than 1,000 miles directly north of New Zealand, at 10°-20° south latitude.

How could such a place exist and remain underpopulated in a century of population explosion? Why aren't people flocking to it as one of man's last refuges in a crowded and troubled world? Is it a Marxist dictatorship that is so uninviting that no one wants to go there?

On the contrary. Not only is there room for more people—they are welcomed. Boatloads of Vietnamese refugees have been invited to find a home there, and gardens have already been planted for them so that the refugees can be self-sustaining from the time they arrive. When the inhabitants of some of the New Hebrides islands invited the Vietnamese, not only was this a humanitarian act, but it could help build a bulwark against Communism. For the refugees have all fled from Communist Vietnam, and anti-Communism is sure to be their principal common feature. At present most of these refugees are rotting in boats in Manila Harbor, unwanted by any other nation, near starvation, and festering with sores. All that is wanting is the money to transport them to their invited home.

But the invitation is extended not only to refugees. Thousands of people are needed—for modernizing agriculture, for developing industry, for stores and factories and schools and hospitals. A huge importation of technology is needed, both machines and people who have the skill to construct and repair them. Also, tourism could bring a tremendous economic boom to this area: with unused arable land, beautiful beaches, palm trees, and a beneficent climate, the islands could become a tourists' paradise. The New Hebrides is located at what could well become the crossroads of the Pacific: traffic from Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Tahiti, Hawaii, as well as the United States could be routed through these islands, provided there were a sufficient inflow of capital to make such developments possible.

Most of the native inhabitants, Melanesian tribesmen, have deeply rooted traditions of liberty as well as private property. Each family has its own plot of land, and social intercourse is strictly voluntary. Theft is so rare that one could leave valuables about for weeks at a time with no one to watch them, yet no one would take them. "It's theirs, it isn't yours," is a sacred precept among the natives of the New Hebrides. The natives are natural champions of free enterprise and respect the rights of others to ownership just as they want their own to be respected. They are willing to lease parcels of their land. On a one-time, once-only basis, they will also sell a strictly limited number of acres (and in view of the experience of American Indians, such precautions concerning ownership of land seem eminently reasonable).

The islanders have nostalgic memories of Americans when they last came to the New Hebrides in large numbers during World War II. They delivered the islands from Japanese occupation and, with DDT, rid them of malarial mosquitoes. After the Americans left, the mosquitoes started to return, and they are back now in full force. The islanders want to see Americans again, not only to control these pests, but to develop the islands as only American technology knows how to do it and help to bring them into the 20th century.


If all this is so, what is stopping Americans from moving to the New Hebrides? Why aren't they going there to retire in comfort or to develop its agriculture and industry or just to escape from taxation and inflation?

One consideration is that the British-French protocols of 1906 under which the islands are governed are not due to expire until June 1980. Only then will the islands be officially "independent." Until that time, the lines of authority are not clear: officially, at least, New Hebrides policies must have the approval of the British-French "protectorate."

But independence is a two-edged knife. In 1980, control of the islanders' affairs by foreign powers will terminate and be replaced by what is called "self-government." And self-government has its dangers. In the clearest use of the term, it is applicable only to individuals, and self-government means governing oneself. Even here it carries its dangers, for an individual might not govern himself wisely or well. But when the term is applied not to individuals but to nations, it becomes collective self-government—government of all persons within a certain geographical area by some of them. And government of all by some is often tyrannical, even though no outsiders any longer rule. When Nigeria ceased to be a colonial power and the European legal system departed, thousands of Ibo tribesmen were slaughtered because they were a minority in a nation that was now governed by a majority hostile to them. The Hausas governed, and they also governed the Ibos against their wills. The same thing could happen in the New Hebrides.

There are two main native groups inhabiting the New Hebrides. The first group, composed of tribesmen who have recently confederated under the traditional name of Na-Griamel, also hope to be able to call their particular areas Na-Griamel after independence, and if they cannot carry all the New Hebrides islands with them, they hope to create their own separate political entity, Na-Griamel.

The Na-Griamel movement is headed by Jimmy Moly Stevens, and the members are pro-freedom and pro-private property. They strongly desire to have more industry and technology, and they assure those who come that they can keep the fruits of their labor. With the help of some Americans and Europeans, they have already minted gold and silver coins, to be used after independence; they have printed passports, although other nations do not yet recognize them as valid; and most important, they have written a constitution, which is much like the constitution of the United States but stricter in its provisions for economic freedom, in view of the abandonment of many of the precepts of liberty by the United States in the 20th century. It is a constitution with no provision for collecting taxes; revenues are to come from the leasing of lands. It is hoped that this constitution will become effective on independence in 1980.

Already, there are signs that Na-Griiamel's independence bid is being taken seriously. A Na-Griamel radio station operates daily without French or British permission and without their interference. In August 1978 a Na-Griamel airstrip was opened at Big Bay, and in January Air Melanesia began service to Tanafo, Na-Griamel's jungle headquarters on the largest island in the New Hebrides—Santo—where a delegation of French officials has already made a call, a sign of de facto acceptance of Na-Griamel's sovereignty.

The second group of natives, Vanuaaku (formerly the National Party), is dominant in the southern islands. Inheriting the tradition of British Fabian socialism, it favors centralized control of industry and property for the entire island chain. British civil servants have been assiduous in instilling socialistic precepts in the minds of the natives under their influence, particularly those who desire to train for professions: since no such training is now available on the islands, they must obtain it outside through the intermediary of the governing administration. While these tribesmen are not socialist by inclination, the stream of political influence and advancement has flowed largely in that direction. Most effective of all, millions of dollars have poured in on behalf of the Vanuaaku group from the World Council of Churches, which has collected many times as much money as the Na-Griamel group has been able to raise in the way of outside help. The Vanuaaku Party has publicly declared that its model for political organization is socialist Tanzania.


If money determines the outcome, then, thus far at least, the socialist Vanuaaku Party will win the election after independence. The result of this would probably be the forcible suppression of Na-Griamel. Even worse, such "suppression" might take the form of elimination. When so-called democratic Marxists infiltrated Tanzania a few years back, they, and the Soviets who financed them, arrested the tribal chiefs and everyone else who was suspected of being a threat to Soviet power and simply executed them. The same thing could happen in the New Hebrides if the Vanuaaku Party wins.

If one believes that the World Council of Churches would not knowingly be responsible for the deaths of so many innocent persons, the record of their deeds in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia should be enough to convince us otherwise. They have poured millions of dollars into the Patriotic Front to sustain the terrorists who want to take over Zimbabwe-Rhodesia in the name of a one-party Marxist dictatorship, and their money has made possible the torture and enslavement and death of thousands of people, both black and white. What they have already done in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, they could conceivably do in the New Hebrides. Their programs have not changed, and as long as they can collect more money from unsuspecting Christians who think they are contributing to a worthy cause, they might continue to betray that cause by encouraging the massacre of all those who oppose socialism.

The French at one time urged a "government of national unity" for the New Hebrides after independence, but now they appear to have backed off somewhat, in view of the strength and fervor of the Na-Griamel movement, and are instead advocating a "confederation" approach. It may be that at the time of independence the New Hebrides will be divided into two, three, or even four separate nations, each hoping that no one will try to invade anyone else's territory. If this happens, it would still be possible for the Vanuaaku faction, with arms and money from the World Council of Churches, to invade the northern islands, take them over, and kill or send to "corrective labor camps" anyone who has shown any anticommunist tendencies.

There could be danger from the outside, as well. The New Hebrides is a far-flung chain of islands and relatively unprotected. At the moment it is semi-protected by France. Although France doesn't have a large stake in the New Hebrides, it does in New Caledonia, to the south, where large deposits of various metals and minerals are mined. About 2,000 miles to the east lies Tahiti, a center of French tourism and an important French military base. In between lie the New Hebrides islands, where France would be reluctant to witness any encroachment by another foreign power. The French military establishment is the only one that is both nearby and (on the whole) friendly to Na-Griamel. A foreign take-over of the New Hebrides would threaten French interests throughout the South Pacific. Britain no longer has such interests and pulls out gladly, leaving only the socialist influence of its dedicated civil servants.

What would happen if France's supremacy over this South Pacific area were threatened after the New Hebrides independence in 1980? If Soviet forces, for example, invaded massively, France would be inadequate to provide for the defense of the New Hebrides. But a much more likely scenario is that a few "tourists," say Cubans, would enter with guns and overcome the customs officials, preparing the way for a new Communist coup. If they get a spearhead in the New Hebrides, the pattern will probably be the same as it has been elsewhere: they will arrest native leaders and anyone whom they suspect of being opposed to communism, and these real and unsuspected opponents will disappear forever; whether they are shot outright or placed in labor camps for indoctrination, they will not be heard from again. What happens after independence is a matter of life and death for the freedom-loving people of Na-Griamel—as it is, indeed, on a larger scale, for all of us.


Is there anything that would minimize the possibility of such threats becoming a reality? If the French saw that Na-Griamel was not merely a dream of freedom in someone's eye but a living reality displayed before them in the form of a new nation devoted to liberty and freedom of enterprise as the United States was in 1776, they would be ever so much more likely to provide protection, as long as the new nation continued to be a bulwark against Communist expansion. The more money and technology and trained personnel are fed into the New Hebrides during the next few critical months, the more the French are likely to be willing to provide whatever defense is needed and, as a result, the less likely it will be that any defense against outside powers will be needed at all. In time, of course, the new nation will be able to defend itself, but this, along with its internal development, will not take place at once.

Most critically of all, the development of the New Hebrides will take money—lots of it. An infusion of money would attract trained personnel, which in turn would attract more technology; and the more technology is attracted, the more people will go there because of the increased ease of living, as more of the conveniences of Western life become available in the islands. Once it has begun, the movement will achieve a momentum of its own. The main problem is to provide that initial impetus that is needed to get the whole enterprise started. It is greatly in the interest of freedom-loving people everywhere to see that this happens, for the New Hebrides provides opportunities for unfettered economic development that are rare or unequaled in the world in this last quarter of the 20th century. (The Na-Griamel Federation can be contacted at P.O. Box 18, Tanafo, Santo, New Hebrides.)

John Hospers, a REASON contributing editor, is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His most recent book, Understanding the Arts, will be published by Prentice-Hall in 1980.