Identity and Development in Vanuatu

Bridging Mental Boundaries in a Postcolonial Microcosm: Identity and Development in Vanuatu

Rawlings, Gregory E

Bridging Mental Boundaries in a Postcolonial Microcosm: Identity and Development in Vanuatu By William F S Miles. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 1998. Pp. xxiv + 271. Price: US22.95 pb

In this lively and stimulating book, William F S Miles argues that psychological and spatial boundaries with ethnic, religious, economic, cultural, and pedagogical manifestations can be deployed as analytical tools to explain identity politics and development in the postcolonial world. For Miles (p. xviii), small states such as the south west Pacific island nation of Vanuatu can be `heuristically illuminating’, encompassing broad themes of human identity in one clearly demarcated archipelagic locale. From a background of research on colonialism in Africa, the Caribbean and French India, Vanuatu becomes an exemplar for processes, themes and trends writ-large in the so called third world.

It was Vanuatu’s history as an Anglo-French condominium (1906-1980) and the global conclusions that might be drawn from this unique episode in colonial rule, that attracted Miles to an approximate total of one year’s fieldwork in the country from May 1991 to August 1992. This fieldwork involved extensive and in-depth research in which hundreds of people (mostly prominent men) were interviewed, in addition to multi-sited participant observation and a thorough coverage of the national archives.

Miles is interested in the boundaries that emerged during Anglo-French colonial rule in the New Hebrides, coining the term ‘condocolonialism’ to describe and analyse this period of bifurcated administration. His exploration of the condocolonial New Hebrides and post-independence Vanuatu (from July 1980) is informed by an eclectic model positing that people make psychological demarcations about others (peoples and places) to simplify and assimilate information about the world into manageable units of spatial cognition. These cognitive borders have cultural, political, economic, pedagogical and linguistic dimensions and can be most clearly found in countries that are the result of European colonial partitioning, enduring even after formal decolonisation. They are more than just lines on maps separating newly independent countries from one another; for Miles colonialism necessitated a ‘partitioning the mind’ (p. 3) just as much as space.

In Vanuatu the process of constructing and maintaining a postcolonial sense of national identity has been complicated by its legacy of joint British and French rule. Miles argues that the most crucial aspect of condocolonialism was that imperial rivalries between France and Britain were internalised by ni-Vanuatu (indigenous) peoples and that these divisions continue to have significance in contemporary Vanuatu. Condocolonialism was therefore the single most important factor in the emergence of Anglophone and Francophone ni-Vanuatu identities. Although separate pre-independence French/English bureaucracies, police forces and medical facilities have been unified in postcolonial Vanuatu, the Anglophone/Francophone divide remains, especially in the dual language education system, political affiliation and in religious distinctions between Catholics and Protestants. Miles enriches this discussion of condocolonial boundaries, by examining kastom (custom), nationalism and other markers of identity such as citizenship (or lack of it in the pre-independence New Hebrides), land, kava (the intoxicant piper methysticum that Miles [pp. 74-76] creatively describes as the ‘narcotic of nationalism’), dress and string band music. In the latter half of the book, Miles examines more recent and shifting temporal, economic, legal, gendered, and racial boundaries that are emerging within the context of globalisation.

Miles’s coverage of historical and contemporary Vanuatu is thus broad, insightful and comprehensive. He offers well-researched and informative coverage of the condocolonial past and quotidian present. However, his use of the boundary paradigm, which provides the theoretical foundations of his argument, could be further developed. It is not entirely clear whether or not boundaries are fixed, static, stable and confining or shifting, porous, multiplex and contingent. Miles is also interested in the way people transcend boundaries. He seems to be implying both, but avoids declaring this. Rather Miles tends towards essentialism with his insistence that ‘boundaries have become an intrinsic component of the human condition’ (p. 2). His largely uncritical reliance on dozens of different and in some cases opposing views of boundaries ends up with tautological reasoning characterised by such statements as: ‘While identity gives rise to boundaries, boundaries also create identities’ (p. 6).

The lack of clear direction in Miles’s use of boundaries as an explanatory model and the retention of essentialist and tautological logic when invoking it as a paradigmatic analytical tool, makes the rest of the text susceptible to contradiction. In some passages Miles suggests that French and British colonial rule was fundamental, if not deterministic, in constructing Anglophone and Francophone divisions. In others he argues that locally grounded indigenous agency and relationships to place are the two most salient identity markers and boundary maintainers, rendering the Anglophone/Francophone divide largely contingent on local interests. For example, Miles states that: ‘Condocolonialism superimposes competitive identities along nonindigenous lines.. Even in a weakly linked archipelago, allegiance to island holds less significance than affinity with European overload’ (p. 38). However, he had previously noted (p. 28), when discussing the Anglophone/Francophone dichotomy that: ‘It does, however, underrate the indigenous essence of the Vanuatu polity as well as the significant transformation in Vanuatu politics and identity since independence’. This uncertainty about relative colonial/indigenous precedence in identity formation and maintenance is not necessarily a problem, as it illustrates the complexity of the interaction between local agency, the condominium system and post independence state structures. Miles does briefly allude to this complexity between the local and the national on pages 27-28, but this could have been enhanced by further explicit reasoning and additional detail.

Another point of concern is the reliance on generalisations without always providing evidence to substantiate what can often seem like sweeping claims. For example, Miles declares that ‘Little is known of pre-contact history in the Vanuatu islands’ (p.14). This assertion shows limited appreciation of the substantial work that has been carried out on precontact archaeological, anthropological and historical research by Jose Garranger, Jean Guiart, David Luders and Mathhew Spriggs, amongst others. This inattention to related research on Vanuatu gives way to a somewhat unthoughtful narrative style. For instance, Miles describes the majority Christian denomination in the country as ‘plebeian Presbyterians’ (p. 90), makes the unnecessary observation that ‘despite their dark skin’ ni-Vanuatu are not related to Africans (p. 14), refers to a University of the South Pacific (USP) campus in Papua New Guinea where one does not exist (p. 130) and falsely classifies Vanuatu’s 105 indigenous languages as belonging to the ‘Australasian… language family’, when it should be the Austronesian (p. 146). The rather frequent and out of place references to cannibalism when discussing for example, financial globalisation and offshore banking (p. 14), together with women suckling piglets (p. 170) tend towards sensationalist exoticism and detract from overall scholarly intent.

To be fair however, maybe the sometimes colloquial and exoticist aspects of this book (for this is not the dominant genre) are designed to appeal to a general audience who would normally be unfamiliar with Vanuatu. In this sense Miles has succeeded in contributing a comprehensive and informative monograph. It has been written with great energy, enthusiasm and commitment, integrating a fine range of facts, figures, details, evidence and telling vignettes. For example, in the last two chapters Miles explores new and emerging boundaries in political economy, race/ethnicity and law. He provides insightful commentary on the perpetuation of racially encoded socio-economic inequalities between the tiny but powerful and wealthy, largely white, expatriate and settler elite in Port Vila and the indigenous majority who share this vibrant pacific port town.

His evocative coverage of a civil court case in which white magistrates, lawyers, defendants and plaintiffs deliberate over a corporation with a branch in Arizona and an investment in a race horse called ‘Total Departure’ is particularly telling in a country whose Offshore Finance Centre (OFC) recorded business throughput of US$6 billion in 1999. In these compelling and astute observations Miles admirably succeeds in positioning Vanuatu within a world milieu of small states and bankrolled sovereignty as new boundaries emerge with the pressures, constraints and opportunities of globalisation. The local and the global are not separate but intertwined. As Miles (pp. 186-187) cogently observes:

‘Criminal proceedings in Vanuatu are invariably ‘black’; but civil cases are ‘white…Are these not the legacies of the Condominium? Emerging from the Ecole Publique one looks upward to the Law Court, where the high finance, corporate multinational, Old Bailey– like proceedings are continuing. This is where the money that counts, the interests of the outside world, are decided, in English, by and among whites. Below, at the school, the directeur bemoans the marginalization of French education in the former Nouvelles Hebrides. In neither place is ordinary speech, the national language Bislama, to be heard. Three languages, one country, two worlds, fifty paces’.

In passages such as this, Miles eloquently and accurately portrays the complex dynamics at work in contemporary Vanuatu.

In the end Miles succeeds in illustrating that boundaries continue to play an important part in both cognitive and material domains, and that these can be elucidated in post-colonial countries like Vanuatu. Importantly such borders are, for better or worse transcended all the time. Bridging Mental Boundaries in a Postcolonial Microcosm thus provides a challenging, informative and compelling overview of history, politics, and society in Vanuatu. It is highly recommended to those who are already well acquainted with the country and to a readership that is not yet familiar with Vanuatu. This book will appeal to both audiences.

Gregory E Rawlings

The Australian National University

Copyright University of Sydney, Oceania Publications Mar 2002

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