Emalus Library Online Documents Collection - Vanuatu

'My only weapon being a pencil': inscribing the prison in the New Hebrides.

Author/s: Margaret C. Rodman

Source: Journal of Pacific History.  Issue: June, 1998

ON 29 MAY 1908 EDWARD JACOMB, A TALL, LEAN LAWYER IN HIS EARLY 30S WHO WAS serving as Assistant to the British Resident Commissioner (BRC) in the New Hebrides, wrote to his mother describing a `most interesting trip' he had just made to the island of Ambrym to apprehend an alleged murderer named Berk. The trip was long: two days on a packet-boat from the capital, Port Vila, to the island of Paama; a weekend with the Rev. Maurice Frater, a Presbyterian missionary who had reported the murder; an abortive trip to the wrong part of Ambrym; and finally four-and-a-half hours rowing a whaleboat across a glassy sea to the accused man's village. Jacomb went on:

On entering the village I found the object of my search without the

slightest difficulty. My arrival seemed to astonish the inhabitants pretty

considerably. The village is about as primitive as it is possible for a

village to be; the huts are low and can only be entered on hands and knees;

the natives are practically naked, and most of them were strolling about

smoking clay pipes charged with black plug [tobacco], and with Sneider

rifles at full cock over their shoulders. There were a number of

piccaninnies [children], pigs and fowls roaming about in the mud. I must

confess I did not care for the environment, my only weapon being a pencil.

However I made the best of it and sat down on a tree trunk and spent half

an hour questioning Berk as to the alleged shooting of his wife. He made

no effort to deny it, but I failed to discover his motive.(1)

Jacomb arrested Berk, travelled with the confessed murderer back to Port Vila, and handed him over to Captain Edwin Harrowell, who was in the process of training the first British colonial police force. Once again, Jacomb asked Berk why he had killed his wife. The Melanesian `wrinkled his face, and the wrinkling soon turned to an engaging smile: "Mi no savvy", he said'.(2)

This paper explores the process of producing the prisoner in the New Hebrides. Under the Anglo-French Condominium, proclaimed in December 1907, Britain and France jointly administered the New Hebrides until independence in 1980.(3) They did not partition the territory and neither power claimed sovereignty over the group of some 80 islands, located approximately 800 km west of Fiji and 2,200 km north-cast of Sydney, Australia. This unusual, conjoint administration was not strictly speaking a colony. Yet it seems especially well-suited to a multi-vocal and multi-local historical anthropology, accepting the by now well-established point of view that colonialisms, rather than colonialism, is our subject matter and that `the terms of domination were never straightforward, never overdetermined'.(4)

I concentrate on one aspect of what Nicholas Thomas has aptly called `the anxious violence of colonial power'.(5) My interest is in processes of creating spatial order amidst an uneasy, underlying fear on the part of the British colonial officers that order might prove impossible, not only because of lack of funds and lack of political will, but for other reasons, Underlying the British discourse is also a fear that, on the one hand, the colonial project could, at best, keep at bay the primitive disorder of the ever encroaching `bush', and, on the other, that disorder might not arise from the seemingly primitive New Hebrideans but from the Europeans themselves. There is, as I shall show, considerable anxiety about what the natives think of the British, a continual glancing over the shoulder toward the bush. There are good reasons for this. Yet amidst this anxiety, right at the spatial centre of the colonial en enterprise, were adult, male, Melanesian prisoners, armed with large bush knives, cutting the lawns of the British Paddock, playing with the children of the Resident Commissioner and other officials, and inciting amusement, but almost never fear, among the European population.(6) Why?

To find the answer, let us go back to 1907, a year before Jacomb brought the murderer Berk to town. The focus will then shift to a three-way debate about prison accommodation in 1935, a debate involving the British Resident Commissioner, the British Commandant of the Constabulary, and a Presbyterian missionary doctor, the son of Frater who had reported Berk. Interviews with former British colonial officers, their wives and children, in addition to interviews with Melanesians, mixed race settlers, French and Condominium employees, and development volunteers provide comparative material on attitudes toward prisoners from the 1950s through independence in 1980 and into the post-colonial period.

`Mi no savvy'

Berk's punch line is footnoted in Jacomb's diary with an anecdote revealing British views of what they constructed as the Melanesian mentality with regard to crime. Jacomb includes it to show that Melanesians `view murder differently to ourselves'. The Lieutenant Governor of Papua, Sir Hubert Murray, told Jacomb of the trial of two Papuans. They had drowned an acquaintance whom they found sadly waiting for a swollen stream to subside so that he could cross back to the other side. The accused said that they drowned the man because he was so upset they felt they had to do something to help him. As in Berk's case, there was no attempt to deny or conceal the act.(7)

The punch line, `mi no savvy', is shared with two other stories Jacomb recounts earlier in his diary for 1908. In one, his man servant is apprehended in the act of trying to pluck a chicken before killing it, inverting the `natural' order of events. In the other, Jacomb, saddle sore and weary, arrives in a native village. His travelling companion suggests a whisky, which Jacomb downs with alacrity, only to discover that a female villager has provided sea water rather than fresh water for the drinks. On both occasions, when asked why they made such foolish mistakes, the servants replied `Mi no savvy'.

In British eyes, then, Melanesians neither deny their guilt nor understand why they perform culpable acts, ranging from the crime of murdering one's wife to minor mistakes about what seems natural and obvious to the British writer. While Jacomb feels uneasy, his only weapon being a pencil, amidst rifle-toting, nearly naked Melanesian men, he apprehends the murderer `without the slightest difficulty'. The primitive quality of the village, evident in the low huts, sets the stage for Jacomb. Is this a real crime? Is the perpetrator too naive to be a danger to a white man? Ironically, the criminal, while guilty of the act, is innocent of the crime. Because he does not know why what he did is wrong, he is not really responsible for his actions.

For the Melanesians caught in these stories, `Mi no savvy' had other meanings. From the research that William Rodman and I have conducted in the islands on six field trips between 1969 and 1995, it is clear that crimes punished by the colonial government were not necessarily crimes against local customary law; killing one's wife could be justified, although probably not without payment of compensation to her kin. By the same token, offences against customary law meriting a penalty of death might not be considered a `real' crime by Europeans. Although sorcery was a punishable offence in the Native Code that the British and French District Agents could enforce, they rarely did so.(8) In part, the problem was a lack of belief among the Europeans that this was a real crime. Moreover, the islanders hardly ever handed over a sorcery case to the government for resolution; they just did not think that the Europeans would understand how to deal with such a case.(9) So `Mi no savvy' could mean `I don't know how to explain this to you', or, in the cases of the chicken and the salt water, `I don't know what you thought I was doing' --`I pulled some tail feathers out as I chased the chicken, I wasn't plucking it alive' or `I brought this salt water up to cook vegetables in and you silly men drank it'. Yet another possibility is `I didn't know how to do this strange English thing you have asked of me'.

Why were Europeans not afraid of people like Berk? The answer is not so simple as Jacomb's anecdotes suggest. Europeans had learned at their peril to ignore the threat that Melanesians could pose to their lives. John Williams, the first London Missionary Society missionary to the islands, had been martyred in 1839. For the next 25 years, missionary activity in the New Hebrides was a `tale of tragedy, martyrdom and clergical persistence'.(10) Only a few months after Jacomb's encounter with the docile murderer on Ambrym, the Greig murders shocked the European community in the New Hebrides.(11) Greig was a planter who had established himself with his family on the south coast of Santo in 1902. He settled on the same site where another planter, Peter Sawers, had been murdered in 1891. When Greig's wife died of fever in 1905, the two youngest children were sent to Australia, the two eldest girls and a son remaining with their father in the New Hebrides. On 7 October 1908, Greig and the two teenaged daughters were murdered. One girl was killed with a rifle, the other with a hatchet; they were found with their skirts over their heads, but neither had been sexually assaulted. The son escaped to a neighbouring planter and reported the crime.

Jacomb's diary for 12 October records his shock, his certainty that Greig had not provoked the murder, and his initial desire to blame labour recruiters, especially the French. Jacomb's comments about the primitive `Man Santo' also resonate ironically with the cruel justice that would be imposed by the supposedly civilised colonial government (passages he deleted in the final text are shown in square brackets):

I had never met any of the Greig family, but from all I had heard they

seemed to have been quiet, inoffensive folk, unlikely to have done anything

to have provoked their native neighbours. Their murder was probably an act

of reprisal for wrongs done to these neighbours by other white men. [At

and prior to that time and for some time after, numerous outrages had been

committed particularly by French subjects who had forcibly kidnapped able

bodied youths and maidens, their victims having either died or been

detained indefinitely on plantations with scant hope of ever seeing their

homes or friends again.] `Man Santo' was still a very primitive human and

considered all white men as belonging to the same tribe, and thought that

by attacking the nearest available whites he would avenge his dead,

missing or captive relatives.(12)

Eight expeditions had never apprehended Sawers's killer; three were required to bring the Greig murders to a solution that the European community found adequate. The first expedition resulted in three hostages from the wrong village. The second yielded more hostages, and salvos fired into the bush caused the deaths of five or six women and a little girl. These deaths prompted the Presbyterian missionary, Joseph Annand, to write, `The slaughter of their women, painful though it may appear to many, had a very good effect upon the bushmen generally ... This has been a severe but much needed lesson to man Santo.'(13) Seemingly, not only `very primitive' humans considered the Other to belong all to the same tribe, such that revenge could be had by attacking the nearest victims available.

Nor did Greig prove to be inoffensive. The murderer, who was apprehended on the third expedition along with seven others deemed to have been accomplices, was Ifurer, a Melanesian from an interior village, who had worked for Greig and not received the pay he was owed. When Ifurer had asked Greig for his wages, the planter had refused to pay. As well, it was possible that Greig, and Sawers before him, were believed to be blocking the route that cargo, or wealth, would follow if and when it arrived for the inhabitants of the interior. The eight prisoners, including Ifurer, were taken off to Vila where presumably they were housed in the French prison, as there was not yet a British facility.

Producing the Prison and the Police

The production of the prison and of the police was closely linked in the colonial New Hebrides. Neither existed on the British side prior to 1907 when Captain Harrowell was appointed Commandant of the British Division of the New Hebrides Constabulary.(14) He lived with Jacomb and the Resident Commissioner, Merton King, in the British Residency on Iririki Island in Port Vila harbour. Jacomb, who never liked Harrowell, described him as `a fine figure of a man, with a magnificent moustache but, unfortunately, a balding head'.(15) In 1907, Harrowell was about 38 years old, `a bachelor, a teetotaller, a heavy smoker of pipes and cigars, a non-reader even of newspapers, and devoid of any interests outside his as yet non-existent police force'.(16)

The first policeman was a West Indian named Alcide, whom Jacomb `found derelict in Vila and handed to Harrowell as the nucleus of his future police force'.(17) By the end of the year, Jacomb had recruited nine more policemen; the Resident Commissioner found another four, and by 7 May 1908 there was a total of 16 British policemen. Harrowell set to training them and within a month had `worked wonders with the very raw material available'.(18) A large grass house was built to accommodate the police on Iririki Island near the British Residency.

There were at that time no British prisoners, and no provision for them. In late January 1908 Jacomb writes, `we were suddenly made aware that we were short of a prison, and had nothing to serve as a temporary substitute'. A Melanesian man was brought in from the north accused of having shot a local woman. (This was four months before Jacomb himself apprehended Berk, who was guilty of a similar crime on Ambrym.) The case could not be heard until the end of the hurricane season, so the Resident Commissioner `invoked for him the hospitality of the French gaol which was readily granted as they thereby got an unpaid labourer for some months'.(19) Plans were made to house the police in a more permanent structure and to build a prison. According to architects' drawings from 1909, both were to be housed in similar structures.(20) Both the barracks and the prison had cells. Policemen and prisoners were to sleep on raised platforms along the length of the walls of their respective accommodations. The main difference was that the barracks had more porous boundaries, such that the policemen could sleep on an open sleeping porch at the front entrance if they wished. Whites, whether prisoners or policemen, would dwell separately from Melanesians. As the drawings indicate, there was to be a French wing and a British wing of both the police barracks and the prison. This reflected the structure of the Condominium.

Under the Condominium, British law applied to British nationals and `ressortissants'. Citizens of `Other countries had to opt officially for either British or French jurisdiction while residing in the New Hebrides. For example, some Canadians opted for the French, others for the British side. French nationals and ressortissants (including Tonkinese labourers) followed French law. Melanesians were covered by a Native Code. A Joint Court capped the judicial structure; it was designed to include a neutral President (initially Spanish), a French Judge, a British Judge and a Public Prosecutor. The court was intended primarily to resolve large numbers of thorny land disputes, and to provide a mechanism for the official registration of tide to land claimed by individuals and companies of European origin and by the British, French and Joint Administrations. The importance attached to the judicial system is evident in the size and grandeur of the houses built for officials of the court, and the court building itself. These were by far the largest and fanciest buildings in Port Vila. They were designed by the same architects as the prison and barracks.

While often described as a dual system of government, the Condominium was in fact considerably more complex. The structure of the joint Court was the tip of the iceberg. Some services, particularly social services such as health, education and co-operatives, were provided in duplicate, by the British and the French. For many public services, however, there was only one provider, the Condominium. For example, the Condominium handled postal service, telegraphs and telephones, customs and agricultural advising and development, survey, lands registration, mining, development of rural water supplies, and meteorology. District Agents were Condominium positions, although the British and French made their respective appointments to the positions of British and French District Agents (BDAs and FDAs) and in later years also appointed Assistant District Agents.

Duplication did occur where the police were concerned. In theory, they were the British and French divisions of the New Hebrides Armed Constabulary, and therefore divisions of what was designed to be a more or less unified force, but in practice they were separate.(21) This separation was evident in the fact that neither the Joint Prison nor the joint Police Barracks was constructed, despite the drawings prepared by Joseland and Vernon, the Sydney architects who oversaw the construction of the other Condominium buildings between 1907 and about 1911. The French retained their own prison near other administrative buildings on the bluff overlooking the town and the harbour. By 1912, the British had requested permission from the Western Pacific High Commission to convert half of the boat-builder's shed near the British Residency on Iririki Island to a jail.(22) The British police continued to live in their grass house on the island.

Eventually, the prison, the police and the British offices relocated to the main island (Efate), creating the British Paddock on a block of land adjacent to and south of the French government buildings. The prison and the police barracks were built to specifications that the Resident Commissioner obtained from the Western Pacific High Commission before 1924: four cells (10 ft 8 in. X 10 ft 4 in. X 12 ft) to accommodate a maximum of six prisoners each. Pre-fabricated galvanised iron buildings were available by mail order from Australia at that time. The same building could be ordered as housing for labour, as a police barracks, or as a prison. The only difference was how many people could be put in a room/cell. British regulations concerning native labour required 300 cubic feet for each adult but the prison, if it were full (which it never was), would allow only 220 cubic feet per inmate.(23) The interchangeability of housing for police and prisoners was especially evident later, as prisons became established in the three outlying administrative districts (Southern, Northern, and Central District 2). At some point in the 1950s, the police in the Northern District even switched quarters with the prisoners, preferring the solidity of the prison to the less substantial protection against the elements afforded by their own grass houses.(24) As we shall see, however, the decision to allow prisoners to live in grass houses was one that the British administration took more cautiously than did the Melanesian policemen in the Northern District.

Prisoners in Grass Houses

The minuting in the New Hebrides British Service archives is often ruminative. Running commentary on correspondence and other contents begins on the inside covers and often fills the front pages of a file. Handwritten or typed, terse or loquacious, minuting was a way of thinking about things in a less formal discourse than even semi-official correspondence. It is always self-conscious, as if the writer were aware that, in spite of the informal appearance, minuting was a matter of record. Will Stober, an ex-colonial officer who arranged and assisted with my interviews in the United Kingdom, commented

Typically, minuting, whether initiated from the top or the bottom of

the official ladder, is hierarchical in nature, and normally revealing

of the processes of reasoning leading

to a decision or to agreement on the text of the documents, such as a

letter to the French residency or a draft joint Regulation. At least

the outward courtesies are preserved towards a senior officer, not

least the Resident -- their absence would be unthinkable -- while on

the other hand subordinate officials, if occasionally complimented, may

suffer immortalised rebuke, sometimes severe, from the Resident or

other senior official.(25)

Because of these qualities and because it is by definition a multi-vocal, inscribed conversation, minuting can be a window into contested issues, individual differences of opinion among colonial officers, and the practical workings of empire.

This is particularly evident in an exchange from October 1935 about prisoners and grass houses. In brief, the exchange, explored in detail below, is this: When the Presbyterian mission doctor brings sanitary conditions at the British prison to his attention, the Resident Commissioner, George Andrew joy, is moved to consider the kinds of prisoners housed in the jail; he proposes that a `suitable grass house' should be built for some prisoners. Conflict arises with the Commandant of Police who fears that British prestige will suffer. The doctor agrees that additional ventilation is required but by the end of the exchange, sanitation is a secondary issue to questions of categorisation, containment and the definition of both prisoners and homes.

A bit of background about the three protagonists may provide useful context. The Commandant of Police, Ernest A.G. Seagoe, at 49 was 10 years older than his boss. He was the nephew of the first Resident Commissioner, Captain Rason, had arrived in the New Hebrides with his uncle, and had served at the age of 16 as Rason's secretary. He stayed on after his uncle's departure in 1907, and visited often at the Residency during the period when Captain Harrowell, was recruiting and training the first British police.

Joy himself was no newcomer to the islands. His first post in the New Hebrides was in 1924 as Assistant to the new BRC, Geoffrey Bingham Whistler Smith-Rewse, who died in office in 1927, Joy replaced Smith-Rewse as BRC. Both Seagoe and Joy had returned from six months leave in June 1935.(26) One can assume that by October they were still relatively fresh.

The third participant in the exchange, through correspondence rather than minuting, was young Dr Alexander S. Frater. The son of Maurice Frater, with whom Jacomb had stayed on his trip north to arrest Berk, Alexander Frater had recently completed his training as a doctor and a Presbyterian minister in Glasgow. He arrived in the New Hebrides with his wife Lorna only a few months before the exchange with joy and Seagoe. His job was to take over Paton Memorial Hospital, which shared Iririki Island with the British Residency. While he was familiar with life on the island of Paama from his childhood, he was inexperienced in his new position and had been away from the New Hebrides for some years at the time of this exchange.

In the course of his medical duties, Dr Frater visited the prison, not to inspect prison conditions but to treat a sick man; nevertheless, he had noticed that his patient was sleeping on the floor and that the air was very stuffy. He made a recommendation to the British government that the prison should be better ventilated and that prisoners should not have to sleep on the concrete floor.

On 1 October 1935, joy minuted to Seagoe:(27) `I shall be glad if you will take an early opportunity of discussing the matter [of sanitary conditions at the British prison] with Dr Frater and put into effect the recommendations he considers necessary on grounds of health'. Joy continued:

There is another aspect of prison accommodation I should like you to

consider carefully. We have at Vila three classes of prisoners (1)

those tried and convicted by a Court of Law. (2) those who have had no

trial but who have committed offences against the person such as

murder. (3) those who have had no trial and are held on administrative

grounds only -- differing from (2) in that it is questionable whether

they would be convicted even though legal machinery were available.

I do feel that a distinction ought to be made between natives tried and

convicted and those mentioned in (2) and (3). The latter are not

incarcerated as a punishment -- they are held at Vila simply because

trouble would arise if they were not taken away from their villages ...

I should like to see a suitable grass house made for these prisoners.

joy doubts they would run away, and thinks the risk of escape worth

taking.] Such a house once erected could be kept in order by the

prisoners themselves. [Joy concludes by observing that there is `now

plenty of money' for such a project.]

A week later, Seagoe responded in four typed pages to Dr Frater's recommendations. He observed that Frater had failed to notice the prison's amenities: each cell had an open window and two open ventilators that allowed stale air to escape at the top of the walls. Further, each prisoner was allotted a portable bunk; `Prisoners do not sleep on the concrete floor except perhaps when the fit takes them, but there is no necessity to do so'. Seagoe then suggested that additional ventilation could be obtained `by piercing the galvanised iron ceiling with a number of holes to allow the top air to get out via the interstices in the galvanised iron roofing'.


Seagoe trod carefully with regard to Joy's suggestion about the grass house. First, he presented `statistics'(28) in an attempt to show, through the power of orderly enumeration, that the numbers did not justify separate accommodation for unconvicted prisoners. Indeed, based on Seagoe's table, the grass house would have to accommodate most of the prisoners and the prison would be almost empty. Second, he expressed concern about British prestige. Any distinction between kinds of prisoners `should take such form as will not affect the prestige of the Government and that of the officers' responsible, namely Seagoe himself Natives, according to the Commandant of Police, are unable to make the fine distinction between detention and conviction; a separate grass house would carry the distinction `a shade too far, and I think would create a bad impression among the natives'.

Finally, Seagoe suggested a solution (`with all deference'). He argued that the prison was better than a grass house; `the prison accommodation is far superior to that of any native house excepting perhaps that of the more advanced missionised natives'. While confinement and regular work were irksome, `both of these for the ordinary native, and more especially for the untrammeled heathen, are such radical changes in his everyday life as to constitute a hardship'. Work, Seagoe concluded, is `essential for health'; he did not mention, but Joy would have known, that prison labour was essential to the maintenance of the British Paddock, and indeed to the sanitation of the town. This left only confinement as a possible undue hardship for unconvicted prisoners. Rather than changing the form of the prison by, for example, building a grass house for detainees, and keeping only convicts in the `real' prison, Seagoe proposed to alter other spatial and temporal boundaries. The doors to the prison should be left open `and the inmates allowed to come and go as they choose within the prison compound'. A handwritten note from the Assistant BRC suggests all prisoners be locked up at dusk; `this gives [the detainees] reasonable liberty in daylight and a privilege over the others'. In fact, at that time, all natives were required to be off the streets of Vila by sundown and their movements were restricted at night.(29)

Seagoe still worried about the consequences of such leniency for surveillance and for `evasion'; `I think that advantage will undoubtedly be taken of what the natives will construe as slackness and weakness on the part of the Administration, therefore, whichever system you may adopt (grass house or open cells), I submit with all deference that I should not be asked to accept responsibility for the safe custody of prisoners who are unconfined and unguarded'.

One might expect that Seagoe's anxiety came in part from what he had seen, and BRC joy had missed. As noted above, joy and Seagoe had both returned in June from six months leave, joy's first since 1931. On that earlier leave, he had been out of the New Hebrides when the first and only execution by guillotine had taken place in Port Vila. Six Tonkinese were executed under French law for killing their French manager and another worker.(30) Seagoe, in contrast, had been in the New Hebrides at the time of those executions and at the time of the Clapcott murders in 1923, an event similar to the Greig murders and not far from their site in South Santo.

While fear of violence directed against whites would seem reasonable given such experiences, there is no sense conveyed in Seagoe's (or anyone else's) writing that prisoners were dangerous. What he feared, as did joy, was less what the natives would do than what they would think. The next section explores the dual nature of this fear and fearlessness -- why were the British afraid of what the New Hebrideans thought but not afraid of what they would do?

Producing the Prisoner

One of the categories debated in the exchange between joy and Seagoe concerns the difference between kinds of prisoners; should these be acknowledged, and if so, spatially or temporally? Seagoe was right, though for the wrong reasons, in claiming that the islanders did not generally recognise a distinction between detainees and convicted prisoners. Both were simply `prisoners' to the Melanesians. Whether they were treated differently in Port Vila did not matter, the point was that they were gone from their home islands. Often, Melanesians (and missionaries or planters) wanted a fellow islander removed in order to rid the community of a nuisance, a threat, or a disturbing presence. For example, in one New Hebrides British Service file from 1934 headed `Dangerous Lunatic', the Anglican priest on the northern island of Ambae (then called Aoba) requests the BRC to remove a Melanesian who is `mentally deranged with murderous intent'. The priest notes, `I do not like the idea of removing him to Vila, but I can see no other way of controlling him'.(31) Similarly, a French and a British District Agent, on a rare tour together, took into custody an alleged `poisoner' (really a sorcerer in the FDA's view) to protect the man from villagers as well as the villagers from the suspected poisoner.(32)

Even when Melanesians had clearly committed what would have been climes under British law, they might only be brought to prison as detainees. It is unclear to what extent Melanesians recognised how limited the colonial government's jurisdiction really was. In the 1930s there was `no law to prevent one native killing another in force any further north than the island of Paama' where, not coincidentally, Dr Maurice Frater was based. Few such killings were even brought to the attention of the colonial government, and when they were, intervention, with the possible detention of the accused, was a course of action followed mainly in order to maintain the government's prestige.(33)

The distinction between detainee and convicted prisoner is an important one in the colonial record because of the questions it raises of liberty and of the transformations of individuals.(34) The deprivation of liberty is what Seagoe and Joy debate, the former arguing for temporal adjustments and the latter for spatial adjustments to the restrictions on prisoners' liberty depending on whether or not they are convicted of a crime.

Notice that the matter is resolved by altering the physical structure of the existing prison in the name of sanitation. Literally punching holes in the ceiling opens the building, in a weak symbolic sense, to the outside air. Ventilated, as a grass house might have been, the building is clearly still a prison. Thus the grass house, as an alternative for those who were prisoners but were not criminals, was eliminated as a potentially hybrid space. It would have been too anomalous next to the prison. A grass house would look like `home' when it was clearly not home but prison. What is more, the prison, in Seagoe's argument, is virtually home-like, more comfortable than all but the most advanced native house. How could accommodation of the least guilty in the most primitive dwelling be justified when the prison was such a clear step above the grass house on the social evolutionary ladder of housing?

The practice of creating prisoners out of people who had not committed a prosecutable crime under colonial law was one that benefited both the Melanesian and colonial establishments. For Melanesian elders, the colonial government provided a valuable service, removing difficult and dangerous local men. The accused usually came willingly, as Berk had done, and, in later years, often spoke fondly of their time in prison. They learned skills, met new people, ate white man's food (rice and beef stew or fish), and worked for the police, who were less demanding than many planters. For the colonial government, prisoners provided unpaid labour that was essential to the maintenance of spatial order in the colonial headquarters.

It is interesting to note that French prisons were more secure, more prison-like, and larger; indeed it was the French prison that became the official jail after independence in both Port Vila and in Santo. I found no record of the French wanting more prison labour, as the British did, perhaps because they had often had more prisoners than did the British. Further, the French colonial project was always better funded than the British, and, at least until 1963, they could draw on the large pool of Tonkinese labour for gardening and other maintenance work.

The British came to rely increasingly on prison labour. By 1911 it was recommended that prison labour be used for refuse disposal. Prisoners kept the jungle at bay: `For the most part the houses look uncared for and neglected, and if the ground surrounding them were not periodically cleaned by a gang of prisoners, they would soon be mere jungle'.(35) By 1928, BRC joy could report to the High Commissioner that prison labour was used to keep the town of Port Vila in such sanitary condition as is possible under present arrangements'.(36)

Much later, in the 1960s, BDA Darvall Wilkins cleared the government station at Lakatoro (Malakula) with a team of police and prisoners. He came ashore with three policemen, and an assortment of prisoners `recruited' on Malakula and Santo. Initially, they all lived in the one building on the premises, the old plantation house. As Jerry Marston, an ex-Assistant BDA and admirer of Wilkins put it,

at night they'd all eat together and the prisoners would play -- a

couple of prisoners would get their guitars out and play ... That's how

they spent their time, In the morning they just go and cut a bit -- just

extend the civilization of the station about another twenty feet, until

lo and behold one day they got up and found that they had a station.(37)

Ironically, then, the creation of docile prisoners, most easily achieved among those who had not committed a crime, was necessary to the establishment of other kinds of disciplines, those of sanitation and civilised places. The Lakatoro station came to rely especially heavily on prison labour to maintain the grounds. Wilkins kept all of the large trees, and it was very difficult to mow the grass under and around the trees with power equipment. Queen's Birthday celebrations in June, for example, prompted the `recruitment' of prisoners. Jerry Marston recalled that for such occasions

The place [had] to be looking really good, [so] we used to go out

hunting for [prisoners]. There were very large numbers of cases [that

could] be heard, it was question of whether people were prepared to

give them to you. So around April and May of every year, we'd got out

and recruit prisoners. We'd intensify our interest in misdemeanours in

and around the islands and bring back loads and loads [so] that we had

the work force to clean the station up.

Marston recalled how readily New Hebrideans reported for imprisonment.

you had to make it clear to them they didn't need to come right away,

otherwise by the time you're onto the next case, ... often ... they'd

have rolled the mat up, got their few belongings together, said their

farewells, and were standing by the beach waiting to get onto the boat.

And you'd say "No, no, no. We've got another three or four days of

touting to do, make your own way there."

Had prisoners not given themselves up willingly with the support of their communities, the colonial officers would have had a very difficult time arresting them. In short, most detainees were in prison only because local island elders, missionaries and District Agents agreed that this was the place for them, and because most of those sentenced or detained did not really mind being imprisoned.(38) British prestige, then, was crucial to maintaining colonial authority, especially given the improbability of mustering British force. It is therefore not surprising that Seagoe and Joy were so concerned about what the natives would think of British actions with regard to incarceration. Joy was worried that the British would seem unfair if they continued to treat two different categories of prisoner as if they were the same kind of criminals. Seagoe was worried about conveying signs of weakness. Their concerns suggest a fear of seeming to lose or abuse control over New Hebrideans.

Docile Axe Murderers and Other Oxymorons

In interviews with ex-colonial officers, their wives and children, I always asked about their sense of security in the New Hebrides. Although concerns about theft and sexual assault increased around the time of independence in 1980 and continued to worry some people in the 1980s and 1990s, residents from earlier periods were almost uniform in their responses. By and large, they did not lock their doors. They did not even know where the keys were, if indeed there were keys issued with their house. They walked in the evening. Some women even collected shells on the reef at night. If they worried at all, it was about the Melanesian gaze, the sense that one might be watched in the bath or, in later years, the knowledge that a teenage boy was watching your video through the window.

Material on prisoners almost always came up in the course of discussions of security. Again the responses ran to a type. Prisoners were described as docile, with tendencies toward depression rather than violence, and many were seen as more intelligent than the average New Hebridean. They found training and often subsequent employment in the British offices. For example, a triple murderer from Ambae worked in the British Residency Offices for many years. He had killed three men out of jealousy, assuming rightly or wrongly that they had been lovers of the local woman with whom he was obsessed. One colonial officer said he `took a lot of interest in the case because we considered it a problem -- we didn't want to keep him in prison forever, [but] we were beginning to understand that it would be dangerous for him to go back to Ambae'.(39)

Many of the most successful leaders and entrepreneurs on the island of Ambae in the 1970s and 1980s had served their time in prison for such offences as adultery and chicken theft. When my husband and I first arrived in the New Hebrides in 1969, we stayed in the rest house in the British Paddock (the official residential area) near Luganville, on the island of Santo. Through our bedroom window on the day of our arrival, I was surprised to see a New Hebridean man with a large bush knife. He was, of course, cutting the grass. He turned out to be from the Longana district of Ambae, where we were headed for 14 months of anthropological research. He was in prison for what he thought of as a self-financed loan, which the British construed as embezzlement from the Local Council. He became a key informant for us on legal matters, a leader in his mature years, and is still our friend. It is hard to over-emphasise how common it was to serve time in prison. Once, when my husband gained access to court records from Santo in the 1960s, he concluded that every politician who was worth his salt had served time in jail.(40)

The people I interviewed repeatedly emphasised the harmlessness of prisoners carrying bush knives. They brought this theme up with such regularity that it seemed to me they protested a bit too much. The sight of docile prisoners with bush knives fascinated and amazed them, as well it might. Some even told of lending a prisoner the family bush knife and a file to sharpen it.(41) Perhaps talking about how harmless they were allayed anxiety that these armed men might one day slit their throats. It seemed absurd to the people I interviewed to imagine such a turn of events in the New Hebrides. Yet some colonial officers in the New Hebrides had served in Kenya and elsewhere in East and Central Africa. They knew that even faithful servants could turn against their masters. Not one adult said they felt unsafe around prison labourers, although there were clear, enforced rules about not having male prisoners as workers inside the house, rules that were as symbolically loaded as they may have been practical.(42) Most of those who had children in the New Hebrides remembered them playing with the prisoners. One couple recalled that it had been quite some time before they discovered that their son and a friend were making prison visits in the 1970s: `Gerard and his eight year old friend had been chatting to one of the prisoners who said, "Have you got any comics?" They said, "Yes". [Soon] the lads were going up to the prison and the prison warden would be letting them in, and they'd be sitting in Kan's cell, swapping comics'. What was Kan's crime?

He'd murdered his wife, or something, sort of a family murder. And it

was a long time, a long time before I knew. It was just quite casually

Gerard said something about `That nice man gave me a new comic today,'

or something. He and [his friend] had been visiting quite regularly. So

I said he started his social work career at the age of eight.(43)

But I mean, you knew that they were safe (emphasis added).

The exception, however, may prove the rule. For one boy, prisoners were not safe. Edward Leaf had lived in the New Hebrides between the ages of eight and 10 in the early 1960s. At that time his father was a British colonial officer (Legal Adviser) and his mother was active in the Red Cross and training track and field athletes.(44) Edward had plenty of time to play with his friends, other English boys, one girl who was a tomboy, and a number of New Hebridean boys. They were intrepid, setting off cherry bombs under the British Offices where the English fathers worked, visiting Chinese stores and fantasising about stealing (though he said they never carried out their plans). Leaf described himself as having `gone native'. By the time he left for boarding school at the age of 10, he spoke better Bislama than English and could hardly fit a pair of shoes on his feet. What follows is an excerpt from a conversation between Edward Leaf, myself and Will Stober.(45) At the time of the interview, Leaf was about 40 years old, a lanky, ex-RAF pilot working on a book about photo-interpretation in World War II. It was never dear to me how many children he had; there were four or five playing in a wading pool in the backyard during the interview. His eyes never strayed from them as he talked to us:

Rodman: Do you remember prisoners around?

Leaf: Yes, God yeah.

Stober: Why do you put it like that?

Leaf: Because they used to bother us as children. Well, they were let

out with no supervisor or one policeman, unarmed policeman, and there

were these guys wandering around with bush knives.

Stober: They bothered you. In the sense that you were worried.

Leaf: Yes. We used to keep away from them. Threatened by them, I think

you felt threatened by them. Yes, because you'd see them come out in

the morning, and there'd be sort of, probably, five, six of them? All

with bush knives, they'd be out clearing grass somewhere or something

like that, and I think that when you're a child you think a prisoner's

done something bad.

Was it because he saw himself as more part of a New Hebridean world than an English one that Edward Leaf found prisoners' presence so immediate and disturbing? Was it that his own pranks made him feel on the edge of petty criminality himself? Was he aware of his father's legal position and did this heighten his awareness of crime and its dangerous implications? We have no way of knowing, and even Edward may no longer be sure. What is clear is that this boy ,saw' the prisoners, and they saw him. He saw them in a way that British adults and other children uniformly did not, perhaps because they could not bring themselves to look. What he saw were adult Melanesian men, many guilty of some `bad' and often violent deed. He saw them walking virtually at liberty inside the inner sanctum of colonial space, the British Paddock. He saw them carrying large, sharp knives. And he saw them looking at him. The question then arises: Why weren't the others afraid?


Conclusion -- My Prisoners Were Not Scary to Anyone but Edward?

The answer, I conclude, is fourfold: (1) others did not want to, or could not, see what Edward saw; (2) they could not afford to; (3) they did not have to; and (4) nor did prisoners want them to. `The New Hebrideans weren't sort of really prisoners, were they?' observed an ex-BDA who had served in many parts of the group. `In Vila there was a semblance of sort of a prison regime, but on the islands, they were just -- the lads would cut the grass, and they became members of the family.'(46) Paternalism was a comforting position, and perhaps it was the only viable one for the British to adopt. The colonial government could not financially afford anxiety about the presence of prisoners cutting grass around officers' houses. As we have seen, unpaid prison labour was integral to the colonial project of creating and maintaining spatial order and sanitation.

Ultimately, the irony is that prisoners, whether convicted or detained, guilty or innocent, were essential to the physical creation and maintenance of the order that the British worried they might not achieve without them. Not only could the British not afford financially to change the practice of using prison labour, they could not afford it symbolically. The oxymorons of the gentle murderer, the prisoner with the bush knife, the colonial officer armed with only a pencil, and the guilty man who did not know why he committed his crime provided discursive spaces for laughter, for discounting danger, for relieving anxiety. In this sense, prisoners stood comfortingly between the British and their fear of disorder.

This may explain why it was important that prisoners not be seen as scary, but it does not explain why the British so readily accepted the idea. After all Jacomb, armed with plenty of bravura despite his `only weapon being a pencil', does not report that he was really afraid of Berk and his fellow villagers back in 1908, before there was any British prison or prison labour. There were, I conclude, two additional and equally crucial elements in this colonial equation of docility with armed prisoners. The first has to do with the belief system of British colonial culture. The second concerns the agency of New Hebrideans.

While British officers, their wives and children no doubt all had individual views on how safe they really were around prisoners, there was a consensus of belief expressed in the material on which this paper has drawn. That consensus assumes that there were a number of relatively separate worlds mutually constructed among those resident in the New Hebrides. There was, of course, the separation between French and British spaces, which has scarcely been dealt with here, and, similarly neglected for present purposes, the worlds of the planters and of the missionaries. There was the world of Vila, where the greatest semblance of colonial order was evident in, for example, prison regimes.(47) The British stations on the outer islands, such as Santo, where the police switched accommodation with the prisoners, also were spaces of colonial order, maintained through more casual, and often more intimate, relations with prisoners.(48) Then there was `the bush'. From the bush came murderers of white settlers. By and large, however, New Hebrideans were seen to be dangerous to each other, not to colonial officers who had few dealings with them except when invited to do so by missionaries, settlers or the islanders themselves.


British officers tended to believe that New Hebridean `poison', sorcery, and magic could not harm them. One former Assistant BDA posed for me with a sign he had fearlessly removed along with a tabu leaf during conflict with a Santo group in the late 1960s. The obverse of this conviction that they were immune to the magical thinking in New Hebridean spaces was what made prisoners safe to be around. Men who had committed crimes against customary law, who were detained as exiles for their own safety, and even those who had killed other islanders were no more dangerous to British people in British spaces than were New Hebridean sorcery and tabus. New Hebridean and British colonial spaces were so separate that New Hebridean crimes were not real crimes and prisoners were not real prisoners. So, even armed, they were not frightening. Unless, like young Edward, you really looked at them.

A close scrutiny of the situation would have suggested a final point: the viability of British colonial beliefs with regard to prisoners hinged on the complicity of the New Hebrideans themselves. As I have shown, the system of prison labour, and especially of detention, benefited island communities. It appealed to elders trying to maintain order of their own, and to young men who were agreeable to leaving the island and working elsewhere, in this case prison, for a while. The colonial practice of recruiting prison labour would have been jeopardised if islanders had acknowledged the distinction between detainees and convicts, to which joy pointed in 1935, and if they then had objected to detention without trial. Further, if prisoners had failed to comply with the British stereotype of the docile are murderer, the system could have ended abruptly. The fact that prisoners seemed to perform their roles so well for so long indicates their acceptance of a practice that any one of them could have brought instantly to an end with one swipe of a bush knife at a little English girl.

Ultimately, then, it was the prisoners who created their own gentle image. Their potentiality may have frightened a naughty boy, who saw what they, and he, could be. Joy and his Commandant of Police, for whom this potentiality went without saying, were wise to be concerned about what the natives would think. What the natives thought was crucial; so was what they did, or rather, did not do. Prisoners did not give British officers cause to reconsider their calm acceptance that incarcerated New Hebridean men were not dangerous. One could understand, describe and deal with them armed with only a pencil.


The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Wenner Gren Foundation, and York University are gratefully acknowledged for providing funding for this research. With the assistance of English retired colonial officer, W. E. Stober, I conducted interviews and archival research in Great Britain in 1994 and 1995. I conducted additional interviews for this project in 1993 and 1995 in Vanuatu and in 1998 in Australia. A York University graduate student, Joseph Macchiusi, transcribed some 90 of the interviews that were in English. I am deeply grateful to Stober and Macchiusi for their research assistance. Thanks are also extended to Jean Comaroff, Matthew Cooper, Reece Discombe, Bill Rodman and Keith Woodward for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this paper, and to anonymous Readers for this journal. This paper is dedicated to the memory of Will Stober, who passed away 31 Dec. 1996.

(1) E. Jacomb, MS diary, Vol. 2, Part II, 6 June 1908, p. 81, property of Christine Stober, Birmingham, England.

(2) Ibid., 8 June 1908, p. 82. `Mi no savvy' is Bislama for `I don't know'.

(3) The Anglo-French Condominium of 1906 was not `proclaimed' until Dec. 1907. It was replaced by the Protocol of 1914, not ratified until 1922, announcing the New Hebrides to be a region of joint British and French influence.

(4) J. Comaroff and J. Comaroff, Ethnography and the Historical Imagination (Westview 1992), 211. See also M. Rodman, `Empowering place: multivocality and multilocality', American Anthropologist, 94 (1992), 640 -56, and F. Cooper and A. L. Stoler, `Tensions of empire: control and visions of rule', The American Ethnologist, 16 (1989), 609-21.

(5) N. Thomas, Colonialism's Culture (Princeton 1994).

(6) This paper concentrates on male, Melanesian prisoners. White, mixed race and female prisoners were far less common, but are interesting in part because of the different spatial arrangements for housing them. Prisons were sometimes built for female prisoners; they were generally grass houses. White and mixed race men usually were held in a more permanent house; the British ones, at least, tended to have, or learn, a trade and to become indispensable to the colonial regime during and even after their prison term. Colin Simpson, in Of Islands and Men (Angus and Robertson 1955), 151, recounts how two other writers (unnamed) described what happened on the French side:

A Frenchman had wounded another Frenchman at a party -- or something like

that happened to get him sentenced to eighteen months. There being no

European jail, only a native one, he had to be quartered in a bungalow

and, since no white man could be expected to look after himself, given a

native servant. His meals were sent in from the hotel at a cost of (45 a

month. On Saturday night the prisoner went to the movies. One writer said

that the prisoner's sentence was shortened to get rid of him; the other

left the impression that the farce went on for eighteen months.

(7) Jacomb, diary, 8 June 1908, p. 82.

(8) New Hebrides British Service (hereinafter NHBS) Archives held at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Library Records Branch, Hanslope, Park, Milton Keynes, England, joint Regulation No. 12, 1962, Consolidated Version of tile Native Criminal Code.

(9) W. Rodman, `Gaps, bridges and levels of law: middlemen as mediators in a Vanuatu society', in W. Rodman (jt ed.), Middlemen and Brokers in Oceania (Lanham 1983), 89-90.

(10) J. MacClancy, To Kill a Bird with Two Stones (Vila 1981), 45.

(11) Information here on the Greig murders comes from interviews and from P. O'Reilly, Hebridais. Repertoire Bio-bibliographique des Nouvelles-Hebrides (Paris 1954), 107-8.

(12) Jacomb, diary, 95a-96.

(13) Circular letter, printed 23 Nov. 1908, quoted in O'Reilly, Hebridais, 108.

(14) His primary British appointment was as Chief Inspector of Labour. He was charged with inspecting the conditions under which New Hebrideans were recruited and employed as labour on plantations, etc. The Commandant of the Constabulary was a Condominium position 'New Hebrides British Service Civil List, 1914).

(15) Jacomb, diary, 64.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Ibid., 65.

(18) Ibid., 83.

(19) Ibid., 70.

(20) See Figures 1 and 2, Architects Floor Plans of the Police Barracks and Prison.


(21) Keith Woodward, OBE (British Residency, New Hebrides, 1953-78) set me straight with regard to the complex structure of Condominium services, for which I am grateful. (22) NHBS 227/1908, BRC to HC (British Resident Commissioner to High Commissioner), 27/7/12.

(23) NHBS 215/35 Minuting 7/10/35, Commandant of Constabulary to BRC.

(24) George Bristow, MBE, interview, Apr. 1995. Real names are used throughout this paper, for which the interviewees gave their signed consent.

(25) Pers. comm., 24 Mar. 1996.

(26) Information on appointments and leaves comes from the NHBS Civil Lists.

(27) This and subsequent quotations from the exchange between Joy, Seagoe and Frater come from NHBS 215/35.

(28) See Fig. 3 -- p. 2 of Seagoe's minute showing daily averages.


(29) NHBS 33/1907, Regulations restricting the movement of natives at night in Port Vila. This was also true elsewhere, including Papua; see e.g. A. Inglis, The Mite Woman's Protection Ordinance (Sussex University Press 1975).

(30) C. Delpech and F. Bellaiche, Hiers les Nouvelles-Hebrides (Perrin-Aries 1987), 285-6. (31) NHBS 195/34, Archdeacon R. Godfrey to BRC, 9 June 1934.

(32) NHBS 298/ 35, Unrest at North Aoba, Mission des deux delegues a Aoba, rapport June 1935.

(33) See NHBS 229/30 in which the dead man was roundly hated by the community, the killer was highly esteemed, and the government intervened only because of a missionary's report. Seagoe concludes `since the matter has come before you officially -- govt. prestige requires Togalawari's retention in Vila for a few months'.

(34) In this regard, the debate is reminiscent of Michel Foucault's argument that the prison serves a juridico-economic purpose, namely, the repayment of a debt to society through the deprivation of individual liberty -- M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (London 1977). It also has a techno-disciplinary effect as an apparatus for transforming the individual subject and providing clinical knowledge about the prisoner.

(35) F. Jacomb, France and England in the New Hebrides (Melbourne 1914), 60.

(36) NHBS 2/1928, letter from BRC to HC, 4/1/1928.

(37) Darvall Wilkins, interview, April 1998, for the information about clearing Lakatoro. The quote is from Jerry Marston, interview, May 1995. Marston later became BDA when Wilkins retired.

(38) Not that prisoners always stayed in jail. It was never difficult to escape from Vila prison. Jimmy Stephens, leader of the secessionist rebellion at independence, did it with style in 1982. He claimed to have used magic to make himself invisible to the prison guards, then made his getaway in a glass-bottomed boat. Stories abound in the interviews about prisoners who came and went as they pleased. For example, there was the prisoner who announced that he would not be taking his weekend pass this Friday. `What weekend pass?' the policeman asked, `You've never had a weekend pass'. It seems the prisoner had been in the habit of going home on the weekends, and returning to prison Sunday nights. No one had noticed (paraphrased from Terry and Jill Howe, interview July 1994). By the 1980s there was a well-worn path from a peeled-back portion of the prison fence to the Tropical Market across the street (Stan Combs, written submission, Feb. 1996).

(39) Keith Woodward, interview July 1995.

(40) Imprisonment seems to have been accepted widely as a colonial training ground for politicians. See, e.g., Lawrence Hammar's explanation for why going to prison in Papua could be a good political move in `Daru Island -- World's Smallest Capital', paper presented at the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania Annual Meeting (San Diego, Feb. 1997), 57-8.

(41) We even equipped a couple of prisoners with spear guns when we were staying in a house in the British Paddock (Santo) in 1978.

(42) George Bristow (interview, Apr. 1995) did observe that his wife played chess at home a couple of times with someone before they realised he was a prisoner, but this man was white. It is unlikely that a New Hebridean would have been a potential chess partner in one's home in the 1950s, whether or not he was a prisoner.

(43) Jill Howe, interview, July 1994.

(44) His mother, Rosemary Leaf, was interviewed on another occasion. She was proud of having trained New Hebridean runners to meet the qualifying times for the Mexico Olympic Games.

(45) Edward Leaf, interview, May 1995.

(46) George Bristow, interview, Apr. 1995. (47) Islanders, long-term residents and expatriates would agree that Port Vila remains a world apart from the rest of Vanuatu.

(48) Colonial desire and female prisoners are the subjects of another paper.


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