Richard Shears is not only an award-winning journalist and photographer but also the author of more than 30 books. His highly engaging account of the rebellion that occurred on Espiritu Santo in 1980, ‘The Coconut War: Vanuatu and the Struggle for Independence’, is a must-read for everyone who is interested in the history of the Pacific Islands. Here’s what Richard had to say about Vanuatu’s past, his book, and the Blue Continent.
Pasifika Tales: Are you aware of the fact that you witnessed one of the most important events in the history of the Pacific Islands?
Richard Shears: The importance of that period, in the build up to the New Hebrides becoming independent, actually became clear to me as the months passed by after ‘Vanuatu’ came into existence. For me, initially, the Coconut War, which was a name I’d adopted, was a news story that had to be covered and I was not paying particular attention to the historical significance of what I was witnessing. Now, I look back thrilled at the knowledge that ‘I was there’!
PT: If you could describe the Coconut War in one sentence, what would it be?
RS: Bizarre, crazy, dangerous, desperate – in fact you can throw any adjective at it and it will fit, for the war had everything, particularly the unexpected.
PT: The war has often been called ‘unconventional’. What’s the strangest, most unusual thing you saw or experienced during your stay?
RS: The moment I stepped from a bush path on Santo and found myself in a clearing with not a soul in sight – and then from all sides men wearing loin clothes and carrying spears and bows and arrows stepping out silently from the bush to stare at me in amazement, just as I was staring in amazement at them. This was the headquarters of Jimmy Stevens at Fanafo and I’d been allowed in through a padlocked gate, before the ‘guards’ disappeared into the bush. Then, further down the track I came to the clearing where I found myself surrounded. Jimmy Stevens emerged from a hut and invited me in, where he sat on a radio and started calling up other villages, gathering support for his fight for independence for Espiritu Santo.
PT: And what’s your clearest memory from that time?
RS: So many clear memories… My second journey to Santo on board a cargo ship, travelling part of the way by canoe, sleeping with the mosquitoes in grass huts, hiding in a doorway in the main street of Luganville as shots were exchanged between police and Jimmy’s men, and, bizarrely, finding myself in a night club in Luganville, the only customer at 10 o’clock at night, until a strange little man came up to me and asked me to dance with him. That was when I decided it was time to leave – quickly.
PT: Ok, so let’s focus on the islands for a while. Imagine… It’s 1980. Vanuatu is called the New Hebrides. You’ve just arrived… What do you see?
RS: I see a curious place, where everything is mixed up. I was like a male version of Alice, arriving in Wonderland. The road signs were British, but the cars travelled on the right-hand side of the road as in Europe. The main street was a run-down place, yet it had a certain charm about it, mainly due to the French influence. I recall so well the old Rossi hotel, where diplomats gathered for lunch under whispering fans, or called in at Ma Barker’s restaurant for their famous coconut crab.
PT: You are an acclaimed journalist. You have covered stories all over the world. Why did you decide to write a book about Vanuatu and its struggle for independence?
RS: I didn’t set out to write a book, actually. I went to the New Hebrides as it was then to cover the tense stand-off between Jimmy Stevens and the central government for London’s ‘Daily Mail’ newspaper. But the story ran on and on and there was so much happening each day, particularly following the arrival of British and French troops who couldn’t stand the sight of each other, that I decided there was too much to write each day for a newspaper, so I started compiling the book, literally writing it each evening as the crisis continued to be played out. I knew at the time that the book would ‘work’ because it was such a crazy, but important, story.
PT: Why should people read your account?
RS: I think people who read the book will enjoy its ‘pace’ because I wrote it as events were progressing so that they were clear enough in my mind to give readers a true blow-by-blow, up-to-date record of all that was happening as they did actually happen. I tried to give the impression for the reader that they were actually there, experiencing it with me.
PT: Have you had a chance to come back to Vanuatu? If yes, how has the country changed?
RS: I’ve been back to Vanuatu several times since then, as, true to the bizarre nature of the event, I married a part ni-Vanuatu whom I met while covering the war. Isobelle and I are still together after 34 years, too! As for what has changed – well, I think Vanuatu has lost much of its culture. The town has been smartened up, but somehow for me it’s lost much of its old charm. However, there are still traces of those bizarre elements to be found in the outlying islands. For instance a few years ago I visited a tribe on Tanna who worship the Duke of Edinburgh and who hold a photograph of him with great reverence. My story had a big showing in the ‘Daily Mail’ because it was so, well, ‘different’.
PT: The last question… Would you like to visit any other Pacific country (and perhaps write another book)?
RS: In fact, I’ve already been to most islands in the Pacific in the course of my work as a journalist. The most memorable and recent visit to a Pacific island was to the Marshalls where a Mexican fisherman ran around after drifting across the Pacific for a year. His story made international headlines. Other stories I’ve covered in the islands have been the coups in Fiji, the exodus of islanders from Ocean Island, a crazy Englishman living in Western Samoa, cyclones in Tonga, a so-called ‘Black Jesus’ in New Guinea, yet another crazy Englishman living on Mog Mog island (now there was a great dateline for my story) and… well, maybe that’s enough for now! I’ve catalogued quite a few of these in a book published two years ago called ‘It’s OK, I’m From the Daily Mail!’.