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J. W. Davidson concluded in 1971 that the decolonisation of the Pacific Islands was radically different from the same process in Africa in that it had been unusually peaceful and orderly.
[J.W. Davidson, The Decolonization of Oceania , p. 4.]
The extensive decolonisation of the Pacific, commencing with independence for Western Samoa in 1962, represented the dismantling of colonial empires that had been painfully acquired during the nineteenth century in three clearly defined phases of annexations: 1840 early 1880s, when colonial incursions were limited to British rule in New Zealand and Fiji, and French takeover in New Caledonia and Tahiti; 1884 about 1900, when British and German division of eastern New Guinea sparked off a scramble that saw Britain, France, Germany, the United States, Spain and even Chile incorporate most island groups into their various colonial empires as either annexations or protectorates; and around the turn of the century, when Germany and the United States, in a final shape-down, divided Samoa and the US formalised its de facto rule in Hawaii. The only island group to avoid outright domination was the Kingdom of Tonga where British attempts to extend the limits of authority and turn Tonga into a de facto colony were outmanoeuvred by King George Tupou II. Tonga was effectively the only Pacific group to retain its independence.
European administration was comparatively benign, being geared towards the maintenance of peace in the interest of reaping what economic benefits it could from such a sparsely populated and under-resourced area. Copra, labour and phosphate were the major returns, though initiatives were undertaken with other crops, including sugar and cotton. Marketing opportunities were limited and missionary activity continued to be prominent. Beyond this, attempts to develop the local populations were negligible and the possibility of eventual self-government rarely was entertained.
Extensive re-arrangements followed the outbreak of the First World War. Germanys Pacific colonies were taken over by the Allies at the outbreak of fighting in 1914 and subsequently, under the Treaty of Versailles in 1920, converted into League of Nations mandates. The role of Europe per se lessened considerably. New Zealand became the administering authority in Western Samoa, Australia in New Guinea and Nauru, and Japan in the Caroline and Marshall Islands. The acceptance of a mandate also imposed restrictions and obligations that radically altered the nature of the colonial relationship. The administering authority now had a sacred duty to uphold the sacred rights of the subject peoples. Mandated territories were being held in trust until they were able to be self-governing. The notion of eventual independence, though, was not taken seriously. As late as 1962, the chairman of a visiting United Nations mission who asked an Australian official how long it would be before Papua New Guinea achieved self-government was told: We shall still be there in the year 2000. [Quoted in J.W. Davidson, ‘From dependency to independence’, p. 160.]
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But already the winds of change were blowing across the Pacific. A local impetus for self-government in British colonies had been created by the ignominious retreat of colonial administrations in the face of the Japanese onslaught. The American liberators made an indelible impression with their wealth, largesse and seeming egalitarianism in sharp contrast to the aloof and parsimonious British. However, the real stimulus came with a growing anti-colonialism evident in liberal circles and in the United Nations, whose membership was increasingly made up of ex-colonial territories. New Zealand, responsive at an early stage, ushered in Western Samoan independence in 1962. Britain and Australia initially saw no urgency, but after 1960 yielded to mounting pressures. Britain made haste to divest herself of her remaining colonial entanglements, which effectively meant the Caribbean and the Pacific.
An inevitable outcome of this haste to step aside was a tendency to force the pace, even at a rate that local leaders thought was undesirable. Ratu Mara said in 1961:
We are not as stupid as that [to ask for independence]. What would we get out of it? We cant even pay for our own food. We would have to pay for everything. There would be no advantage in independence. [Quoted in Brij V. Lal, Broken Waves , p. 164.]
Regardless of such reservations, decolonisation and the eventual transfer of sovereignty were pushed through in the British Pacific within a compressed time-frame that has been aptly characterised as a shortened period of political tutelage preceding self-government and independence. [Barrie Macdonald, ‘Policy and practice in an atoll territory’, pp. 203-04.] For Islanders, apprenticeship in the business of governing was generally truncated as some of the usual stages of constitutional development were omitted. Constitutional planning committees, the encouragement of political parties and the short phase of self-government immediately preceding independence were by no means enough to offset the fact that preparations for independence were unduly hasty. In several cases this meant the creation of economically non-viable entities that would have to be propped up indefinitely with aid money. This was in stark contrast to the previous British axiom that its colonies should be financially self-supporting.
Yet whatever the rush, the independent Constitutions and other final arrangements owed much to local conditions. For instance, despite a disinclination on the part of Britain, the Ellice Islands separated from the GEIC to form a new dependency called Tuvalu; attempts were made to include customary and traditional practices in the new Constitutions (e.g. the retention of matai voting in Western Samoa); Fiji settled for an electoral system that reflected, particularly in the lack of a common electoral roll, indigenous Fijians fears of being politically overwhelmed by Indo-Fijians; and the creation of semi-autonomous provincial governments in Papua New Guinea reflected the inadequacy of efforts at nation-building in that country. Nevertheless, despite the forced pace and the many compromises, the transition to independence was essentially a peaceful process in the (British) Pacific ACP countries. The single exception was Vanuatu, where a separatist movement, Nagriamel, was put down by force of arms.
Although by 1980, the era of British administration in the Pacific had quietly come to a close, in many other parts of the Pacific, a less peaceful scenario had unfolded, especially in the French territories. The reality of continued French rule, whereas Pacific neighbours have their political independence, coupled with French nuclear testing, has resulted in violence both in New Caledonia and in Tahiti. The presence of indigenous minorities in New Zealand and Hawaii as well as in New Caledonia, with no prospects of separatism, has also created tensions. The prevalence of welfare colonialism in Micronesia and the strategic nature of those islands has resulted in a Micronesian perception of the de facto permanence of US rule. However, like the EU, the United States wishes to extricate it self from insignificant island states that were once crucial components of a now irrelevant defence strategy. As a result, the funding available under the
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US Compact of Free Association with the Marshalls and the Federated States of Micronesia will come to an end at about the same time as the Lomé Convention. Some of the Micronesian territories are in free association with the United States, but free association means different things. The territories freely associated with New Zealand (Cook Islands and Niue) may terminate their free association simply by amending their Constitutions. The Micronesian territories in free association with the US are bound to the US in perpetuity, which in effect prevents a full and final decolonisation.
Despite the unusually peaceful decolonisation process in the Pacific, in the first flush of independence little serious thought was given to the economic futures of these newly-independent entities. This future looks increasingly bleak.
Since independence, the political relations between the Pacific ACP states have generally been very good by and large a good deal better than those between the Pacific ACP states and some of the former colonial powers who are members of the EU. There has generally been very little controversy. The ACP states have not produced dictatorships that have resulted in the suspension of aid, as in parts of Africa. Moreover, the actual disbursement of Lomé aid has not been associated with wide-scale fraud and corruption, and as a result the Lomé Convention has been implemented with very little political difficulty.
Unlike on the African continent, the on-going sucessionist war on Bougainville, the 1987 coups in Fiji and the on-going refusal of the aristocracy in Tonga to concede anything resembling democratic rights to its citizens have resulted in the most measured of responses by the EU. The abuse of human rights is, of course, in all of these political events, relatively minor when compared to the far greater abuses in Africa that have resulted in suspensions of EU aid. In the Pacific, the more overt manifestations of European displeasure with Pacific policy have been reserved to the environment
[See Solomon Star Vol. 807, Tuesday 2 April 1996, p. 3. M. Philippe Sobestre is quoted as having said at a press conference: We feel that the way that Solomon Islands government is carrying out its development policy on this sector (logging) is non-sustainable and if not corrected now will have some consequences on the Solomon Islands in future, on your future generations and the environment.
However, the perception that Europe is more concerned with the rights of trees and turtles than those of people is simply not valid. For example, the EU has recently provided funding for NGOs in Fiji associated with a broadening of constitutional rights and has moved more delicately in PNG and Tonga. In the context of the Pacific, such a diplomatic approach is likely to yield greater returns than economic assistance alone.
© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | November 2001