The struggle for control in the New Hebrides

Much of my research explores the involvement of Scotland and Scottish migrants in the expansion and maintenance of the British Empire or ‘British World’, especially in and around Australia.

This post highlights some of the processes of informal empire and the ways in which commerce and trade — intermingling with religion and missionary work — contributed to trans-imperial rivalry between Britain and France in the Pacific.

In 1883, a group of businessmen and Scottish Presbyterian leaders in Victoria initiated a trading war and agitated for the advancement of British commerce and colonisation in the New Hebrides, with the explicit aim of pre-empting a new French trading company – the Compagnie Calédonienne des Nouvelle Hébrides (CCNH) – from taking commercial control of the islands.

In 1886, the former agent for the Presbyterian New Hebrides Mission in Victoria, the Rev. John G. Paton, responded to moves by the French government to annex the islands by announcing to the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce that any Australian company that conducted itself in the New Hebrides “so as not to antagonise the work of our mission, would receive the encouragement of all our missionaries so far as they could influence the natives.”

The call fell on deaf ears, but, by 1888, the Presbyterian Rev. Daniel Macdonald had spearheaded in Victoria a movement to form a New Hebrides company. In New South Wales a Presbyterian merchant and later director of the New Hebrides Company, Dugald Thomson, wrote:

It was represented to some gentlemen in these colonies by parties who felt an interest in the New Hebrides and the Presbyterian Mission there that Australia, after a loud protest against French annexation … had neglected her opportunities in the group… It was urged that French influence must be counteracted by the establishment of an Australian interest in the islands … Having ascertained that these suggestions were favourably regard by the local missionaries … a number of gentlemen joined together and formed the Australasian New Hebrides Company [ANHC].

In 1889, the Presbyterian Church petitioned the New South Wales government to provide a £1000 subsidy each year to assist in operating a steamer to and from the New Hebrides. By 1891, the ANHC had capital amounting to £4600, invested by members who represented some of the most prominent Scots in colonial commerce and politics.

Operationally, the ANHC used its steamer to sell products to planters, traders, and missionaries on various islands between Sydney and the New Hebrides, and from whom they also purchased produce to sell. By 1891 its trade was worth £15,000, and by this point the CCNH had plunged so deep into debt that the French government had to extend to the company a 4,600,000 franc loan.

By February 1891, the company had purchased 10,000 acres of land in the New Hebrides at the cost of £2123, subdivisions of which were subsequently leased to numerous settlers from Australia who then undertook to employ indigenous New Hebrideans. One settler, Arthur Powell from north-west Victoria, wrote: “Since our arrival here we have had an average of 20 natives per diem working for us, and on several occasions over 100 at a time … We were told yesterday that the tries within 10 or 20 miles had informed the captain of a labour vessel that the boys were going away again, as they intend to work for the [local] white men.”

Despite a series of minor setbacks in 1893, including the removal of the New South Wales’ £1000 subsidy to the operation of the company’s steamer, the ANHC continued to increase its trade activity, land purchases, and profits throughout the 1890s until 1897 when its finances began to deteriorate.

However, its ultimate goal of preventing the French from annexing the New Hebrides had been achieved by undermining the CCNH’s economic position, and as a consequence also subverted France’s attempts to use commercial dominance in order to gain political control in the region.

Albeit a minor happening, this story reminds us that the Empire was not always London-centered — as in a traditional metropole-periphery interpretation of imperialism — but in fact was made up of numerous multilateral connections between and across various component nations of the Empire, and that the ‘British World’ enveloped numerous ethnonational and religious groups who identified themselves as distinct from, but still part of, a global ‘British’ community.


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