Vanuatu’s Custom Claim To Matthew And Hunter Islands

Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i


Vanuatu’s Custom Claim To Matthew And Hunter Islands

By Bob Makin

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Vanuatu Daily Post, March 11, 2013) – The Vanuatu claim to Matthew and Hunter Islands (Umaeneag and Umaenupne in Aneityum language) is based primarily on custom.

All the southern islands have stories about the two outliers which involve the spirit of the south, Maorijikjik. Custom chiefs who accompanied the first post-Independence voyage to the two southern active volcanoes were agreed about their significance in legend.

The Vanuatu chiefs' legends are not matched by anything similar in the custom of the Kanaks of New Caledonia who vow to ensure Matthew and Hunter continue to be considered as Vanuatu’s should Kanaky ever achieve its Independence.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the first raising of the Vanuatu standard on Hunter Island (also known as Leka in Futunese). I was privileged to be amongst those on Euphrosyne traveling south to raise the colors, sing the national anthem and, for me, record the event for Radio Vanuatu on March 9, 1983.

The chiefs also left custom gifts on the island for Maorijikjik.

As well as the Vanuatu customary claim to the two active volcanoes there is the geological one. As the senior geologist at the time, Sandy Macfarlane, has said, the Vanuatu land mass is a narrow chain of Tertiary to Holocene volcanic islands and extends some 700km from the Torres islands in the north to Aneityum and Matthew and Hunter in the south, Together with the Santa Cruz Group of the Solomon Islands they all form the New Hebrides arc which bounds the western margin of the Pacific Plate at its juncture with the Australia / India Plate.

"Their petrology and geochemistry are identical to the most recent cycle of active volcanism from centers on the islands of Vanualava, Ambae, Ambrym, Lopevi and Tanna," says Macfarlane. Furthermore, there are underwater volcanoes between Tanna and Hunter which are marked on charts and give the seawater a sulfurous color. We passed through such areas.

Sandy Macfarlane was a member of the expedition which was under the command of the Secretary General of Tanna, the late Joe Joseph. Euphrosyne's captain was Leith Nasak.

As well as the geological reason for the two small islands being in Vanuatu waters, there is the legal one.

French maps and charts throughout the 'Fifties, 'Sixties and 'Seventies all showed the two islands belonging to Les Nouvelles Hébrides. They were administered from Port Vila, not Noumea. Not that very much administration was required. Once a plane crash landed on Matthew without loss of life, but later had to be blown up because of continuing reports from passing sailing boats. Otherwise, the French built an automatic weather station on Matthew (now this they did do from Noumea), and it is understood with British permission. The islands were, however, part of the Anglo-French Condominium and as such, part of its legacy to today's Vanuatu.

I have recently learned of further proof of the erstwhile joint ownership, much of which should be with the ongoing UNCLOS deliberations in New York and which ought without delay to inscribe these two islands to Vanuatu.

Thirty years of waiting is probably not as long as the varied Asian ownership claims to the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea.

We of the first expedition to raise the flag would certainly like to see ni-Vanuatu ownership confirmed before too many more of us have passed on.

A French minister has recently claimed that France is the world's second largest maritime power.

Much of its maritime EEZ belongs to colonized people in this age in which colonization is rarely condoned.

The Matthew-Hunter expedition personnel believe that the EEZ of Matthew and Hunter, containing some of the minerals vital to modern telecommunications, is certainly not to be included in the French claim.

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