Last British High Commissioner To Former New Hebrides, Dies

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Andrew Stuart helped smooth transition to independence for Vanuatu

By Godwin Ligo

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Vanuatu Daily Post, Feb. 17, 2014) – The last British High Commissioner of the former New Hebrides, Andrew Stuart CPM CMG, died aged 85, on January 27 this year at his home in Dorset in the UK after a long and difficult battle with the mesothelioma - a complication of asbestosis.

Stuart, in the post at the time of the country's rebirth as the Republic of Vanuatu, was the last British High Commissioner to leave the newly independent republic's soil after the Union Jack and the Tricolor were lowered, just before mid-night on July 29, 1980. The new Republic of Vanuatu flag was raised at midday July 30, 1980 at Independence Park next to Stuart's office, then known as the British Residency.

Being the last British High Commissioner of the New Hebrides from 1978 to 1980, Andrew Stuart played a key role in smoothing the path to Vanuatu's independence during his 3-year posting.

Confidential papers, recently declassified by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, show just how important Andrew Stuart’s role was at the time of the changeover.

After leaving the new republic in 1980, Andrew Stuart went on to be the British Ambassador to Finland before retiring from the diplomatic service to become principal of the International Residential School in South Wales, called Atlantic College. The college received students aged 16-19 from 90 different countries around the world, all of whom enjoyed a world class international baccalaureate educational experience. Atlantic College was committed to making education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. Under his tutelage, four Ni-Vanuatu students were accepted for higher level studies. They were Leslie Ala (1985-1987), Len Tarivonda (1986-1988), Nakou Abel and Sarah Naupa (1989-1991).

For more than 25 years following the foundation of the British Friends of Vanuatu, Andrew Stuart served as co-chairman of the association.

A memorial service was held at Wareham, Dorset, to celebrate his life.

The British newspaper the 'Telegraph', which published an article on Andrew Stuart's time in the New Hebrides as it was politically transformed to a newly independent state, described how in his role he ‘oversaw the fraught transfer to independence of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) during the so-called "Coconut War". It went on to catalogue how Andrew Stuart had a long experience as an African colonial and post administrator, before becoming Britain’s ambassador to Finland.

The Telegraph also reported how it was at the request of Andrew Stuart, as the British High Commissioner on the eve of Vanuatu’s independence, for 200 Royal Marines of the 42nd Command to be sent to the then New Hebrides by Margaret Thatcher to quell the rebellion on the island of Santo. Stuart ensured that the marines stayed for three weeks after July 30, 1980, paving the way for a successful peacekeeping operation by the troops invited in from Papua New Guinea by Vanuatu’s first prime minister, Father Walter H Lini.

Andrew Christopher Stuart was born at Ludlow, Shropshire, on November 30th 1928. He was the son of the Right Reverend Cyril Edgar Stuart, Anglican Bishop of Uganda, and his wife Mary Summer Hayes. He was educated at Brayanston School in Dorset before reading Law at Clare College, Cambridge. After doing National Service in the Royal Navy, he joined the Colonial Administrative Service in Uganda in 1953, staying on for a further few years after independence in 1962.

In 2002 Stuart was one of 52 distinguished diplomats who signed a letter composed by the then Ambassador to Lybia, Oliver Miles, critisising the Middle Eastern policymaking of Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

After his departure from the new Republic of Vanuatu, Andrew Stuart wrote a lengthy article about his time in the New Hebrides until its independence.

In one of the sections of his article, Andrew Stuart recalled the moment of the lowering of the Union Jack at his official residence on the island of Iririki: "Those of us with an African background will not forget the pride, the nostalgia and the hope with which, in those countries, we saw the Union Jack come down at midnight before Independence Day, followed by the nation’s flag rising under the spotlights, to the official strains of the new national anthem. When it came to the British turn (for the lowering of the Union Jack), on the eve of Independence we tried to do it our way at the evening party on Iririki Island. I doubt if there were many without a lump in their throats when the Royal Marine Band played the last post, as the resident Commissioner’s flag was lowered for the last time in the presence of the Duke of Gloucester, the French Minister and everybody else we could think of, Melanesians, French and British.

"As a result, when the day of Independence dawned, the flag of the new nation of Vanuatu was raised in solitary splendor in the former British Paddock, (now Independence Park). Everyone did their best, but there was little of a handover of mutual respect, and the fighting companies of the French Paras and the Royal Marines were absent from the parade. Instead they were in Santo protecting the flag pole where the same flag was raised."

Stuart went on to discuss issues facing the new government and the work of the former colonial administrations: "But for Walter Lini and his new government there was no respite. They had to tidy up the Santo affair, thank Papua New Guinea for sending their troops, negotiate for aid from Metropolitan countries, create new systems of law, unify the administration, take their place as an independent nation on the world stage and, above all, fulfill the expectations of the people that the coming of Independence would make a real difference to their lives. So, at the end of the day, what is the balance? What did we achieve in the New Hebrides? Were they, to quote Asterisk’s depressing book, no more than the "Isles of Illusion"? Did seventy-five years of the work of the British District Agents create no more than shadows in the fire, which vanished with the dawn of Independence?"

Quoting an administrator in one of the African states on its Independence, Stuart wrote: "And what of the British District Agents themselves? Were they no more than 'Third-Class minds with third class degrees and a Blue in some minor sport?' Were they really arrogant, insensitive, and uncaring of the culture of the people among whom they lived. Please understand we are not wicked people who may have oppressed you all these years - we are your friends. But the only real way of judging whether the British District Agents did their job is to look at the people, the Ni-Vanuatu they left behind. Structures change, but the quality of all their children and grandchildren is lasting evidence of the quality of that training. These people are the fruits of the British District Agents, and by those fruits we may know them and the measure of what they achieved. Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St Paul’s is 'Si Momentum requires circumspice' – 'if you want a memorial, look around you'. Let that be theirs too."

Andrew Sturat will be long remembered amongst the people of Vanuatu as "Las Britis Gavman long Iririki".

He is survived by his wife and three children.

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