‘The Coconut War: Vanuatu and the Struggle for Independence’ is an account of the rebellion that took place on Espiritu Santo in 1980. It was written by Richard Shears, an award-winning British journalist.
Richard, a journalist working for ‘The Daily Mail’, is sent overseas to cover the war in the New Hebrides, where an ageing village chief called Jimmy Stevens, supported by a mysterious group of Americans, has taken over Espiritu Santo and declared the island independent of the central government.
Despite dramatic headlines carried by newspapers, Richard can’t see the slightest sign of unrest. At least in Port Vila, the capital of the country. Determined to deliver a good and plausible story, he attempts to get to Santo in order to assess the situation and maybe have a little chat with the leader of the rebellion. Unfortunately, none of these is easy. But the Englishman refuses to give up. He seizes every opportunity that comes his way, and when his patience is finally rewarded, he not only meets Jimmy Stevens but also learns the truth behind the uprising.
What are the first three adjectives that come to your mind when you think about a history book? Mundane, dull, boring. I do believe this would be the most probable answer to that question. Somehow, literary presentations of the events of the past fail to grab our attention. Well, this is not the case with Richard Shears’s work. ‘The Coconut War’ is not your ordinary history book; it’s a history book-cum-travelogue-cum-memoir. Quite an unusual mix; I admit. Unusual, but oh-so extremely engrossing!
The account reads like a novel. A very good novel, may I add. It is constructed in a manner that makes you want to turn the page. There’s suspense, a mystery to solve, and plenty of action waiting inside. All of these drive the narrative, keeping you riveted from the beginning to the end. Of course, one cannot ignore the story itself: extraordinary, a little bizarre, at times highly amusing. As the author describes, Vanuatu – or, using the colonial name, New Hebrides – was a land of many contrasts. That ruled by separate British and French administrations country was one place divided into two universes. With two police forces, two jails, and a traffic system that combined the best (or worst) of both worlds, the islands were in a state of pure chaos. Add to this a rebellion and a Duke of Edinburgh-worshipping tribe and you have all you need to create an exciting tale.
Apart from being a fun book to read, the title is also an impressive piece of war correspondence. True to the facts and revealing, it gives readers a better understanding of Vanuatu’s past as well as culture and traditions. Being an insightful observer, Richard Shears paints a nuanced, balanced picture of the archipelago during the time of crisis, focusing not only on the uprising but also on the clash of Western and indigenous values. For this reason alone, ‘The Coconut War’ should be compulsory reading for everyone interested in history, politics, or the Pacific Islands.
If you let Mr Shears take you to one of the most incredible countries of the Blue Continent, I can assure you, you won’t regret it, because this skillfully written, seasoned with wit and gentle humour book does not disappoint. It is an astonishingly brilliant publication.