Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Aiding and abetting adultery in the South Pacific

The New Hebrides (now the independent nation of Vanuatu) was an Anglo-French condominium in the Pacific Ocean – and a Franco-Britannique one called Nouvelles Hebrides, to the French. It had a bizarre constitutional set-up – the result of a strange episode in its history as a European protectorate.

By the late 1800s, most of the islands in the Pacific had fallen under the control of the European empires of the day, plus the USA. The native peoples of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia had no weapons to match those of the Western powers, who simply divvied up the territories among themselves.

France claimed New Caledonia, Britain claimed Fiji. Germany wanted the New Hebrides, but neither Britain nor France wanted a German presence in the region; they also didn’t want the Islands themselves. The logical thing to do would have been to split the entire archipelago down the middle; but logic has never featured strongly in Anglo-French intercourse over the centuries. What they did was agree to run the Islands jointly, as a “condominium”. It was referred to, by one and all, as a pandemonium.

The clerks at the imperial headquarters of the British and French expatriates composed two legal Codes, one for each set in its own language. Expats of other nationalities were obliged to choose which Code they would be bound by. Additionally, there was a Condominium Code, applicable to all residents – British, French, all other foreigners, and all natives.

A fourth collection of rules comprised a Native Code that applied to all natives and all native-white affairs. This was published (as was the Condominium code) in both English and French, by a printer in Montreal. The translations did not always correspond exactly, but that’s life. C’est la vie, in fact.

Finally, there was a fifth set of laws that the natives had to cope with, and that was their own “Custom Law”, analogous to England’s Common Law. It was unwritten, and little known among expats. It didn’t vary much from village to village – although, with seventy Melanesian and four Polynesian languages spoken in the archipelago (none of them written), there existed some scope for disagreement.

When I had nothing better to do at the office, I waded my way through the Islands’ constitutional laws, Custom Law excluded. I was intrigued by one odd law in the Native Code that prescribed six months in prison for the crime of “aiding and abetting adultery”. The mind boggled. Surely there wasn’t a travelling cheer-squad that attended each adulterous mating, that the European powers were trying to abolish, like suttee in India? One expat old-timer explained it to me, amused by my indignation.

Marriage was taken very seriously by the Melanesians, newly converted to Presbyterian Christianity. Unfortunately, boys will be boys, and the more attractive of the young bachelors did not always resist the temptation to seduce married women, when the opportunity arose.

An unfaithful wife would be beaten by her husband; Custom Law allowed that. Her partner in infidelity might be killed by the husband; Custom Law allowed that, too. But the Native Code forbade murder, and it took precedence over Custom Law. How could the murders be stopped?

The chiefs came in a delegation to the European administrators. If the white rulers really wanted to be helpful and stop the killings, would they please amend their Native Code and outlaw adultery? Perhaps it could carry a penalty of six months in pokey, to allow tempers to cool. Well, the administrators would be delighted! However... By legal definition, the lawyers said, “adultery” could only be committed by a married person. Outlawing adultery would catch an erring wife, but not her unmarried paramour.

“Aiding and abetting adultery” was not the most elegant of terms, but it served the purpose.