Our Stolen Islands

Willie Bill Mael, the youngest crew member of the famous 1983 voyage

During a Coffee and Controversy (C&C) show, the team touched on a four-decade dispute between the Vanuatu Government and France regarding Mathew and Hunter Islands.

Panellists on the show were Tony Tevi, Head of Oceans and Maritime Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Willie Bill Mael, a former crew member on the MV Euphrosyne II which sailed to the islands in 1983 to put up the Vanuatu flag and Eric Jack, owner of Nunu Nahila Yana Consultancy.

Our stolen islands are located 287 kilometres south east of Aneityum and 485 kilometres east of Lifou Island in New Caledonia.

In the Aneityum language Mathew is known as Umaenupne and Hunter is known as Umaeneag.

Umaenupne is 0.7 square kms in area and its highest peak is 584 ft [177 m]. The island is of volcanic origin and is made up of two extinct stratovolcano cones joined together by a rocky 200 metre isthmus.

Umaeneag on the other hand is also of volcanic origin and is 0.6 square kilometres in area while its highest peak sits at 794 ft [242m].

Both islands are slightly larger than Ifira which is 0.5 square kilometres in size. There haven’t been any records of inhabitancy although oral history from Aneityum and Futuna speak of visits to the islands mainly for fishing.

The last visit to the islands was the famous voyage in March 1983 on the MV Euphrosyne II led by Captain Leith Nasak.

“If France always talk about respecting culture, they should respect our cultural backyard,’’ said Mr Tevi.

The Head of Oceans and Maritime division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs clearly explained the geographical and geological advantage that Vanuatu has over France.

Each nation has an Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ], this defines a nations territorial waters and takes in the body of ocean measured at 200 nautical miles [370.4 kilometres] from the high-water mark of a particular coastline. The high-water mark is defined by any piece of land sticking out a low tide. Reefs or huge rocks visible at low tide count as high water marks.

Since the islands are 287 kilometres from Aneityum this places them well within Vanuatu’s EEZ. Geologically speaking they are also on the Vanuatu side of the New Hebrides trench and on the Pacific tectonic plate while New Caledonia lies on the Indo – Australian tectonic plate.

Mr Tevi went on further saying that land is seen as something of importance in Vanuatu culture and that one of the key elements in fighting for independence was for all land to be returned to the people of Vanuatu.

The two islands are land that rightfully belong to the people of Vanuatu, however the French have made unnecessary claims to the islands since these islands are no where near Paris or any part of Europe and they do not resemble any European landscape.

Without having Umaeneag and Umaenupne under our jurisdiction, this shows that our independence is not complete.

Tevi commented on how Wikipedia claims France annexed the islands in 1929 and points out that annex is just another word for stealing to make it look official. It is the same system that the early explorers used when they stole the land of natives around the world.

The islands were always ours and have always been part of us before the first Europeans arrived so it isn’t possible to say France annexed the islands.

Under the United Nations [UN] resolution 1514, it states that when a territory is given independence, all land that was colonized has to be given independence. In our case France still wants to hold onto our islands even though we have been independent from them since 1980.

The Chagos Archipelago or the British Indian Ocean Territory [BIOT] is a similar situation to Mathew and Hunter. The UN resolution 1514 was used and the International Court of Justice have given its opinion that the Chagos Islands belong to Mauritius and not to Britain, as Britain held on to the islands after it granted Mauritius Independence in 1965 and forced the islanders of their islands to build an air force base on Diego Garcia, the main island.

The head of oceans and maritime said UN Resolution 1514 is a possible way forward for Vanuatu however further discussion with France is the best immediate step and not to rush to the courts or to sail in warships to the disputed islands to paint flags.

In terms of cultural connections, he explained that if we have custom stories, songs, rituals and dances relating to Umaeneag and Umaenupne then we should not speak about geological evidence which we already have.

He went on further stating that if France is a country that always talks about culture and respecting culture, they should respect our cultural backyard, understand that it is ours and not theirs and step out.

If the French government can always talk about respecting culture having a multi-cultural society in their home country but can not respect ours, then it is a big shame on their part.

Willie Bill Mael—“ There is no Captain in Vanuatu like Lieth Nasak”

Willie Bill Mael who was the youngest crew member on the famous voyage of the MV Euphrosyne II in 1983 spoke about how he was the youngest crew member of that time being only 20 years old.

He is appealing to the government, Vanuatu Christian council, Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs and school students to listen to his story as this is the first time for him to come out to any media outlet since 1983 to tell his side of the story.

The man from Pamma explained that they were led by Captain Leith Nasak from Tanna and they were 15 of them onboard the vessel during that voyage.

He mentioned that among the crew there were the two engineers Anderson Tari and Joseph Kalsakau, Noel Petri (who later on captained RVS Tukoro), a Polish man known as Captain Bochenski and the ship cook Jimmy Steven.

Apart from the crew they had Jack Taitati, head of the cultural centre, Joe Joseph, secretary general [SG] of the Tafea local government council, journalist Bob Makin and a chief each from Tanna, Aneityum and Futuna.

The mission resembled a mission of the US Navy Seals or the Royal Navy as it was top secret. Mael recalls that he and the other crew members had no idea they would sail that far south until they reached Anelcauhat village on Aneityum.

Five days later Captain Kieth Barlow flew in with five men of American, British and Swiss nationalities. It was then that Captain Leith Nasak informed them that they would be visiting the islands and raising the Vanuatu Flag.

Mael said he felt the spirit of adventure in him when he was told about visiting the uninhabited islands. He mentioned that upon arrival on hunter island, they removed the French flag and brass plaque and erected the Vanuatu flag and sang the national anthem loudly.

The flag was raised by Joe Joseph, SG of Tafea local government council on March 9 1983 on Hunter Island.

The father of four also mentioned how they didn’t do the same thing on Mathew Island since the French warship approached them and encircled them several times to make them surrender but despite being unarmed and up against a powerful warship Captain Nasak stood his ground and said,” MV Euphrosyne II is a ship that never backs down” and he kept its course till they returned to Aneityum with a mission accomplished. Vanuatu flag up and French flag down.

The grandfather of six applauded his captain of the day and said there are no captains in Vanuatu like him anymore. Despite being a merchant captain, he stood his ground as a true patriot and lead the crew like a true naval captain in battle.

Despite successfully completing the mission and feeling proud of the achievement, the 57-year-old is calling for compensation for him and other crew members involved in the voyage.

His claim is on the basis that it was a dangerous voyage they did not know they would be on and that they were merchant sailors and not trained naval officers or marines to carry out a mission.

Till today he questions where the captured French flag and brass plaque are as he said since the Late Father Walter Lini received it from them upon return. Nobody has seen it or knows of its whereabouts since then.

Jack Eric owner of Nunu Nahila Consultancy explained that he is representing Mr Mael and the other former sailors and helping them claim their compensation from the government.

The former Luganville Member of parliament explained that the sailors had approached Moana Carcasses and Sato Kilman when they were Prime Minister respectively however their claims were ignored.

Mael mentioned that he has a book in the pipelines to further tell the story of the voyage to the younger generations.

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