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The Contemporary Pacific 12.1 (2000) 280-281

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Book Review

Bridging Mental Boundaries in a Postcolonial Microcosm: Identity and Development in Vanuatu

Bridging Mental Boundaries in a Postcolonial Microcosm: Identity and Development in Vanuatu, by William F S Miles. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8248-1979-9 cloth; 0-8248-2048-7 paper; xxiv + 271 pages, maps, photographs, tables, figures, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth US$47.00; paper US$22.95.

Bridging Mental Boundaries in a Postcolonial Microcosm takes as its starting point the formal colonial boundaries that marked out the territorial and juridical features of the Anglo-French (or, from a non-Anglophone perspective, the Franco-British) Condominium of the New Hebrides. But only as a starting point.

Without denying the reality of natural boundaries, William Miles convincingly describes how other, notional boundaries occasioned by language, religion, gender, age, time, and so on also frame human identity and distinguish communities from one another. As he deftly demonstrates, all such boundaries are characterized by ambiguity and tension --what he describes as "porousness." To make sense of the situation--to begin to grasp what the translation from New Hebrides Condominion to Vanuatu Republic can possibly mean in a world where global processes profoundly problematize national boundaries--it is necessary to adopt a cross-disciplinary (not just multidisciplinary) approach. Miles does this, and does it well.

The result is a very satisfying book, accessible to the general reader and challenging to the specialist audience (or audiences). Like its University of Hawai'i Press stablemates, Cargo Cult: Strange Stories of Desire from Melanesia and Beyond, by Lamont Lindstrom, and The Tree and the Canoe, by Joël Bonnemaison, Bridging Mental Boundaries in a Postcolonial Microcosm fundamentally recasts what is so often taken for granted in the distinction drawn between "colonialism" and "independence."

To capture the peculiar form of European rule that prevailed over the New Hebrides from the establishment of the condominium in 1906 to its formal abolition in 1980, Miles coins the term condocolonialism. Rather than focusing on administrative structure, condocolonialism denotes the process of divided and divisive joint rule. In contrast to "classical colonialism," the condocolonialism of the New Hebrides manifested five distinguishing features:

(1) foreign rule is extended and maintained over an overseas possession as much to counter and irritate an imperial rival as to benefit the mother country per se; (2) infrastructural development is limited and targeted, lest the benefits of such investments accrue to the rival partner; (3) the subjects of such rule (the condocolonialized) are neither repressed by a metropolitan [End Page 280] power nor assimilated into a metropolitan model but rather are induced to join one side against the other; (4) the condocolonized learn to play off the imperial powers against each other, often to further local interests and pursue indigenous politics; and (5) imperial rivalries are reproduced and internalized by the condocolonized, giving rise to political cleavages that outlast the accession to independence and perpetuate exploitative attitudes toward the institution of government.

In contrast to colonialism's heightening of ethnic and other indigenous cleavages in other parts of the world, condocolonialization superimposed competitive identities along nonindigenous lines.

However, while condocolonialism divided Islanders into two camps, because neither of the condominial powers was able to achieve unchecked influence anywhere in the archipelago, the New Hebrides was protected from being overly colonized by either France or Britain. As a result, to take one important example, a critical mass of traditional customs that might otherwise have been eradicated through missionary activity was preserved, and "recuperated and recast into nationalistic kastom, enabled the nation to enter independence with a viable sense of Melanesian identity and Vanuatu nationalism" (196).

Ironically, condocolonial competition and neglect provided Vanuatu with the means of overcoming its colonial past. As Miles notes in the book's penultimate paragraph, "The challenge of independence will be to unite the insular peoples of Vanuatu by overcoming the long-standing indigenous, superimposed condocolonial, and emerging mental boundaries that divide them" (196). Miles' use of the future tense points to...


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