I recently picked up a second-hand copy of Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania in a book-store at a National Trust property. Having really enjoyed several of Theroux’s other travel books, I was happy to plunge into this one in the hope of finding out more of the Pacific, particularly its history and customs. And so, over the past week, I’ve read up on Theroux’s experiences in New Zealand, Australia, the Trobriand islands of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and now onto Vanuatu.

Bar New Zealand and Australia, these are places which I do not have any understanding of. The most engagement I have is in attempting to remember these island states whilst attempting to complete the Sporcle quiz on countries of the world (as of yet, I have not been able to find a way to remember all two hundred countries!). As such, it has been a great read, particularly in finding out more about these societies and realising the enormous stretch of influence of the Second World War on this region; albeit, through the eyes of Theroux in a somewhat dated, but always captivating, context of the early 1990s.

It was whilst reading the chapter relating to Vanuatu that I first came across the Coconut War. Of course, the name itself was enough for me to do a little further reading and devote a blogpost to it. So, what exactly was it?

The year was 1980 and Vanuatu was in the process of securing its independence from Britain and France (whilst changing its name from the rather dull and indistinctive New Hebrides). One person – the interesting and erratic Jimmy Stevens – agitated to create a breakaway country, which he hoped would become the state of Vemerana on the island of Espiritu Santo. The new prime minister of Vanuatu requested assistance from both the French and the British, before relying on troops from nearby Papua New Guinea.

Stevens appears to have been part of a cargo-cult movement and in league with external forces, but his men were armed, as states the Wikipedia entry, with ‘only bows and arrows, and rocks and slings’. The confrontation ended after the death of Stevens’ son (it is reputed that he had 23 wives and dozens of kids). Stevens was placed on trial and served time for a decade, even attempting to escape in the process, before passing away in 1994.

In 2014, Britain’s ambassador to the islands – Andrew Stuart – passed away; his obituaries highlight the role he played during this crisis. He secured the sending out of 120 marines from Plymouth to help smooth the transition of Vanuatu to statehood, thereby helping to prevent the breakup of the fledgling country.

Of course, you want to know the big question: why is it called the Coconut War? I’m not actually sure, but it seems to be coined due to the presence of coconuts on these Pacific islands. Either way, it is ranks alongside the so-called “Cod War” and the Pig War as one of the most interestingly named wars in history.