chapter  6
18 Pages

Asymmetrical ambiguities: the ‘White Australia policy’, travel, migration and citizenship in Vanuatu, 1945–1953


Introduction In October 1948 Mrs Sela Tubou Stephens, or Mrs T.C. Stephens in official correspondence, cousin of Queen Salote of Tonga, applied to the British District Agent in the northern island of Santo in Vanuatu for a permit to facilitate her travel to the Australian territory of Norfolk Island. 1 Mrs Stephens had been resident in Vanuatu, or the New Hebrides as it was known until 1980, 2 since 1904, when she arrived with her English husband, Thomas Carfield Stephens, and eventually established copra plantations on the south coast of Santo, the archipelago’s largest island. 3 She wanted to take her granddaughters, Lilli and Davina, with her for a six-month holiday. 4 As the British District Agent, Joe Maxwell, explained in Mrs Stephens’s application sent by telegram to the British Resident Commissioner in the archipelago’s capital Port Vila on 14 October 1948, ‘She [Mrs Stephens] has been in poor health lately and requires Lilli’s assistance travelling and while staying in Norfolk Island for approximately six months holiday.’ 5

Two weeks later, Maxwell sent another telegram to Vila requesting applications be lodged with Australian authorities for Mrs T.C. Stephens’s two sons to travel to Australia. 6 The request to enter Norfolk Island included Frederick Stephens; his wife, Germaine Gardel; and their three children, so they could be enrolled in local schools. As Margaret Rodman points out in her genealogy of the Stephens family, her ground-breaking multi-sited ethnography of colonial settlement in Vanuatu, Houses Far from Home: British Colonial Space in the New Hebrides , Germaine Gardel had been ‘raised by her aunt, Bloody Mary, made famous in Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific ’. 7 Frederick’s brother, Leonard Stephens, sought permission to proceed directly to Australia with his wife, Eileen Hilderbrand, to visit her parents in Camperdown, Victoria, for six months. Maxwell’s application on Leonard and Eileen’s behalf cited ‘business reasons’ and ‘wife’s health’. 8

On 7 December 1948, the Australian Administrator of Norfolk Island, who had been in consultation with immigration authorities in Canberra, telegrammed the British Resident Commissioner to advise, ‘Having regard to age of Mrs. Stephens and fact that Minister has previously refused permission entry school children, regret that all requests must be refused.’ 9 Permission was denied.