empire building

Deep in the dark recesses of the early seventies a man named Michael Oliver, a real estate entrepreneur from Nevada, formed a libertarian organization called the Phoenix Foundation. The foundation was motivated by a bog-standard post sixties vision: freedom from all regulation except self regulation. A vision where “life was wild, rich and largely tax free.” To this end Oliver and the Phoenix Foundation (they were secretive, it is possible there were only two other members: James McKeever and Harry D. Schultz) began funding a series of operations to create nations in which this vision could be realized.

The first of these was the Republic of Minerva located on a reef about 270 nautical miles west of the Kingdom of Tonga. A metre below the water at high tide the reef was piled high with sand, stone and concrete. It was hoped Minerva would grow and eventually support thirty thousand citizens who would suffer “no taxation, welfare, subsidies, or any form of economic interventionism.” Alas it didn’t turn out that way. The King of Tonga was unimpressed with his potential neighbors, he got on the Royal yacht with a detachment of soldiers (plus a convict work crew), landed on Minerva, tore down the concrete platform and read a declaration of sovereignty over the reef. Minerva no more.

Astonishingly this was not the last attempt. Oliver and Phoenix transferred their attention to the Bahamian island of Abaco. At the time the Bahamas were still part of the British Empire and there was some disquiet about democratization  which would involve the not-white people being in charge if independence should come (rather than the tax and golf exiles). In an attempt to create an independent Abaco Phoenix funded a number of diplomatic missions to lobby the British for their independence from both the Empire and the Bahamas. Ted Heath didn’t buy it and the Bahamians kept Abaco when they got independence in 1973.

Not to be put off Oliver had one more try, this time funding and arming another island independence movement on Espiritu Santo (then part of the New Hebrides and now part of Vanuatu) led by charismatic nationalist Jimmy Stevens. Stevens had been advocating New Hebridean independence since the late sixties but without much result, the French were going to do things their way. By 1980 the New Hebrides were almost Vanuatu so Stevens decided, in collusion with Phoenix, to forment a rebellion on Espiritu Santo. To this end he announced Espiritu Santo’s secession and declared the Republic of Vemarana.

Walter Lini, leader of the government-elect in Vila, asked for French or British intervention to put down the rebellion. The French said that the British would not be permitted to land and the French figured, not unreasonably, that this was not the time to get involved in inter island feuds and went to the beach. Two thousand people, unsupportive of the new republic, fled to Port Vila. Eventually Lini, seeing the disinterest of imperial powers, asked for assistance from Sir Julius Chan, Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea.

There were brief skirmishes between PNG and Vemarana forces (some involving bows and arrows, to add a frisson of noble savagery) during one of which Stevens’ son was killed. These skirmishes were known as the Coconut War by the Australian press, still hungover from the fall of Phnom Penh. Shortly afterward Stevens surrendered. He was tried and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. He was released in 1991 and died in 1994. Oliver and Phoenix also found themselves on the wrong side of the law, attracting the attention of the FBI regarding their breaches of the Logan Act which prohibits citizens from messing about in foreign affairs that are the business of governments. Oliver went to ground. Phoenix went to Amsterdam and produced newsletters  about the wonders of a tax-free existence for a couple of years.

Then it died.


About rustichello

A rather too quiet fellow of little reknown.
This entry was posted in The F-Bunker, things belonging to the emperor and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to empire building

  1. John Stockwell says:

    I read your article on the coconut war. I am 44 years old now. I was in Port Vila on 11, June 1980. I have always been curious about what was going on. My curiosity about the state of affairs on the Island is because I was injured in a car accident that was a direct result of the Stevens efforts to gain control of the Island. On11, June 1980, I was picked up by the Australian military and taken to the Sydney Hospital for brain surgery. Even though its been over thirty year, I still try to find articles about first hand accounts of what happened on the Island I have yet to find first hand coverage of what people were experiencing on New Hebrides.

    John Stockwell

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