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Nation of Tanna (Vanuatu)

Tanna Island secessionist movement

Last modified: 2021-05-15 by ian macdonald
Keywords: tanna | star (green) | circle (yellow) | independentist |
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[Nation of Tanna (Vanuatu)] image by Thanh-Tâm Lê

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Original independence flag Reconstructed version
[Nation of Tanna (Vanuatu), original independence flag]       [Nation of Tanna (Vanuatu), reconstructed version]
image by Olivier Touzeau, 31 March 2021 image by Jaume Ollé

The history of the revolts in Vanuatu started with Tanna, followed with NaGriamel and ended with Vemerana. Tanna island was in a turmoil in 1973, and a French delegate asked for the mediation of the French colonist Antoine Fornelli, who gained the confidence of the five island chiefs, announced the independence of the Tanna Nation, created a national flag and was proclaimed king.

The independence of Tanna was proclaimed in the Spring of 1974 (perhaps it was then when the two red narrow bars were added) but on 8th June 1974 French troops took the island. The native people revolted against the French but on 20th June French-British troops arrived at the island and Fornelli was captured and deported to Australia (5th July 1974) for a five year term.

The flag of Tanna, according to written descriptions from several magazines, was blue with a green star, ratio 2:3 and like the description shown in several vex bulletins. But the description is not absolutely accurate: I saw an Australian report in TV around 1980 and the national flag of Tanna appeared several times. The description is: blue flag with green star in the center surrounded by a yellow ring. The points of the star are a bit out of the ring. According to the TV report, this flag was kept by a native chief and showed great respect for it.

Other two flags I saw in the Australian TV report: the same [flag] but with two narrow red horizontal bars; it might be the flag of the Four Corners' Movement, or alternatively the royal standard or the civil ensign, but I am not at all sure regarding this flag [see "original independence flag" above]; and the John Frum Movement flag.
Jaume Ollé, 10 June 1998 and 30 January 1999

The history of Tanna and Vanuatu is fascinating. I can give a few more details to supplement Jaume's synthesis and support his observation about the yellow ring in the flag of the Nation of Tanna.

The Nation of Tanna was proclaimed on 24 March 1974 and finally suppressed by the condominium authorities on 29 June 1974. Behind the declaration of the nation stood the Forcona Movement (Four Corners Movement), a political-religious movement opposed to the Anglophone parties and the Presbyterian church in the New Hebrides. The Forcona Movement, and the Nation of Tanna, was based in the north of the island of Tanna, with the village of Imafin as the stronghold.

On the day the Tannese nation was proclaimed, about 800 people gathered for a ceremony. The flag of the new nation was raised and political leaders for the four corners of the island were appointed. The north corner leader was made the custodian of the flag. According to the account of the French anthropologist Joël Bonnemaison, the flag consisted of "blue background, yellow circle, green star". The circle and star elements are confirmed by another anthropologist's report, that of Jean Guiart. According to Guiart the flag was manufactured in Port Vila and brought to Tanna by Antoine Fornelli, the Frenchman acting as the figurehead of the revolt (his most important contribution to the events seems to have consisted of supplying the flag besides acting as symbolic leader).

Condominium authorities reacted to these events by prohibiting the wearing of uniforms and the raising of flags. On 18 June British and French forces attacked the Nation of Tanna stronghold at Imafin, which was also the place where the north corner leader and flag custodian lived. The flag was seized by the British district agent. This led Fornelli, who had been absent from the island, to return to Tanna. In a secret letter to the President of France and the Queen of the United Kingdom he declared sovereignty and demanded that the British and French leave within 8 days. He also demanded that the flag be returned to the Tannese.

The British and French were not impressed and finally, on 29 June 1974, suppressed the Nation of Tanna by sending a joint force that took Imafin and captured several leading members of the Tannese nation, including Fornelli and the flag custodian. The Forcona leaders were sentenced to jail. Fornelli got a one year jail sentence and was barred from the New Hebrides for five years. He was sent to Noumea in New Caledonia.

Sources: Joël Bonnemaison, The Tree and the Canoe: History and Ethnogeography of Tanna, Honolulu, 1994; Jean Guiart, Le mouvement "Four Corner" à Tanna (1974), Journal de la Société des Océanistes, Vol. XXXI, 1975, pp. 107-111.
Jan Oskar Engene, 13 June 1998

I saw at that time a TV report from France 3 of Thalassa about Tanna story which I recorded but can't find anymore. The film showed the ceremony of independence declaration including the raising of the Tanna Flag which was effectively a yellow star in a white fimbrated circle in a blue field with two small red lines from the white circle to the fly; the star was all inside the circle. This flag was stolen by the French soldiers who fought independence. Jaume's other GIF [vu-tannr.gif] is a reconstruction of the independence flag made after the departure of the soldiers and kept as a relic on the island.
Pascal Monney, 14 June 1998 and 1 February 1999

Pascal Monney told me that (...) he had noted precise dimensions for the size of the circles, cantons, stripes and their position, as well as the overall ratios, so I could make two GIFs of what he had sketched at the time. He confirmed that they looked perfectly like what he had in his notes.
Thanh-Tâm Lê, 20 July 1999

Historical context

For a better understanding of this episode, here are elements, gathered and translated from the book by Joël Bonnemaison: Tanna, Les hommes lieux, by Joël Bonnemaison. Editions de l’ORSTOM, 1987.
La dernière île, by Joël Bonnemaison. Ed. Arléa / ORSTOM, 1987.

Antoine Fornelli, Corsican and former soldier of the French army, lived in Lyon, where he exercised the trade of gunsmith, when he bought a plantation in the north of the island of Vate, after reading a classified ad in the magazine Le Chasseur français. He soon settled in the New Hebrides, collecting firearms of all designs and distractedly looking after his property. There, he generously received all those who came to visit him. Although he was not strictly speaking a "politician", Fornelli seems to have given in to the local fever that gripped European circles in the early 1970s, with the approach of independence. Fornelli was particularly concerned about the influence of the Presbyterian Church and the anti-French overtones of the new independence party. His first contacts with the people of Tanna took place on his plantation where workers from the north of the island used to come to work. Fascinated by the millennial attitude of his staff, he began to consider that on the island, a new destiny awaited him ... In the first months of 1973, Antoine Fomelli left for Tanna. Its goal consisted in countering the action of the Vanua'aku Pati on Tanna with a “party of Custom” which would remain within a legalistic
framework and would militate in a “moderate” political perspective, close to that of the UPNH (Union des Populations des Nouvelles-Hébrides).

Fornelli, at that time, was fifty years old. A solid man who "feels good about himself", he seems sympathetic to many. His experience as a warrior, the fights of the Resistance and Indochina, his excellent contact with the Melanesians make him a man of the field. On the island, he will become inspired. During his first trips, Antoine Fornelli or “Tony”, as the Melanesians call him, is accompanied by one of his French friends and his Melanesian companion, originally from the north of the island. They go directly to Imafin, where Sasen, the local leader, receives them. Between "Tony" and the Melanesians of the northern "John Frum" camp, the contacts are good; although he was not fluent in Bislama, he had a sense of gesture, the art of symbolism and a taste for adornment. His outfit, in Imafin, is readily paramilitary. Every day he dives beyond the reef and catches an abundance of fish which he distributes generously. The newcomer knows neither fear nor fatigue and openly taunts pastors or local politicians of the opposite party. Sasen and the "John Frum" of the north believe they hold in him their "hero", the one who will finally allow them to resume their place in the political arena and, above all, to oppose the Christian militants of the "National Party" whose growing activity in their own stronghold never ceases to worry them.

In May 1973, a first big meeting took place in Lovieru in the North Center, in front of a considerable assembly (six to eight hundred people). All, far from it, were not convinced and many attended the meeting out of curiosity. Iolu Abbil and those of the "National Party" came to bring the contradiction. Fornelli, in uniform, made a speech and, thanks to one of his friends who acted as his interpreter, developed two main themes: "Progress will come to the island (roads, hospitals, ports, tourists, etc.).); the great men of Custom are the only ones able to dictate laws to the inhabitants of Tanna. To implement this policy, Fomelli announced the creation of a new movement, the UTA (Union of Native Workers, Union des Travailleurs Autochtones), to which he distributed membership cards. The acronym was obviously chosen for its analogy with that of the French Airline UTA. Tom Mweles, the "pope" of the John Frum of Ipeukel, attended this meeting, visibly supporting Fomelli and even posing as the one who, behind the scenes, inspired his action. When his opponents asked Fornelli who would pay for all the "good things" the UTA promised to bring, Mweles responded for him with a few short, almost inaudible sentences. If no one could answer that question, Mweles "knew". At that moment, all of the John Frums nodded knowingly. Following this meeting, Fornelli declared to have received on the island of Tanna 1,300 adhesions. It was actually the number of bulletins distributed because its audience was limited mainly to the John Frum networks of the north and the North Center of the island, a few hundred supporters. The pagans of the Center Brousse, for their part, remained in a position of expectation. On the side of the political leaders of the National Party and the Presbyterian Church, there was talk of "extremely serious danger". In the island, yielding once again to the delights of rumors, the slightest word or the smallest gesture of the protagonists began to be amplified. There were rumors - all false - that Fornelli was secretly arming the John Frums. It was claimed that nationalist activists or pastors in the northern part of the island, threatened daily, were in danger of death.

Fornelli returned to Port Vila shortly after this meeting. During his absence, the political situation, far from calming down, experienced new developments, leading to a radicalization of political positions on both sides. In January 1974, the Presbyterian Church, meeting in synod in Tanna, proclaimed itself for rapid political independence and condemned French nuclear tests in the Pacific. During this time, the movement launched by Fornelli was organized in secret. It was no longer the UTA, but “Forcona” or “Four Corner” (“the four sides”). Tanna's emissaries, ensuring contact, went back and forth between Fornelli and his supporters. In January, he went again to the island where the tension rose further. He spent two days in Sulphur Bay, with the John Frum group of Ipeukel who seemed won over to his cause. From that moment, Fornelli ceased to be the guide of the movement to let himself be carried by the initiatives of his supporters. The John Frum were indeed seeking to build, not a political party that would join the “moderate” parties of Port-Vila, but a movement preparing for the independence of the island. The French delegate, who until then had looked with sympathy on the new organization rising up against the English-speaking nationalists, began to be frankly worried about the drift of the movement. Fornelli not only was not frightened, but espoused the cause of his partisans, the cause of the Nation of Tanna, the cause of the "Custom". From that moment on, all outside witnesses will say that he has gone mad and the New Zealand leader of the Presbyterian mission of White Sands, the Reverend Ken Kalvert, will write, in 1976, about him that "this simple soul believed that he was freeing the people of Tanna from the terrifying repression of the Government and the Mission.” This was indeed Fornelli's conviction, without that necessarily implies that he has gone mad.

A decisive step was taken on March 24, 1974. That day a new meeting was held in the North Center of the island: in front of eight hundred people, Tony, in white outfit and wearing a red parachutist beret, on which shined a metallic star, hoisted the flag of the “Nation of Tanna”: blue background, yellow circle, green star - affirming: “This flag is that of union, peace and custom. Political leaders were appointed, representing the four corners of the island, the North, the South, the West, the East, a fifth standing in the Center. Each received a metal badge with a star in the middle. The “Forcona” (“Four Corner”) movement had just been officially born. Mweles, the pope of John Frum of Ipeukel, responsible for the east side, was appointed chief of the Custom, and Sasen, responsible for the north side, received custody of the flag as well as a German Mauser rifle dating from the First World War. The donation of this rifle symbolized the armed force guarding the flag. An appointment was made for an even more essential head on June 22 at Imafin. Tony was to be publicly inducted into it as “chief” and spokesperson of the Customary Nation of Tanna. Then they would “officially” proclaim independence.

In the groups won over to the movement, curious ceremonies took place. After having drawn stars on the earth of the dance places, everyone was asked to come and place themselves in the center. Those who remained outside excluded themselves from the new nation. Among the John Frums, all "took the plunge". Plywood badges marked out the hamlets and paths acquired by the movement: two red lines on a blue field. People no longer ventured on the paths far from his village: the spirit of war had returned to Tanna.

At the announcement of these news, the concern grew. The other “white king” of the island - this term is often given to him by Anglo-Saxon journalists -, the Australian trader Bob Paul, organized a counter-meeting with the representatives of the Christian groups of the island. A petition was addressed to the two delegates: if the latter were unable to enforce order, the Christians threatened to organize themselves into an armed force to settle the affair and go and remove the flag of sedition.

Fomelli, however, did not pay into a real illegality: he is the symbol of the movement more than he directs it and informs the French gendarmerie in Port-Vila. In his eyes he politically organizes the customaries, but does not prepare a rebellion against the authorities of the Condominium. He even insists in his speeches on the friendly role of France, England and Australia and on the support they will bring to the "Nation of Tanna". But it is precisely this term of "Nation of Tanna" which, in the rest of the archipelago and especially in Port-Vila, causes deep turmoil. A few days later, the French delegate, André Pouillet, wanting to go to the north of the island, is forbidden to cross: guards block entry into the territory of the "New Nation". This time, a new step has been taken; the Condominium authorities fear that they will permanently lose their sovereignty over the island and that a real civil war will develop between the Christians and the John Frum. In May 1974, a joint decree was signed prohibiting all wearing of uniforms, flag raising or illegal meetings. On June 18, by virtue of this decree, a platoon of the Franco-British militia went to Imafin where Sasen and his family resided. Neither Pouillet, French delegate, nor Fomelli are present on the island this day. David Browning, British delegate, led the operation alone. He seizes the flag and the old “model 1884, manufactured in 1916” Mauser rifle, while the police disperse the “Forcona” guards. A few punches are exchanged. Fomelli disembarks the next day at the airport, accompanied by a freelance photographer, Mario Giner, and learns about the events in Imafin. He then wrote, on June 23, an astonishing letter addressed jointly to the Queen of England and the President of the French Republic. [...]

Antoine Fornelli was bluffing, he had no armed means and didn't want to get there anyway. His supporters armed themselves with bows and arrows, spears, but that was paltry, even compared to the limited forces of the Condominium militia. Fomelli's goal was in fact to provoke the arrival of a commission of inquiry on the island, to plead the cause of his movement and to attract international attention to the island. He had no plans for a fight and sent home the few men with antique shotguns that the north of the island could count. In Port-Vila, on the other hand, it was "the tragedy" and the letter from the one who had become a "lost soldier" was taken very seriously. On June 29, the two delegates, Pouillet and Browning, leading a joint troop of forty Melanesian Franco-British militiamen and police, while two French gendarmes closed their ranks, landed in the north of the island. After a night march, the column took the village of Imafin in reverse. Sasen and the personal guards of the "rebel", surprised at dawn, were arrested while Fomelli, after having "amused" his pursuers for a while, let himself be taken. He was unarmed, no shots were fired, and the resistance of arrows and spears remained symbolic. The leaders of "Forcona" found themselves in prison in Isangel where they were tried by the French delegate, within the framework of his local attributions. The Melanesian leaders of the movement, responsible for the "sides" of the island, received prison terms, all subsequently reduced to one month. Fomelli, condemned more heavily, received eighteen months of imprisonment and was sent to Port-Vila where he was tried again. Final sentence: one year in prison and five years banishment from the New Hebrides. The sentence was served in the prison of Camp Est in Noumea.

In the island, "the Great Fear" settled again for the "John Frum". The repression they had known for seventeen years seemed to them on the verge of breaking down again. There were rumors, spread mainly by Christians, according to which they would be deported to New Caledonia or Australia. On the west coast of the island, John Frum families were evicted from certain lands, the subject of land disputes. Those of the “National Party”, the faithful of the Presbyterian Church, and in general all the English-speaking movement of the island, regarded the defeat of John Frum and Fornelli as their victory. In terms of the facts, the “Fornelli affair” was only a twist. There was an atmosphere of tragedy but without tragedy, in particular thanks to the composure of some of the actors, Fornelli in the lead, moreover. On the other hand, the island was "shocked", the John Frum traumatized by their defeat and the Christians convinced of their future hegemony. The fear that each of the two camps knew alternately engendered a feeling of resentment. Many of the events which subsequently affected the island take their starting point in the cut that was re-actualized that day. The raising of the “Forcona” flag remained as the symbol of a gesture of sovereignty. Each of the camps subsequently sought to reproduce it and, in this regard, Fomelli can say to himself that he left many emulated, including among his adversaries. Fornelli returned to Tanna in 1977, aboard a fishing boat, adding yet another incredible episode to the account of his personal adventures. No sooner had he made a speech in Imanaka, claiming to want to bury three things under the tree of Custom: "The Bible, the French flag and the English flag", than he was again expelled. Fornelli made a new appearance on Tanna in 1979. In 1980, he joined the island of Santo, then occupied by the blockade, to offer his services to Jimmy Stevens. He tried to set up a "defensive guard" in the camp of Vanafo, but gave up noting the lack of weapons and the impossibility of any real defense. In fact, at the last moment, he had thought it best not to start the fire, renewing his attitude of 1974, in the north of Tanna. Too good a warrior to engage in a fight he had no chance of winning, Fornelli avoided "unnecessary bloodshed". The memory of Fornelli lives on in the North and North Center of Tanna. He was invoked by both camps at each phase of the political struggle which, since then, has not ceased to develop: the militants of the Vanuaaku Party, because they feared his return with arms; the supporters of John Frum and of Custom, because they were waiting for him.

Olivier Touzeau, 31 March 2021

Vexillological data

1974 flag

[Nation of Tanna (Vanuatu), original independence flag] image by Olivier Touzeau, 31 March 2021

Images of the 1974 flag hoisting ceremony and of the first flag of Tanna can be seen in the film: Antoine Fornelli, roi de Tanna by André Waksman - France, 2000, produced by Vision Internationale.
which contains excerpts from two TV reports:
Thalassa (FR3 TV channel): Tanna : le Cargo Roi (released jan. 1990)
Tanna, die unglaubliche Insel „Der König“ (documentary by Eugen R. Essig,
released on Südwest 3 TV Channel in 1995)

The two red stripes are clearly visible, with the 5 pointed star in a circle. The description made by Joël Bonnemaison is incomplete, and the first flag had the two red stripes.
Olivier Touzeau, 31 March 2021

Reconstructed flag

[Nation of Tanna Reconstructed flag] image by Olivier Touzeau, 31 March 2021

Pascal Monney reported that "Jaume's other GIF [vu-tannr.gif] is a reconstruction of the independence flag made after the departure of the soldiers and kept as a relic on the island."

The flag can be seen in André Waksman's documentary: Antoine Fornelli, roi de Tanna.
Images probably from the 1990s:
sky blue flag, green 5-pointed star in a yellow circle, coat-of-arms in the upper hoist. This flag is kept with an album of personal photographs of Antoine Fornelli.
Olivier Touzeau, 31 March 2021

Incomplete descriptions in vexillological literature

In: From the New Hebrides to Vanuatu: A Vexillological Excursion], by Michel Lupant – 14th International Congress of Vexilology, Barcelona - 30 June-5 July 1991, it is reported that the flag given to the Tannese chiefs was: a green star on azure background.
Michel Lupant quotes a communication from Lucien Philippe, reporting an  article by Charles Garreau and Aimé Pietri, in France Soir, August 13, 1974. Thanks to the movie, we know that this description of the flag was obviously incomplete.
Olivier Touzeau, 31 March 2021

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