London — He has 25 wives. He commands 800 spear- wielding Melanesians and 50 French-speaking Europeans. He wears a fringed red skirt, a black beret, and a T-shirt inscribed "Santo Development."
And the British and French governments wish they had never heard of him.
He is Jimmy Stephens, the Eurasian grandson of a Scottish sea captain. His incongruous rebellion on the South Pacific island of Espiritu Santo, the largest island of the New Hebrides, is like something from a Conrad novel.
Britain and France have jointly ruled this string of about 80 islands for 74 years. But colonialism has fallen on hard times, and the Anglo-French Condominium, under the rule of premier-elect, the Rev. Walter Lini, is due to become independent July 30.
Jimmy Stephens, however, wants to turn his end of the island chain into a "new Hawaii," a tax-free haven he proposes to call Vem Arana. Allegedly backed by rightwing American interests, his bare-chested troops have taken control of government buildings and the radio station in Santo, the main town on the island , which lies 173 watery miles north of the capital, Vila.
Fr. Lini has objected, and has threatened to raise his own army and quash the uprising if Britain and France don't do the policing. The British commissioner, Andrew Stuart, has responded by organizing a flotilla of coasters, which already have evacuated 1,600 Britons, Australians, New Zealanders, and Melanese loyalists from the island.
Evacuees reported that the town of 5,000 was patrolled by bow-and-arrow- carrying tribesmen in commandeered vehicles.
Half a world away, Peter Blaker, a minister of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs, has scurried to Paris to consult his French counterpart, Paul Dijoud. Clearly uneasy about sending automatic weapons against spears, he returned to London to urge both sides to compromise. The government has, however, sent two military advisers to the archipelago, and Mr. Blaker told the House of Commons that "if no progress is made towards reconciliation, Britain and France would decide on what further action to take." "How on earth," another member of Parliament retorted, could "two such widely experienced colonial powers have got themselves into such an enormous mess?"
Meanwhile, a radio broadcast from the island proclaimed Jimmy Stephens, whose party lost to Fr. Lini in last October's election, the new chief minister and named his cabinet.
In an island that once had a tradition of cannibalism (and whose new national anthem ominously begins "yumi, yumi, yumi"), his secession may be no laughing matter -- although "yumi," meaning you and me, seems a fitting theme for reconciliation.