In this article, I discuss two roles of documents in the creation and enforcement
of public health laws in early colonial Vanuatu and their implication in colonial
attempts to transform ni-Vanuatu societies and subjectivities. Colonial officials
of the British-French Condominium based their projects on their admittedly
partial knowledge in reports generated by experts studying depopulation. This
knowledge, I argue, produced a ‘population’ by categorizing people according
to their relationship with a reified notion of culture. The Condominium
enforced health laws by sending letters to people categorized as Christian who
would, the Condominium hoped, adhere to the regulations as self governing
subjects. Officials would engage in persuasive conversations when they
enforced the regulations in ‘bush’ villages. I conclude by reflecting on ni-
Vanuatu knowledge of well-being and illness that could not be represented or
documented and its centrality for subjectivities that might elude, if not subvert,
the modern subject presumed by colonial strategies of governance.
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