The South Pacific Commission was established in 1947 when six developed countries with a strong interest in the Pacific signed the Canberra Agreement. They were Australia, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. They sought to ‘strengthen international cooperation in promoting the economic and social welfare and the promotion of the welfare of the peoples of the non-self-governing territories in the South Pacific’. The Commission was not empowered to deal with political matters or questions of defence and security. The Agreement stipulated that the Commission would meet once a year and there would also be an annual South Pacific Conference at which all the territories would be represented. A Secretary-General would be appointed for a term of five years and the Secretariat would be based in Noumea in New Caledonia.
The Netherlands withdrew from the Commission in 1962 and the United Kingdom withdrew in 2005. In 1965 Western Samoa became the first territory to be a full member, followed by Nauru in 1969 and Fiji in 1971. In 1983 all countries and territories in the region served by the Commission became full members. Ever since 1951 the region had included Micronesia and the huge geographical area of the Commission was formally recognised when its name was changed to ‘Pacific Community’ in 1998.
Two Australians have served as Secretary-General of the SPC. W.D. Forsyth was the first Secretary-General in 1948-51 and he served a second term in 1963-66. Robert B. Dun was Secretary-General in 1996-2000.
In 1951 the Research Council of the South Pacific Commission resolved that the Commission should collect and copy manuscript grammars, dictionaries, textbooks and other linguistic material and place them in repositories in the metropolitan countries. The National Library was one of the nominated repositories and it began receiving microfilms in 1953. The project lapsed in 1958 and the Commission transferred to the Library all the negatives of the film.
The collection of 78 manuscripts copied by the South Pacific Commission were written by missionaries, anthropologists, linguists and other scholars between about 1900 and 1956. The majority of the works consist of dictionaries, vocabularies and grammars of peoples of the British Solomon Islands, Fiji, the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati), Nauru, New Britain, New Caledonia, New Hebrides (Vanuatu), Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Western Samoa. There are also a few Biblical translations and commentaries and some school textbooks. The authors include Arthur Capell, Charles E. Fox, M.J.C. Guiart, W.F. Paton and P. Tattevin.
The following are examples of the historical and anthropological works in the collection:
Bartlett, H.K., Legends collected at Misima and Panaeati, Papua, n.d.
Cato, A.C., A survey of native education in Fiji, Tonga and Western Samoa, n.d.
Grover, John C., Some aspects of mining development in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, c. 1950
Henderson, G.C., A history of government in Fiji, 1760-1875, c. 1944
Latham, R.T.E., The New Hebrides Condominium, 1929
Leenhardt, Raymond, Esquisse de l’histoire politique et religieuse des Îles Loyauté de 1840 à 1895, 1954
Miller, J. Graham, A report on the island of Epi for the Presbyterian Mission Synod, 1953
Paton, W.F., The language and life of Ambrym, an island in the New Hebrides, 1956
The papers of William Douglass Forsyth (1909-1993) contain a great deal of material on the establishment of the Secretariat in 1947 and the first twenty years of the South Pacific Commission. The papers include agenda papers, reports, correspondence, work programs, speeches, newsletters and photographs. Forsyth maintained a strong interest in the Pacific all his life and the collection contains later papers on the South Pacific Conference and a manuscript that he wrote in 1971-73 entitled ‘Post-colonial Pacific’. His unpublished memoirs are also an important source on the South Pacific Commission.
The South Pacific Commission issued a large number of publications, many of them of a technical nature relating to agriculture, fisheries, nutrition, public health, social development, the arts and other subjects. Many of its serial publications were short-lived or changed their titles frequently. The following are some of its more general publications:
Information document, 1968+
SPC Quarterly Bulletin, 1951-59
South Pacific Bulletin, 1960-81
South Pacific News, 1963-67
Technical information circular, 1952-68
Technical paper, 1949+
The microfilms the South Pacific Commission manuscripts are held in the Newspaper and Microform Collection (reels G 1431-1669). They have been catalogued individually and there is also a summary listing entitled ‘List of historical manuscripts microfilmed by the South Pacific Commission, 1951-57’. It is available in the Newspaper and Microform Reading Room. The papers of W.D. Forsyth are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 5700. The papers relating to the South Pacific Commission are in series 7 and 12. A finding-aid is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-294793964/findingaid.
The papers of the historian H.E. Maude, who was on the staff of the South Pacific Commission from 1948 to 1957, are held in the Barr Smith Library in the University of Adelaide.
Salato, E. Macu, The South Pacific Commission, Australian Foreign Affairs Record, vol. 50, Aug. 1979, pp. 465-69
Secretariat of the Pacific Community website, http://www.spc.int/corp/
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)