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Early history

Most historians agree that the peoples of the Western Pacific immigrated from South-East Asia to this part of the Pacific. As early as 40,000 B.C., Austronesians migrated via Indonesia and New Guinea to Australia and the Solomon Islands. A subsequent wave of Southeast Asians migrated from the Solomon Islands to the Vanuatu Archipelago around 3000 BC.

It is certain that the island of Malo was permanently inhabited from 1400 BC by people of the Lapita culture, named after an archaeological site in New Caledonia. The Lapita people settled on the smaller islands, probably because people had already settled on the larger islands. They brought pigs, poultry and dogs. Other peoples slowly spread from the north across the Vanuatu Archipelago and intermarried with the people living there.

Spaniards search Terra Australis but eventually find Vanuatu

Between the 11th and 15th centuries, new settlers arrived from the east. They were Polynesians from the Central Pacific who came here because of overpopulation. The many island communities were separated by forests and the sea and the people lived in small clans that had lived on the islands for generations. The ancestral spirit world and sorcery were very important to them. There were often conflicts among the islands, especially when they did not speak the same language. These conflicts sometimes lingered on until the middle of the 20th century!

Cannibalism occurred and warfare was a regular activity of the men. Women had a very low status and were often considered less important than pigs, which indicated a certain status.

At the beginning of the 17th century, people in Spain thought that there must be a large southern continent, Terra Australis. Two Spanish expeditions left Peru to investigate. Although they found the Solomon Islands, the continent they were looking for could not be found. The second Solomon expedition in 1595 was led by the Portuguese in Spanish service Pedro Fernández de Quirós. The next ten years he sent several entreaties to the Spanish king and Pope Clementius VIII, among others, to be allowed to organise another expedition.

It was not until 1605 that he was sent off to search for the mysterious continent, to colonise it for Spain and to convert the people to the Roman Catholic faith. On 25 April 1606 land came into view and they saw Mount Mere Lava, one of the Bank Islands in North Vanuatu. On 3 May the small Spanish fleet sailed for Big Bay in North Santo. Quirós believed he had found the Terra Australis and called it "Austrialia del Espirito Santo". He immediately claimed all the land south of Santo on behalf of Spain and built a fortress on the island. After 54 days Quirós' crew deserted and the settlement was abandoned.

French and British ; Les Grandes Cyclades or New Hebrides

In 1766 the French nobleman Louis-Antoine de Bougainville left France with two ships and on 21 May 1768 he saw the islands Maewo and Pentecost in eastern Vanuatu. He visited several other islands, concluded that this was not Terra Australis and named the northern islands of Vanuatu "Les Grandes Cyclades", after the Greek archipelago of the same name. On 16 July 1774, the famous explorer James Cook also saw the Cyclades. He too gave the archipelago a name: the New Hebrides, a name which the country would keep until independence in 1980.

Over the next twenty years, several other explorers followed, including William Bligh of the "Bounty" and the French La Pérouse, D'Entrecasteaux and Dumont d'Urville. Whalers also landed on the remote islands of the archipelago. From 1825 the aromatic sandalwood became an important export product for China. Supplies in the North Pacific had been exhausted and traders were looking for new ones. In 1825, the Irish explorer and trader Peter Dillon reported that there were large numbers of sandalwood trees on the southern island of Erromango. Other traders found smaller numbers on other islands. In the early 19th century, the actions of sandalwood traders from Sydney gave rise to bloody riots. By 1868, the trade was over when the last exploitable forests had virtually disappeared.

Blackbinding: black page in Vanuatu's history

After the sandalwood trade, a more dubious trade developed on the islands of Vanuatu, called "blackbinding" or "labour recruiting". There was a great demand for cheap labour for the sugar cane industry of Fiji and Queensland in Australia, the nickel mines of New Caledonia and the coconut plantations of Western Samoa. From 1863, the supply of labour became an important commercial activity. Many went voluntarily and gladly worked for the Europeans to get a piece of the European way of life. Others did not want to go but were simply kidnapped, brought on board and transported to the said jobs. Instead of the promised three months, the islanders often stayed away for more than ten years! The only ones who really made money from this were the "black binders". The islanders were in fact just slaves who had hardly earned anything when they returned home, sometimes only some clothes and weapons. British and Australian colonial officials initially did nothing to end this situation. The main opponents of this human trafficking were Presbyterian missionaries who denounced the blackbinding. It was not until 1901 that blackbinding was outlawed in Queensland in 1902, Fiji in 1911 and Western Samoa in 1913.

Nineteenth century

The first missionaries arrived on Vanuatu in 1839. However, due to the very hostile attitude of the population, great caution was exercised. The Church therefore deployed Polynesian teachers who were in fact used as cannon fodder; if they managed to stay, the Europeans could safely follow. Nevertheless, several Polynesians were killed and eaten. Nevertheless, Presbyterianism soon became the main Christian denomination on Vanuatu. The Presbyterian missionaries strongly opposed cannibalism, ancestor worship and polygamy. Other denominations quickly followed. Anglicans arrived in 1860 and Roman Catholics in 1887. The Catholics proved much more tolerant of the local inhabitants and their traditions. Despite an increasing number of converts, the ni-Vanuatu mixed Christianity with the traditional faith. The denominations made it difficult for themselves by living as rivals rather than allies.

A very active missionary in the South Pacific was the Englishman John Williams, who from 1817 successfully visited many islands. However, his visit to the Vanuatuan island of Erromango went badly wrong; Williams and his colleague James Harris were murdered and eaten by cannibals.

New Hebrides condominium from Britain and France

The sandalwood traders and the blackbinders also brought new diseases, to which the inhabitants of the Pacific had little resistance. Cholera, measles, smallpox, influenza and even a simple cold caused the disappearance of entire populations. It is assumed that Vanuatu had about one million inhabitants in the early 19th century.

By 1870, this number had dropped to 650,000 and twenty years later there were only 100,000. In 1935 it reached its lowest point with only 41,000 inhabitants. The worst affected islands were Aneityum and Erromango, where only 5% of the original population still lived. Despite the traders and missionaries, the first European settler was a rancher who settled on Aneityum Island in 1854. Others followed quickly, especially in the 1860s when cotton cultivation became established due to high cotton prices in the United States.

After New Caledonia was annexed by France in 1853, the Presbyterian Church urged the British government to do the same with the island of Aneityum and later all of Vanuatu. However, the British refused because of the high costs that would never outweigh the benefits. Because of this refusal by the British government, the situation for the British and Australian colonists rapidly deteriorated. Meanwhile, the islands were overrun by French colonists who, supported by the French government, soon dominated the economy of Vanuatu.

In 1862, John Higginson, an Irishman naturalised to Frenchness and a land speculator by profession, bought about 20 % of all arable land from bankrupt, disillusioned British farmers and chiefs. To this end, he founded the "Compagnie Calédodienne des Nouvelles Hébrides (CCNH) in 1882, renamed Société Française des Nouvelles Hébrides (SFNH) in 1894. Ten years later, 55% of the agricultural land was owned by the SFNH. This situation created great rivalry between the British and French colonists and the ni- Vanuatu took advantage of this by attacking the colonists, often under the influence of alcohol. To solve these problems, in 1887 the British-French "Joint Naval Commission" was created, which due to a lack of real power and without much control, soon failed.

In 1878, Britain and France had already decided to respect the independence of the New Hebrides. At the beginning of the 20th century, everything pointed to the archipelago coming under Anglo-French administration. In 1906, the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides was established as a response to German expansion in the region. At that time, there were about 2000 French and 1000 British colonists and 65,000 original inhabitants in Vanuatu. The authority over the archipelago was further extended in the Anglo-French Protocol of 1914, which, however, was only ratified in 1922. Through these agreements, the two superpowers had exactly equal influence and the colonists retained the citizenship of their own country. The ni-Vanuatu, on the other hand, were officially stateless. If they wanted to go abroad, they even had to ask permission from both the British and the French Resident Plenipotentiary. The highest body of the condominium was the "Joint Court". It decided on problems between the British and the French, and between the Europeans and the people of Vanuatu. There was also a court for the conflicts between the indigenous islanders themselves. Furthermore, there were two police forces, two health services and two education systems, which made things not very efficient.

Japan occupied the Solomon Islands in early 1942 and the inhabitants of Vanuatu feared that an invasion was imminent. Fortunately, in May of that year, the American fleet arrived and immediately started to build military bases. More than 100,000 soldiers were stationed on the islands of Efate and Santo. Many islanders went to work for the Americans.

After the Japanese were defeated, the Americans disappeared as quickly as they had come. Cargo cults' became a phenomenon on several islands: the villagers believed that the prosperity they had seen from the Europeans would come to them if they behaved like Europeans. Most of these movements soon languished if the hoped-for prosperity did not materialise. The only exception was the Jon Frum sect on the island of Tanna. Followers of the Jon Frum sect believe in a saviour, Jon Frum, who brings prosperity, preceded by ships full of gifts.

New Hebrides independent and continue as Vanuatu

Economic development at the time of the American presence on Vanuatu quickly came to a halt after the war. The post-war condominium authorities had neither the money nor the energy to maintain the standard of facilities achieved during World War II. The economic "boom" after World War II in other parts of the world also brought a revival in Vanuatu, although the total apathy would last at least until the 1960s. By then, the Government had already taken over education and health care from the missionaries.

The economy was by then largely dependent on copra production, but the meat industry and tourism also became alternative sources of income. Land ownership was central to 1960s politics. This issue would become the final push towards independence. Europeans regarded land as a commodity like any other. But for the ni-Vanuatu it was much more, namely the obligation to pass on the family's land to the next generations, the "kastom" tradition. At that time, 30% of the total land area was owned by the settlers. Half of it was used for coconut production. When the settlers began to clear land for cultivation, the ni-Vanuatu on the islands of Santo and Malekula protested. The villagers felt that the colonists had no right to the land, but that it was exclusively theirs.

Therefore, a kastom movement "Nagriamel" arose under the leadership of the charismatic Jimmy Stevens. Its main objective was to protect the claims of the ni- Vanuatu. In 1971, Stevens petitioned the United Nations for Vanuatu's independence. In the same year, Anglican minister Walter Lini founded the "New Hebrides National Party" (later: Vanua'aku Party), supported by the English-speaking Protestant population. Nagriamel was strongly identified with French interests. The Francophone population, known as Modérés, were strongly opposed to early independence as expressed in the petition addressed to the United Nations. They preferred to continue as a condominium or even under full French rule. They did want greater autonomy for the individual islands.

As Vanuatu became increasingly politicised, the first general elections were called by the condominium authorities. Until then, an assembly of unelected members decided that minority parties could govern until the elections of November 1979, which were won by the Vanua'aku Pati with the independence-seeking Lini as Prime Minister. However, the victors were very unpopular in the French territories, which immediately wanted to secede. Meanwhile, the date for the independence of Vanuatu was scheduled for mid-1980. The French government in Paris saw its influence diminish in favour of the British, and decided to support the Modérés.

Santo and Tanna actually threatened to secede in early 1980 and the British and French could not agree on how to respond. The British wanted military intervention, the French did not, and in May the situation escalated. On Tanna, an uprising broke out between government supporters and the Modérés. On Santo, supporters of secession invaded Luganville and raised the flag of the independent republic of Vemarana. The Lini government responded with a blockade of Santo

Modérés supporters on several other islands claimed their own secession in June, including Malekula, Ambae, Maewo and Ambrym. Shortly afterwards they merged and proclaimed the "Provincial Government" of the Northern Islands under the leadership of Jimmy Stevens. The Government of Vanuatu was promised military support by Papua New Guinea to put down a rebellion if necessary. Fortunately, this turned out not to be necessary. In order not to let the situation get completely out of hand, France proposed to postpone the independence. The British, however, were totally against this and the two countries decided to intervene militarily to restore order in Luganville. Because the Anglo-French troops had no arrest warrants, it was not possible to restore order. The government then called in troops from Papua New Guinea who quickly broke up the rebellion and arrested the leaders.

On 30 July 1980, the islands became independent under the name Vanuatu. Lini became Prime Minister and his party colleague George Kalkoa (who henceforth called himself Ati George Sokomanu) the first President.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Stevens was arrested and it soon came to light that the French government had supported the Lini government in name only. In fact, they had been secretly supporting the pro-secessionists all along. In 1988, a constitutional crisis led to Vanuatu's first President, Ati George Sokumanu being sacked and then temporarily imprisoned. Fred Timakata of the VAP was appointed president in 1989. Maxime Carlot Korman of the UMP succeeded Lini as Prime Minister after the Dec. 1991 general election. He was the first French-speaking Prime Minister; for many years Vanuatu had been ruled by English-speakers. In February 1994, Jean-Marie Leyé was elected as the new president.

In November 1995, Carlot lost the parliamentary elections but was able to stay on as Prime Minister. Following a power struggle within the Union of Moderate Parties (UMP), Serge Vohor had succeeded Carlot in December, but by February 1996 he had already fallen following a vote of no confidence, after which Carlot again became Prime Minister. But he too did not survive a vote of no confidence and Serge Vohor subsequently returned as Prime Minister.

In 1999, the Parliament elected John Bernard Bani as President and Walter Lini died. In November of that year, a group of international banks decided to suspend payments with Nauru, Palau and Vanuatu due to suspicions of money laundering by Russian and Latin American criminal organisations. Vanuatu, according to a leaked bank report, was very popular because of its strict banking secrecy.

21th century

On 3 January 2002, Vanuatu was hit by an undersea earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale. There were no casualties, but there was considerable damage to buildings. The bridge that connects North-Efate with the capital Port Vila collapsed.

anuatu caused a stir in November 2004 by establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan, although it also had ties with China.

After President Bani resigned in March 2004 because his term had expired, and Alfred Maseng, chosen by the electoral college as his successor, was found to have a criminal past, Kalkot Matas Kelekele was elected as the new President on 16 August 2004.

The parliamentary elections on 6 July 2004 were won by the National United Party. On 29 July 2004 the parliament elected Serge Vohor of the UMP as prime minister for the third time. In November, five ministers switched to the opposition following the prime minister's arbitrary decision to establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan (rather than China), and the government fell following a motion of censure. On 11 December 2004, Deputy Prime Minister Ham Lini formed a new cabinet.

Half the residents of Ambae Island were evacuated in November 2005 after the Manaro volcano suddenly became active. After years of calm, an explosion occurred on 27 November in the crater of the volcano in the middle of the island. Since then, ash has been raining down on the villages and smoke has been coming out of the crater. Acid rain also fell. The volcano was emitting a rain of ash every three to five minutes and the activity was increasing.

Volcanologists from New Caledonia and New Zealand travelled to Vanuatu to monitor the volcano. The volcano is actually 3900 metres high and only part of it rises above the water.

In March 2007, a state of emergency was declared after groups from the islands of Tanna and Ambryn clashed in the capital, there were accusations of witchcraft. In September 2008, Edward Natapei became the new prime minister after an election victory. In December 2009, Iolu Abil was elected president. In November 2009, Edward Natapei was relieved of his responsibilities after he failed to attend three parliamentary sessions without written explanation.

In December 2009, descendants of the missionary John Williams, who was murdered by cannibals on Erromango Island, travelled to Erromango to receive the expressions of regret from the descendants of the cannibals. As a tribute to Williams, Dillons Bay was changed to Williams Bay. In June 2011, Sato Kilman was elected prime minister. In November 2012, he became leader of an 11-party coalition following a general election.

In March 2013, he resigned and was succeeded by Moana Carcasses Kalosil. In May 2014, he does not survive a motion of censure, his successor is veteran Joe Natuman.

In mid-March 2015, Vanuatu was hit by Category 5 super cyclone Pam, which left a devastating trail across the archipelago. With wind gusts of over 250 km per hour, roofs were blown off houses, other houses were razed to the ground. In the capital Port Vila, 80% of the city was destroyed and thousands of people were left homeless. Several dozen people died. Although people were prepared for the hurricane, in the end little proved to be able to withstand the force of nature.

In February 2016, Charlot Salwai became the new prime minister. In June 2017, President Londsdale died and was succeeded by Tallid Obie Moses. Since April 2020, Bob Loughman has been Prime Minister.


O'Byrne, D. / Vanuatu
Lonely Planet

Stanley, D. / South Pacific Handbook

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
Copyright: Team The World of Info