People of the Lapita culture settled here about 1200 BC. European settlement began with the arrival of whalers, but in September 1842, an American sandalwood expedition under Captain Henry sailed into Havannah Harbour with 60 Tongan sailors on board. The Tongans quarrelled with the Efatese, shot some of them and drove others into caves. They lit smoky fires by the caves and the people in them suffocated. After that, the locals attacked trading ships and killed crewmembers. HMS Havannah was dispatched in 1849 to control the situation; several British warships did a turn of duty there in the 1850s.
Meanwhile, Christian missionaries were arriving and enjoyed some early successes but many died of malaria.
By the mid-1860s, there were 30 European settlers, mostly British, growing cotton on the flat coastal plains of Havannah Harbour. When French agents arrived and bought up large parcels of plantation land from local chiefs that the British settlers reckoned they owned, there were fierce arguments. Britain refused to register or protect its citizens’ land claims so many British planters sold up and left.
In 1886 French troops landed at Havannah Harbour – then the site of the main European settlement on Efate – and refused to withdraw. This embarrassed Britain and forced the government to register its citizens’ land claims, and British settlers, mostly from Australia, returned. Finally, in 1906, the French and British governments decided to rule their wrangling nationals jointly.
Back in Europe in 1940, France was occupied by Germany, and Britain took full control of Vanuatu’s administration. Two years later a US fleet arrived and bases were constructed at Havannah Harbour and Port Vila. Over 100, 000 service personnel passed through the island en route to the North Pacific.
In the 1970s Efate became the centre for Vanuatu’s independence movement, but remained calm despite the violence on Santo and Tanna. Since then the capital has grown enormously as people from other islands come to seek employment.