Port Vila was initially overshadowed by the settlement at Havannah Harbour. After a long drought in 1882 and several malarial outbreaks, however, Efate’s commercial centre moved to Vila Bay.
In 1906 Vila was declared the national capital and the seat of the newly proclaimed Condominium government. Its main street was a bush path connecting the warehouses belonging to Burns Philp (British) and the Société Française des Nouvelles-Hébrides (SFNH; French). It was a seedy town, much favoured by beachcombers and freed convicts from New Caledonia.
Vila’s original hotel, long gone, was an absolute bloodhouse in the 1920s. Drunken plantation owners gambled using the ‘years of labour’ of their Melanesian workers as currency. Islanders would be lined up along the wall, at the mercy of the employers’ dice. Long after America’s Wild West was tamed, Vila was the scene of gunfights and public guillotining.
By the 1930s life had quietened down for the Europeans, who now numbered 1000. The British Resident Commissioner held weekly cocktail parties for the British elite; the French planters and their wives preferred tennis and social drinking.
The ni-Vanuatu, however, were only allowed to live in Vila if they were employed there; otherwise they were given 15 days to leave. There was a curfew: if they were on the street after 9pm they faced a night in the lockup.
The establishment of the tax haven in 1970 fuelled a construction boom: ramshackle colonial dwellings were replaced by concrete structures, streets were paved and when the main wharf was built in 1972, 40 cruise ship visited each year, starting Vila’s role as a tourist destination.