Destination Today

Vanuatu is often called the ‘Land of Smiles’. Perhaps it's a genius marketing idea, but it was once named the ‘world’s happiest place’ in the Happy Planet Index, and to see the beaming faces and hear the ‘hallos’ of the ni-Vanuatu it’s hard not to agree. Paradise it may be, but it's not all smiles in these happy isles: islanders contend with frequent land disputes, lack of basic infrastructure, corrupt politicians and tropical cyclones.

Bouncing Back from Pam

A global risk analysis study in 2015 reported that Port Vila (and by extension, Vanuatu) was the world's most exposed capital to natural disasters – cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic activity and drought. Not long after the report, Cyclone Pam wrought havoc across the islands, in March 2015, damaging or wiping out 95% of buildings (mostly village homes) in the hardest hit areas, along with vital crops and plantations. Although the clean-up and rebuilding is well under way, the economic effects of one of Vanuatu's worst-ever natural disasters are far-reaching as Vanuatu’s economy is largely agricultural; some 80% of the population is involved in farming and fishing. Major exports include copra (dried coconut), beef, cocoa and kava.

Tourism is also an important source of income, though little filters through to the outer islands. Cruise ships provide two-thirds of annual visitors (most coming from Australia and New Zealand), who come ashore for a few hours to buy handicrafts or take adventure tours. Many young ni-Van leave their villages to work in the tourism and service industries in Efate and Santo.

Politics Vanuatu Style

Corruption in Vanuatu politics is nothing new since independence, but a culture of backhanders and bribes was laid bare in October 2015 when 14 MPs, including Deputy Prime Minister Moana Carcasses, were found guilty of corruption and bribery and sent to prison for up to four years. Prime Minister Sato Kilman was criticised over his handling of the affair but was not among those charged. Still, with half of his People's Progress Party in jail, governing became untenable and a snap election was called by President Baldwin Lonsdale for 22 January 2016. Incredibly, more than half of the jailed MPs applied to recontest the election from prison. They were denied by the electoral commission.

By February 2016, a bloc of 36 newly elected MPs from 11 parties was attempting to establish a new coalition government.

The Times (& Kastoms) are Changing

Vanuatu is like two different countries: there are well-developed Efate and Santo, which have roads, electricity and tourism infrastructure, and then there are the other islands – all 81 of them. Outside Efate and Santo, life mostly goes on without basic infrastructure and the islanders survive on subsistence farming.

Though Vanuatu’s villages can be remote, ni-Vanuatu that have eschewed modern life (by choice) are few and far between. Kastom (traditional) villages on the island of Tanna are the most well known, featuring in a handful of documentaries and reality TV programs. Even here, kastom itself is changing to meet the tourism-industry’s demands. What were once only ceremonial dances are now staged for tourists, while Pentecost’s traditional spectacle of land diving now has an extended season and more jumps per week to cater to passing cruise ships.

My Land, My Vatu

Since independence in 1980, foreigners have been permitted to buy 75-year land leases for commercial use (50 years for residential) in Vanuatu. It’s tempting for traditional owners to lease out lucrative land and buy a speedboat or 4WD truck; however, these decisions are often later regretted. The law was developed so that ni-Van could have control of their land and earn rent, but foreign investors now control some 90 per cent of the (mostly beachfront) land around Efate, and there have been plenty of disagreements between developers and landowners when things go wrong.

Vanuatu’s beauty has also created tourism opportunities for the ni-Van. The traditional owner of a tourist-friendly blue hole or stunning beach can charge between 500VT to 2000VT per visitor, even just for a look. Working out who that traditional owner is can lead to disputes that sometimes result in the complete closure of an attraction.

Cultural Landscapes

Vanuatu's population is not completely homogenous. There are hundreds of expatriates living in Vanuatu (mostly in Port Vila and mostly from Australia and New Zealand), and on most islands you’ll find Australian Youth Ambassadors, American Peace Corps volunteers and New Zealand Volunteer Service Abroad participants (VSAs). There’s an increasing number of Asian families running shops in Port Vila and Luganville, and projects such as the port development at Luganville have seen as influx of Chinese workers. Tanna’s Lenakel is an exception, as no foreigners are allowed to own shops here.

Best Insights

Top Website

Histri Blong Yumi Long Vanuatu ( Oral history plays a big part in Vanuatu’s culture. Get a head start by reading some of the origin stories.

Best on Film

Tanna (2015) Romeo and Juliet tale set on Tanna island.

Best in Print

Getting Stoned with Savages (2006) Unfortunately titled Vanuatu travelogue by J Maarten Troost.


The many islands of Vanuatu share an ancient Pacific tribal culture dating back more than 3000 years. The more recent past of the islands formerly known as New Hebrides (named by one James Cook in 1774), has been one of explorers, blackbirders, missionaries, colonial settlement and, finally, independence.


  • 1400 BC

Lapita people arrive in longboats with pottery.

  • 11th Century AD

Polynesians arrive from the central Pacific with animals and plants.

  • AD 1459

The volcano Kuwae erupts in Vanuatu, destroying an island in the huge explosion.

  • 1606

Portuguese explorer, Pedro Fernández de Quirós, sails into Big Bay in Santo on 3 May and names the islands Terra Australis del Espiritu Santo.

  • 1825

European explorer Peter Dillon discovers sandalwood trees on Erromango and quickly sets up trading routes.

  • 1839

Missionaries begin their attempts to try to bring Christianity to the islanders. Many get eaten.

  • 1865

Nearly 100 years after British explorer Captain James Cook charts the islands, Europeans flock to settle them.

  • 1868

With the last sandalwood gone from Erromango, blackbirding takes over, supplying cheap labour to nearby countries.

  • 1906

England and France decide to set up the Condominium government, and jointly administer it.

  • 1938

The John Frum cargo cult surfaces. The movement’s leaders are jailed by the British and mentioning the words ‘John Frum’ is outlawed.

  • 1942

A US fleet sets up a huge base on Santo as WWII begins its final phases.

  • 1942

On 26 October the troop-carrying USS President Coolidge is hit by a friendly mine while approaching Santo’s harbour.

  • 1956

The Anglo-French Condominium recognises the John Frum cargo cult as a religion.

  • 1969

The last ritualistic cannibal killing occurs.

  • 1972

Cruise ships start visiting, marking the start of Vanuatu as a tourist destination.

  • 1980

On the eve of independence, Nagriamel, a political movement led by Jimmy Stevens of Santo, declares Santo a separate nation (it’s short-lived).

  • 1980

Independence Day – New Hebrides becomes Vanuatu on 30 July.

  • 1980

George Sokomanu is elected as Vanuatu’s first president.

  • 1987

Hilda Lini and Maria Crowby are the first women elected to parliament.

  • 1988

Vanuatu sends its first athlete to the summer Olympic Games.

  • 2003

Teouma, the largest known cemetery in the Pacific islands, is discovered on Efate.

  • 2003

Vanuatu is removed from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s list of ‘uncooperative tax havens’.

  • 2005

Vanuatu qualifies for a US Millennium Grant of US$65 million, beginning a four-year period of financial and political stability.

  • 2005

Ambae’s Mt Manaro erupts, resulting in the evacuation of thousands of people from the island.

  • 2006

The New Economics Foundation declares Vanuatu to be the happiest country in the world. Part of the index measures people’s impact on the environment.

  • 2008

Chief Roi Mata’s domain (Hat Island) becomes the first Vanuatu site to be inscribed by Unesco.

  • 2010

The Asian Development Bank declares Vanuatu one of the fastest-growing economies in the Pacific.

  • 2011

Vanuatu becomes a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

  • 2015

Cyclone Pam devastates much of the country in March.

  • 2015

Half of the serving parliament is convicted and jailed for corruption in October.

The First Pots

The history of Vanuatu begins with the Lapita people. They’re easily traced because of their ability to make (and leave around) fine pottery. They also made long canoe voyages, leaving their lovely pottery at sites from northeast Papua New Guinea to Samoa. There is evidence of their occupation of Vanuatu in many places.

Pottery found on Malo, off Santo, showed they settled there about 1400 BC. In July 2004, an archaeological dig at Teouma (near Port Vila) unearthed more Lapita pottery, as well as the skeletal remains of nine Lapita people, plus chickens and pigs, dated at 3200 years ago. This was especially exciting because it shows that the people brought animals with them along with yams and taro, and a considerable appetite for shellfish.

Between the 11th and 15th centuries AD, Polynesians arrived from the central Pacific in sailing canoes holding up to 50 people plus live animals and plants. Vanuatu’s oral traditions tell of cultural heroes arriving around this time from islands to the east, bringing with them new skills and customs.

Early Ni-Van Society

People lived in small clans, separated by deep ravines, impenetrable jungle and broad stretches of sea. Everyone lived in the shadow of their ancestral spirits. Some ghosts were benevolent, while others were hostile, quick to harass the living with famines, natural disasters or military defeat. When anyone suffered a serious misfortune, sorcery or spirits were blamed. Magic was widespread.

In the north, a man’s status within the clan was earned through grade-taking ceremonies. Each grade took a man closer to becoming a chief and finally a paramount chief. On a supernatural plane, the more grades a man had earned, the more powerful would be his defences against sorcery while alive, and the more potent his spirit after death.

Skirmishes between villages were frequent, and usually the victor captured one or two males for the men of high rank to eat. The victims’ relatives would mount reprisals, so hostilities continued indefinitely.

The women attended to the gardening and cooking and, most importantly, to the husband’s pigs. Men considered their pigs, which were a symbol of wealth and provided currency in the form of their tusks, more valuable than their wives.

The culture was steeped in agriculture. Yam cultivation decided the cycle of the year, with months named after yams.

Enter the Explorers

In 1605 Pedro Fernández de Quirós, a Portuguese navigator in the service of the Spanish crown, was on a voyage to find the missing southern continent, terra australis. The Spanish expedition left Callao in Peru on 21 December. Four months later the tall peak of Mere Lava came into view and, on 3 May 1606, the fleet sailed into Big Bay in northern Santo. Quirós believed he had at last found the great southern continent and named it Terra Australis del Espiritu Santo.

Quirós claimed Santo and all lands south of it to be under Spain’s rule, and attempted to settle at Big Bay. This lasted 49 days. The mutinous crew, fed up with Quirós’ dominating nature, used the opportunity of his ill-health to sail for Mexico.

More than 160 years later, on 21 May 1768, the French nobleman Louis-Antoine de Bougainville sighted Maewo and Pentecost. He landed at Ambae and Malo, sailed between Malekula and Santo (proving Santo was not the fabled terra australis) and visited Big Bay.

In 1774 Commander (soon to be Captain) James Cook of the HMS Resolution, on his second Pacific expedition, mapped and gave his own names to the islands of Vanuatu. Many are still used today, including Tanna, Erromango, Ambrym and the Shepherd Islands. He named the archipelago the New Hebrides.

In 1788 the Frenchman Jean-François de Galaup La Pérouse and his two ships, Boussole and Astrolabe, passed through the New Hebrides. However, both ships were lost in the southeastern Solomons. Their wrecks were later found by Peter Dillon in 1826 on the island of Vanikoro.

William Bligh arrived in 1789 while on his epic longboat journey to Timor in the East Indies after the mutiny on HMS Bounty in Tongan waters. He sighted several previously unrecorded islands in the northern Banks group. Bligh returned later to confirm these discoveries.

The Sandalwood Trade

Irish explorer-trader Peter Dillon set the markets buzzing in 1825 by reporting huge numbers of sandalwood trees on Erromango (hence the name ‘Dillon’s Bay’ on the island). There was a great demand for sandalwood in China, where it was used for incense; traders, keen to exchange sandalwood for tea, which they could then sell to the growing tea industry in England, were quickly on their way. Sandalwood became Vanuatu’s first export.

Initially, traders would exchange a hooped piece of iron for a longboat full of sandalwood, which was a much better deal than they could get in Asia. There were enormous profits to be made. But as the supply of slow-growing sandalwood dwindled, islanders demanded guns, ammunition and tobacco; men from enemy villages (for eating at ceremonies); or pigs in their thousands (which usually came from Tanna or Fiji). Sometimes islanders would persuade the traders to use their ships’ guns to lay waste to their enemies’ villages.

There were many attacks on ships’ crews, often in retaliation for previous trader atrocities. If a ship cheated some villagers or fired its cannon at them, the next Europeans could expect a violent reception.

The sandalwood trade virtually ceased in 1868 with the removal of the last accessible stands.


As the sandalwood trade declined, a more insidious trade in blackbirding developed. In the 1870s, cheap labour was needed for the sugar-cane industries of Fiji and Queensland (Australia), the nickel mines of New Caledonia and the coconut plantations of Western Samoa. Blackbirders recruited ship loads of ni-Van workers, often through trickery or coercion, to work in these industries. Blackbirding vessels (the cost of which were covered within two voyages) made several trips a year, earning huge sums for their owners.

Whole villages were enticed aboard ships with the promise of trade, or a blackbirder might dress as a priest, hold a service and kidnap the worshippers. Ships were overcrowded, with poor and limited supplies of food, so many ni-Vans died at sea. If they reached Queensland or Fiji, they’d be lined up and sold to the highest bidder.

All a blackbirded islander would have after three years of overseas labour was a musket and some European clothes. Some returned labourers were dropped off at the wrong island, where they would be promptly robbed and sometimes killed and eaten.

Labour ships became targets for reprisals into the 20th century, but British and Australian officials only attempted to regulate the trafficking, not ban it. When sailors from blackbirding ships the Carl and the Hopeful were tried in Sydney for committing multiple murders in 1872 and 1874 respectively, Australian public opinion was on the sailors’ side.

The most persistent and effective lobbyists against blackbirders were Presbyterian missionaries. They campaigned relentlessly in Britain and Australia. Finally – aided by the White Australia Policy of 1901 – they secured the banning of overseas labour recruitment to Queensland (in 1904), Fiji (in 1911) and Western Samoa (in 1913).


The first missionaries arrived in Erromango in 1839. However, after two of their number were killed and eaten, the Church decided to move carefully, depending more on Polynesian teachers, who it was hoped would be more acceptable to the islanders than Europeans. Polynesians, however, had no status in Melanesian society. Consequently, several were devoured. Others were devastated by malaria.

Presbyterianism became the major Christian denomination in Vanuatu. The missionaries took an uncompromising stand against many time-honoured Melanesian customs such as cannibalism, grade-taking, ancestor worship and polygamy. Some barred their converts from smoking, drinking kava and dancing.

The less dogmatic Anglican Diocese of Melanesia (DOM) arrived in 1860, and the Roman Catholics in 1887. Unlike the Protestants, the Catholics proved to be tolerant towards ni-Vanuatu traditions.

Ni-Vans mingled Christianity with their traditional beliefs, and found the rivalry between the various denominations hard to understand.


The infection-ridden vessels of traders, missionaries and blackbirders brought diseases to which the peoples of the Pacific had little resistance. Cholera, measles, smallpox, influenza, pneumonia, scarlet fever, mumps, chickenpox, whooping cough and dysentery all took a terrible toll. Even the common cold proved capable of wiping out whole populations.

It was often the missionaries’ new converts who succumbed first, having greater exposure to the new germs. This was seen as proof that the new religion was particularly malevolent, since illness came from sorcery. Several missionaries were killed by vengeful islanders following epidemics.

Some estimates put Vanuatu’s population at about one million in the early 19th century. By 1870 the number was down to 650,000, and in the next 20 years it fell to around 100,000. This gloomy trend continued until 1935, when the population numbered a mere 41,000. The worst-affected islands were Aneityum and Erromango, both of which lost 95% of their original populations. The population is currently around 282,000.

European Settlement

Although there was a sandalwood station on Aneityum by 1843, and missionaries were there from 1848 onwards, the first true European settler was a cattle rancher who arrived in 1854. Other settlers from Australia followed in the 1860s to grow cotton when its price was high during the American Civil War. Cotton gave way to coconuts and cocoa when peace in America brought a slump in the price.

After France annexed New Caledonia in 1853, the Presbyterian Church unsuccessfully petitioned Britain to proclaim Aneityum a protectorate. Six years later it tried again, extending its appeal to cover all Vanuatu. But the British government refused to act.

Neglected by their government, most British settlers (including Australians) were near bankruptcy by the early 1880s. Meanwhile, large numbers of French people had settled and prospered. With the benefit of France’s official support they dominated Vanuatu’s fledgling economy.

In 1882 a French land speculator, the Irish-born John Higginson, founded the Compagnie Calédonienne des Nouvelles-Hébrides (CCNH) and purchased more than 20% of the country’s agricultural land from settlers and local chiefs, who were not necessarily the true kastom (traditional) landowners but often just the first islanders who came along. Ten years later the CCNH owned 55% of Vanuatu’s arable land.

French settlers now outnumbered British by three to one, and there was intense rivalry between them. Brawls were common as settlers took advantage of the absence of law and order. Islander attacks on settlers continued.

Condominium Government

In 1906 the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides was created. British and French nationals had equal rights, and retained their home country’s citizenship. Ni-Vans were officially stateless. To travel abroad, they needed an identifying document signed by both the British and French resident commissioners.

Both British and French courts existed to pronounce judgments in cases involving their nationals; a joint court decided disputes between British and French, and between Europeans and ni-Vans; another court was for cases involving only ni-Vans. The British carried out their last capital punishments in 1924, when three Santo men were hanged for the murder of a British settler. The French guillotined six Tonganese men in 1931, for the murder of a French settler.

Cynics called the Condominium ‘the Pandemonium’, as the dual administration produced amazing duplication. There were two police forces with their own laws (including road rules), two health services, two education systems, two currencies and two prison systems.

Overseas visitors had to opt for either British or French authority. British law was stricter, but British prisons were considered more humane. French jails were very uncomfortable, but the food was better.

War in the Pacific

Japan’s lightning-fast advance through the Pacific in WWII, reaching the Solomon Islands by early 1942, convinced Vanuatu’s settlers that invasion was imminent. However, in May of that year a fleet of soldiers arrived from the US, constructing bases on Efate and southeast Santo. Over three months Luganville became a city of 50,000 servicemen. In all, 500,000 Allied soldiers passed through the archipelago.

Many islanders either joined the small local regiment, the New Hebrides Defence Force, or went to work at the US bases. All were astounded by the apparent equality between white and black military personnel. Moreover, no ni-Van had ever been paid such generous wages before.

With Japan’s defeat in 1945, the Americans withdrew and abandoned huge quantities of equipment, some of which was sold at bargain prices. The rest was dumped into the sea.

Towards Self-Rule

Land ownership became Vanuatu’s central political concern in the mid 1960s. It was the spark that finally spurred the country to take the path to independence.

Europeans viewed land as a commodity. But to the ni-Vans this was contrary to ancient customs, in which land is held by the present generation in trust for future ones.

White settlers owned about 30% of the country’s land, and cleared it for coconut production. When they began clearing more land for cattle ranching, it led to ni-Vanuatu protests in Santo and Malekula.

A kastom movement called Nagriamel arose, led by the charismatic Jimmy Stevens. Operating from Santo, its aims were to protect Melanesians’ claims to their traditional land. Incensed by reports of US developers buying large blocks of land, Nagriamel expanded to other islands.

In 1971 the New Hebrides National Party, later called the Vanua’aku Party, was formed by Anglican minister Father Walter Lini. The Vanua’aku Party sent a petition for independence to the UN in 1974. It drew its support from English-speaking Protestants, whereas the Nagriamel became clearly identified with the French. The Francophones became known as the Modérés or ‘Moderates’. They wanted the Condominium to remain as it was or be replaced by French rule, and they supported the idea that individual islands should have greater autonomy.

The Condominium authorities set up an assembly that allowed minority parties to govern until the first-ever election in November 1979. This election produced a clear winner: the Vanua’aku Party, with its founder, Father Walter Lini, as the chief minister.

However, the Vanua’aku Party was extremely unpopular in some areas, particularly on Santo and Tanna. Nagriamel had been calling for the secession of Santa and Tanna since 1976 and most of Santo’s French community now joined in.

Meanwhile, in 1980 independence for Vanuatu was fixed for July of the same year. The French government, seeing its influence declining, began to support the Modérés.


July was too far away. Santo and Tanna were screaming for secession. The UK wanted to send troops, but France said non.

In late May 1980 an insurrection on Tanna split the island between government supporters and rebel Modérés. On Santo, secessionists seized Luganville and hoisted the flag of the independent republic of Vemarana. The Lini government responded with a blockade of Santo.

Modéré supporters on northern islands proclaimed their own secessions. Jimmy Stevens brought them together and announced a provisional government for these islands. Lini’s government had Papua New Guinea (PNG) troops on standby to break them up, but he wouldn’t have the power to send the troops to Santo until after independence.

France and England dispatched a small joint military force to Santo, but failed even to stop the rebels from looting Luganville’s shops.

The moment independence was declared on 30 July 1980, the new Vanuatu government brought in the soldiers from PNG, order was restored and the secessionist ringleaders, including Stevens, were arrested.

The New Nation

The Republic of Vanuatu. What a sweet sound for the ni-Vans. The 30th of July has since become a public holiday marked by celebrations every year in every village over the entire nation. With independence won, the ni-Vans set up a Westminster-style constitution and a 52-member parliament. Father Walter Lini became the founding prime minister, serving until 1991. He died in 1999.

The first decade of independence was reasonably stable. The next decade, however, was a very different, chaotic story and a sign of things to come. Charges of nepotism and other political crimes, rivals becoming allies and vice versa, splits within parties, leaders being ousted and police mutinies were all commonplace. Of concern in 1998 was the Vanuatu National Provident Fund (VNPF) riot, when members of the VNPF discovered that their superannuation funds were allegedly being ‘borrowed’ by leading politicians. A two-week state of emergency followed and more than 500 people were arrested.

In 2005 Vanuatu qualified for the US Millennium Challenge (, a grant available to countries that show they will use it for sustainable economic growth. It was the only South Pacific country to be selected.The US$65 million was used to seal the Efate Ring Rd and the East Coast Rd on Santo. Recent economic growth has been attributed to the services sector (including tourism) and the growth of aid programs. Other encouraging economic trends are the 2 billion VT earned by ni-Van workers under New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme annually; the rising interest in copra (coconut fibre); and the demand for Vanuatu beef, which consistently outstrips supply.

Vanuatu joined the World Trade Organization in October 2011. In 2015 work began on the US$93 million Luganville Wharf expansion project to be undertaken by China’s Shanghai Construction Group. Meanwhile, Qantas, Air NZ and Virgin suspended flights into Port Vila in early 2016 due to concerns over the state of the international airport runway, despite the World Bank offering US$59.5 million in credit to fix its aviation issues.

Vanuatu’s political problems resurfaced in late 2015 when 14 MPs, including the deputy prime minister, were found guilty of corruption and bribery and thrown into jail for between three and four years. A snap election called for January 2016 attracted 265 candidates from 37 political parties. By February 2016 a wobbly coalition of 36 MPs from 11 parties had been formed, with caretaker prime minister Sato Kilman retaining his seat.

Feature: Chief Roi Mata

Much of Vanuatu’s history has been passed down in the form of oral stories, so it’s always reassuring for historians to be able to match the legends with the facts.

A great example of this is the story of Chief Roi Mata, a king of Vanuatu. Legend has it that sometime around AD 1600 this chief of chiefs had the power to calm the warring tribes of Efate, and even put a (temporary) halt to cannibalism. However, sibling rivalry ended Chief Roi Mata’s reign when he was shot in the neck with a poisoned arrow by his brother. Legend had it that he was buried on Hat Island with 47 others who were possibly interred alive. For 400 years few would visit the island, and it was only when a French archaeologist gained permission to dig there in 1967 that the truth was unveiled; yes, there was a mass grave, and yes, it looked like it was a voluntary live burial. There's a fascinating exhibit on this at the National Museum of Vanuatu in Port Vila, and locals offer guided tours of the site on Hat Island.

Chief Roi Mata’s domain is now inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage list, thanks in part to the oral history kept by the local population over the centuries. It is thanks to the resilience of the ni-Vans (the Melanesian inhabitants of Vanuatu) that such stories have survived the many pressures of intervening centuries, including conflict, European contact in the 1840s and epidemics that decimated the population in the late 1800s.

Feature: Cyclone Pam

Tropical Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in the early hours of 13 March 2015. Though many cyclones have threatened Vanuatu in the past, this Category 5 monster was always going to prove destructive. By the time it had petered out into the Pacific, Pam had become one of the worst natural disasters in Vanuatu’s history.

Hardest hit were the southern provinces of Shefa (including the main island, Efate) and Tafea (including Tanna and Erromango). An estimated 95% of village homes were flattened, telecommunications knocked out and important food crops and plantations wiped out by sustained winds of up to 250km/h. Considering the destruction, loss of life was relatively low at an estimated 11 to 15 people.

Over the next few months, government and international aid organisations quickly set up temporary shelters, including tents for school classrooms, and delivered much needed food, water and buildings materials.

Although islanders have largely rebuilt their homes and nakamals (meeting house and kava bar) the full economic impact of the cyclone is yet to be realised. Replacing valuable crops, water sources and agricultural land is the biggest challenge for many. Encouraging visitors back to Vanuatu is another.

Sidebar: Navigation

Early South Pacific travellers in their longboats had a neat navigational method: they'd jump out of the canoe and feel the current against their testicles. Then they’d know which way to go.

Sidebar: A Bird That Flies with Two Wings

For a modern take on kastom (traditional) law and how it operates within the legal framework of Vanuatu today, download A Bird that Flies with Two Wings by Miranda Forsyth from

Sidebar: They Came for Sandalwood

The best study of the turbulent times of the 19th-century sandalwood trade is Dorothy Shinberg’s They Came for Sandalwood.

Sidebar: Which Side of the Road

During the Condominium government, the English population drove on the left-hand-side of the road, the French population on the right. And yes, that caused a bit of a problem. These days it’s on the right.

Sidebar: To Kill a Bird with Two Stones

To Kill a Bird with Two Stones: a Short History of Vanuatu by Jeremy MacClancy gives a good account of Vanuatu’s earliest beginnings through the Condominium period (the ‘two stones’ of the title) right up to independence.

Sidebar: USS President Coolidge

At almost 200m long, the USS President Coolidge was one of the largest luxury liners in the US when built in 1931. It was commandeered as a troop ship during the Pacific War in 1941 and promptly sank when it hit a friendly mine in Luganville harbour.

Sidebar: Jimmy Stevens

Jimmy Stevens, charismatic leader of a short-lived secessionist rebellion on Santo, was thrown into jail in 1980 (allegedly escaping once) and was finally released in 1991. He died on Santo in 1994.

Sidebar: Cyclones

Cyclone Pam in 2015 was one of the most destructive in Vanuatu's history but there have been others, notably Cyclone Lusi in 2014 and the Category 5 Cyclone Fran in 1992.