Vanuatu in detail


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.

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.