Vanuatu is a Y-shaped chain of 83 islands reaching 730 miles in a north-south direction between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn. The islands comprise less than 5,000 square miles spread over more than 300,000 square miles of ocean. Its nearest neighbor is the Solomon Islands 100 miles to the north, and other neighbors are Fiji 500 miles to the east and New Caledonia 150 miles to the southwest.
Most islands are steep summits of mountains rising from the ocean floor. More than a third of the land is above 1,000 feet, and more than half of the land has a slope greater than 20 degrees.
Vanuatu is on top of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and it is on the edge of Pacific tectonic plate which is being forced up and over the Indo-Australian plate. Consequently, there are frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Vanuatu has nine active volcanoes – seven on land and two under the sea. Mt Yasur on Tanna is the most accessible volcano, but Mt Garet on Gaua is potentially the most dangerous because of the thin layer of crust separating its crater lake from molten magma. However, the worst natural hazard in Vanuatu is neither earthquake nor volcano but the cyclone. Vanuatu experiences an average of 2.5 cyclones each year. Virtually all areas in the islands will experience some damage each year from wind and rain, and any given point in the islands is devastated by a cyclone every 30 years.
Vanuatu’s current population is less than 250,000. They are 98% Melanesian, and 90% have a primary school education. Although 90% of the population reports belonging to some Christian religion, most believe in ghosts and spirits, and many continue to practice magic . The remaining 10% of the population are Jon Frum worshipers or follow kastom religions. In each group, the religious beliefs are also dominant cultural practices.
Jon Frum is reported to have come from the sea and presented himself to some kava drinkers in 1936. He told them that Vanuatuans would enjoy wealth and health if they would remove all Europeans from the island of Tanna. Believers grouped together in villages, banished Europeans, and they have since been waiting for the return of Jon Frum. Those villages are still present today on Tanna.
Kastom religion is based on traditional customs. These customs span the role of chiefs, medicine, sorcery, gender/family relationships, and numerous ceremonies varying from pig killing to circumcision. These are the ‘traditional’ Vanuatuans.
Vanuatu has more languages per head of population than any other country. This small country has over 100 languages. However, most Vanuatuans speak English, French, and/or Bislama – a local pidgin.
Vanuatu’s monetary unit is the vatu. It is roughly equivalent to one US cent.
The national capital is in Port Vila on the island of Efate which is the 4th largest island (the largest island is Espiritu Santo with 875 square miles). Efate is 353 square miles with a population of approximately 35,000.
Vanuatu has been inhabited by Melanesians since about 3000 BC. Australoid people moved through Indonesia to New Guinea then to the Solomon Islands and finally to Vanuatu. Polynesians did not arrive from the east until some time between the 11th to 15th centuries AD.
Early Vanuatu society was numerous clans separated by water and forests. This was a violent society in which cannibalism was common. Men achieved status through grade-taking ceremonies called a nimangki system. They enjoyed that status while alive, and their status would also protect them in the afterlife. Magical beliefs were common. Women had greatly inferior status compared to men.
European discovery of Vanuatu was by the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros on April 25, 1606, when he sailed in to the northern islands. Louis-Antoine de Bouganville, a French nobleman, sited eastern Vanuatu on May 21, 1768. That area was also visited by Captain Cook on July 16, 1774 during his second Pacific expedition. Frenchman La Perouse passed through the islands in 1788 as did Captain Bligh in 1789 following the mutiny on the Bounty. In 1774, Captain Cook charted the islands, and he named the islands New Hebrides because they reminded him of the Hebrides Islands off Scotland’s west coast. That name endured until independence in 1980.
The next major influx of Europeans followed their discovery of large amounts of sandalwood on the island of Erromango in southern Vanuatu in 1825. The islanders traded sandalwood for guns and ammunition, and violence ensued. Erromango’s supply of sandalwood was exhausted by 1868.
Presbyterian missionaries arrived at Erromango in 1839. They were intolerant of some Melanesian customs such as cannibalism, grade-taking, ancestor worship, and polygamy. A few were killed and eaten. However, the missionaries were instrumental in stopping blackbirding in the islands.
Blackbirding – labor recruiting – had become a major commercial activity from 1863 on. Although British and Australian officials tried to regulate trafficking, they did not try to ban it. The Presbyterian missionaries, however, became vocal lobbyists against the practice, and they were able to ban overseas labor recruitment to Queensland, Fiji, & Western Samoa by 1913.
Diseases were brought to the islands by traders, missionaries, and blackbirders. The new converts of the missionaries were often first to die, and that reinforced the local belief that the religion of the missionaries was impotent to protect and maybe even evil. Vengeful attacks against missionaries followed epidemics. The combined death toll of disease and violence reduced the original populations of two southern islands by 95%.
In addition to sandalwood traders and missionaries, European settlers began arriving in the mid-19th century. France had annexed nearby New Caledonia, and the French influence spread to Vanuatu. Competing British and French claims to the islands led to the formation of a condominium government allowing joint British-French rule in 1906. Under the condominium, British and French nationals had equal rights, and there was a duplication of services and authority throughout the islands.
Vanuatu had a small plantation economy based on imported Vietnamese labor until 1920s. Disease had reduced the island population from 1 million in 1800 to only 45,000 in 1935. However, the islands were a major allied base in World War II, and more than a half million allied soldiers passed through the islands during the war. Many islanders either joined the local regiment or worked for the US military, and the local economy recovered.
Copra production was the primary source of income immediately after the war. Then cattle ranching and tourism began developing. Shortly thereafter, indigenous Melanesians began lobbying for independence.
By the 1960s, 30% of the land was owned by white settlers, and land ownership became a national concern that polarized the population in to two parties – the Vanua’aku party and the Moderes. From the early years, the Vanua’aku party wanted independence for Vanuatu, but the Moderes wanted the condominium to remain or be replaced by French rule.
A national vote in 1979 elected Walter Lini as Chief Minister. Lini had been the head of the Vanua’aku party, and the Moderes rebelled. The French Moderes threatened and attempted secession, and they seized Luganville – Vanuatu’s second largest city. Although the insurrection was militarily defeated, many of the sentiments continue. However, Lini took office, and on July 30, 1980, New Hebrides became an independent country and was renamed Vanuatu.
To its credit, since independence Vanuatu has established diplomatic relations with over 70 countries and declared the country a nuclear-free zone. However, it is plagued by ongoing internal political instability. There are at least five major political parties at present, and there have been four prime ministers since 1998. One can only hope that this nation of friendly people can resolve some of these internal problems and continue on their path of growth and independence.
Follow us to the islands of Tanna, Efate, Malekula, or Espiritu Santo, or come along on our sail from Vanuatu to Australia, or jump ahead to Australia.