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Short History of Vanuatu

The origins of Vanuatu, formerly known as New Hebrides


The Y shaped feature on Vanuatu flag stands for the shape of of this island chain -
green stands for the fertile land, red for bloodshed for freedom, yellow for sunshine,
and black for Melanesian people, who are the inhabitants of these islands.

Your experience will be much more enjoyable if you know some history of the place you're traveling to. Vanuatu is no exception. Vanuatu is one of the Pacific's most beautiful island archipelagos, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Pacific. People flock to Vanuatu in search of the beautiful nature and South Pacific atmosphere. It is a sharp contrast to the urban and noisy cities of the US. People go to Vanuatu to have their weddings there, and/or simply to enjoy their free time. If you want your stay in Vanuatu to be better, know some history of the place, and how it came to be.

So, without further ado, let's begin our exploration of Vanuatu's history with some facts about Vanuatu.

Where is Vanuatu?

Vanuatu is an island archipelago which is located in the South Pacific Ocean. For context, Vanuatu is quite close (in Pacific terms) to Australia. Some thousand miles of Pacific's giant body of water separates those two countries. Vanuatu is a 'Y' shaped archipelago, and it contains 82 relatively small islands, while 65 of them are inhabited. Its largest island is Espiritu Santo with a population of around 40 thousand inhabitants. Some of the other largest islands are Malakula, Efate, Erromango, Ambrym Island, Tanna, Pentecost, Epi, Ambae or Aoba, Gaua, Vanua Lava, Maewo, Malo and Aneityum.


Port Vila town is the capital of Vanuatu and the largest city, located on the main,
island, with Iririki island one of the best known features in its harbour.

The capital of Vanuatu is Port Vila which is located on Efate island. Vanuatu's population is around 250 thousand people. About 20 thousand of Ni-Vanuatu people live and work in New Zealand and Australia. Bislama is the language that is spoken by the people of Vanuatu. Also, in urban areas, it is now a creole language. It is essentially a combination of typical Melanesian grammar with mostly English vocabulary, so your communication with the locals there shouldn't be a problem. Bislama is the lingua franca of the entire archipelago of Vanuatu. It is used as a second language by the majority of the population.

Origins of Vanuatu

Vanuatu was created by volcanoes, and in the local Bislama language, Vanuatu means rising land. Which is very appropriate as a name for the islands. Prehistory of the islands is pretty unknown to modern historians, but it's speculated that the first inhabitants came to the islands between three and three and a half thousand years ago. Archaeological evidence supports that claim. Europeans discovered the islands for themselves at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, who was sailing for the Spanish crown first discovered the islands in 1606. He believed that he discovered Australia. Also, the Spanish created a short-lived settlement on the Espiritu Santo. So, Espiritu Santo remains the name of the largest island, and it means 'The Southern Land of the Holy Spirit'.


What's mostly known is a short history of Vanuatu, while much of its past is unknown
and subject of traditional storytelling, passed on from one generation to another.

Colonial Times

The archipelago was left on its own until 1768 when a French admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville rediscovered the islands. He named them the Great Cyclades, like the Greek island group in the Aegean Sea in Europe. In 1774, British explorer and admiral Captain Cook named the islands the New Hebrides. That name would last until the Independence of Vanuatu in 1980. There was a rush of immigrants to Vanuatu that ended in 1830. This immigration was caused by the discovery of sandalwood (on Erromango island), which is the second most expensive wood in the world, right after African blackwood.

Both the British and French governments declared Vanuatu part of their territory. However, in 1906, both sides agreed that they would administer the islands jointly. They established a condominium, which means that there are two governments that govern one territory. Challenges to this form of government began when Americans came to the islands, as they sparked the rise of the national identity of the locals.


One of interesting features in parts of Port Vila town are wall murals, showing
from Ni-Vanuatu people daily living and their customs on different islands.

Struggle for Independence

The American army came to the islands during the Second World War. It sparked the rise of the national identity of the indigenous population. It led to the rise of the cult and religion of John Frum, a mythical figure of an American soldier who would bring on the Melanesian independence. Today, John Frum is a cult in Vanuatu.

The French, in the 1960s, opposed Britain's desire to de-colonize the New Hebrides, fearing for their possessions. Old customs of the Ni-Vanuatu meant that land was held in trust for future generations. Europeans viewed it more as a commodity, and they owned about one-third of the land area. The European-held land had been mostly cleared for coconut production. When Europeans began clearing more land for coconut production, the protests began. In the seventies, there were massive protests led by political parties who were very vocal for independence of New Hebrides. There was a struggle for independence until finally, in 1980, Vanuatu republic was declared, changing its name from New Hebrides to Vanuatu.

Modern Times

Since their independence, the people of Vanuatu have been enjoying their freedom. Today, the Republic of Vanuatu is a parliamentary democracy with a written constitution. The head of state is the President. Elections for President of Vanuatu are held every five years, and the people of Vanuatu are free to choose whomever they want to. Also, the head of the government is the Prime Minister who is elected by the majority vote in the Vanuatu Parliament. The Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers form the executive branch of the government of Vanuatu.


Vanuatu is an ideal destination for those who enjoy nature, culture, traditions,
and generally an adventurous holiday to explore it all and get to know
this beautiful island country.

Today, the economy of Vanuatu is heavily based on agriculture and tourism. Tourism in Vanuatu is booming today. Many people from all around the world come to Vanuatu to appreciate the beauty of Vanuatu's nature and customs and enjoy the many activities offered there.

Anglophone people call the inhabitants of Vanuatu by the recent English coinage Ni-Vanuatu. Ni-Vanuatu is a recent term. Ni-Vanuatu people are primarily of Melanesian descent, of around 98 percent. The rest of the population represents a mix of Europeans, Asians and other people from the Pacific.

Enjoy your stay at Vanuatu!

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