A Brief History of Vanuatu

A Brief History of Vanuatu

Vanuatu, Efate, Espiritu Santo, Port Vila
During your stay in Vanuatu, we recommend that you visit the Vanuatu Cultural Center to learn more about Vanuatu's rich history.

The history of Vanuatu is a multi-layered and colorful series of events. Below we've outlined how the island nation came to be, why the French and English influenced social norms so much, and why caste is still an important part of local daily life.

Early Explorers

Vanuatu's many islands have been inhabited for thousands of years, with the oldest archaeological evidence dating back to 2000 BC. Vanuatu is one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth, with a population of approximately 217,750 people speaking 113 different languages ​​and countless dialects. This amazing diversity is the result of 4,000 years of sporadic immigration from many Pacific countries. Although most settlers came from Melanesia, larger, lighter-skinned Polynesians also settled on the islands. In 1605, Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros became the first European to reach the islands, believing them to be part of the Terra Australis. Europeans began settling the islands in the late 18th century, after British explorer James Cook visited the islands on his second voyage and gave them the name New Hebrides.

In 1887, the islands began to be administered by the French-British military -maritime commission, and in 1906 the French and British agreed to an Anglo-French condominium in the New Hebrides.


The first two missionaries set foot in Vanuatu, on Erromango, in 1839. An inauspicious beginning with the death of one of the most famous members (John Williams of the London Missionary Society) prompted the missionary societies to proceed cautiously.

For the next nine years they used converted Polynesian missionaries. The Polynesians were considered a kind of cannon fodder, and if they had survived, the Europeans could easily follow their example.

In 1845, Samoan teachers landed on Efate, but most of them were killed within a few years . In the following years, Catholic, Presbyterian and Anglican missionaries from England, Noumea and France made various short-lived (due to death) or aborted (quick retreat) attempts to convert ni-Vanuatu. However, thanks to persistence, mission stations of various denominations already existed on the islands by the 1860s.

The impact on the local population varied. Among those who embraced Christianity in one form or another, many died due to exposure to a range of introduced diseases. By that time, it was not only measles and dysentery, but also smallpox, influenza, pneumonia, scarlet fever, mumps, whooping cough and a simple, but often very deadly cold.

Traditional medicine in combination with a certain degree of genetic immunity was effective against endemic diseases, but had no effect on these new diseases. As a result, some believed that the new religion and its God were powerless in the face of disease.

Others took a more pragmatic view; since all diseases come from witchcraft in any case, Christianity must be a particularly evil religion to attack its converts so cruelly. This attitude led to the death of several missionaries as a result of epidemics.

However, missionaries continued to arrive and ultimately had a profound impact on Melanesian society, destroying a rich cultural heritage dating back centuries. In particular, Catholicism was accepted more readily because Catholic missionaries were not skeptical of converts integrating elements of their own beliefs with Catholicism. After all, the success of the Catholics had an extraordinary impact on the way the country was governed.

The Second World War

After the fall of France to Germany in World War II, the French side of the condominium was technically at war with the other side, Great Britain.

However, in 1940, the French population of the New Hebrides immediately declared their support The Free French forces of General De Gaulle were the first of France's Pacific colonies to do so. This was the only time in the Condominium that the French and British were not at odds with each other.

Since France was under German rule, the French ambassador was in a difficult position as there was no support structure for the current French government. However, these fears were overshadowed by the rapidly approaching Japanese forces.

In early 1942, the Japanese reached the nearby Solomon Islands, and the people of the New Hebrides lived in fear that they would be next. However, the Americans arrived first, completely unannounced, in May 1942, filling Mele Bay with warships.

Because of this unannounced arrival, much of Vila's population fled into the hills, believing that the Japanese had arrived. It took time to convince them otherwise, but the stealth of the Americans' arrival played a key role in their defensive strategy against the seemingly invincible Japanese.

At war, the Americans simply took control and built the entire infrastructure to support the military population they introduced and the necessary equipment to conduct a counter-offensive. They brought tens of thousands of tons of equipment, built barracks and hospitals, a road around the entire island, airstrips and piers in a desperate attempt to repel the Japanese, leaving France and Britain shamed for everything they had not done for the island.

100,000 soldiers arrived in Espiritu Santo in a short time, doubling the country's population almost overnight.

An interesting social phenomenon occurred on the islands. The people of the New Hebrides were amazed at the equality with which black and white servicemen were treated, so when they went to work for the Americans, they received respect and wages far beyond anything they had ever received before. Typically generous Americans also paid attention to living conditions on the island of the New Hebrides and provided them with clothing and beds, ice chests and furniture when needed.

The early 1940s were a quiet year for the natives of the New Hebrides. Hebrides. Vanuatu was attacked by a Japanese plane only once (it was shot down), resulting in the death of one resident on Santo - Besse the cow.

Thus, they never experienced the horrors of Japanese-occupied New Guinea or the Solomons islands. Instead, they saw fair treatment, better living conditions, modern medical care, economic growth, and a huge expansion of medical facilities, many of which are still in use years later.

End of the war

Three years later, the Americans left as quickly as they arrived. Because the policies that financed the war effort meant that the American economy could not handle the influx of returning goods, the Americans offered to purchase factory equipment, bulldozers, modern workshop equipment, cranes, trucks, and office equipment for the condominium government at a price of just seven cents on the dollar. the cost of the goods.

However, since the Americans were going to leave everything anyway, the Condominium doubted the need to pay for it. Therefore, it was decided to bulldoze all movable objects into the ocean. This reckless refusal contributed to the already rapid spread of Cargo Cults throughout the islands and to the growing dissatisfaction of the native New Hebrides with the rule of the Condominium. There are places around Efate Island where divers can find much of this discarded military equipment; The most famous site is Million Dollar Point in Espiritu Santo.

Perhaps the most famous remnant of the war and one of the most famous dive sites in the world is the SS Coolidge.

On February 21, 1931, the widow of the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, christened the bow of the largest and best merchant ship ever built in an American shipyard before she set sail and completed her voyage to Santo. At 654 feet long and displacing 21,936 tons, President Coolidge was one of the last truly luxurious ships built anywhere.

In 1941, Coolidge entered service with the US Army as a transport ship to strengthen the Pacific garrisons. After a complete refit in 1942, she could carry 5,000 troops.

In 1942, Coolidge made several voyages to the South Pacific. In October, she left San Francisco for New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo, loaded with 5,092 officers and enlisted men of the 172nd Regiment, 43rd Infantry Division. They were to provide much-needed reinforcements for the American attack on Guadalcanal.

On the morning of October 26, 1942, the Coolidge approached Espiritu Santo on the eastern shore of the Segond Strait. For safety reasons, the Navy was unable to convey specific instructions to the captain on how to enter the canal.

As the ship began to enter the canal and the patrol boat was unable to stop it, the radio operators had no choice , how to break the silence and issue a warning, but it was too late.

There was an explosion in the aft fire department - the explosion of a mine, one of many scattered across the deadly minefield across the strait. Thirty seconds later, a second explosion occurred in the engine room - the ship was fatally hit. Captain Nelson ordered the ship to turn towards the shore and run aground. The order was given to abandon ship immediately.

All on board were ordered to leave their property and equipment behind and they could return for it later. Men abandoned helmets, weapons and personal equipment as they tried to escape the sinking ship.

Many suffered chemical burns when they landed in the oily waters, and Santo had few facilities to accommodate so many wounded. However, the ship was fully loaded with supplies needed for treatment. But Coolidge never allowed his troops to return to claim their possessions. Fifty-five minutes after the ship was beached, the huge vessel listed sharply and slid back into the oily water, disappearing into its grave on the shores of the Segond Strait.

After sinking, the ship capsized to port board, taking with them two men who were never found.

The loss of millions of dollars in equipment and failure in military operations were not significant in the overall scheme of the war, but, nevertheless, it was A costly mistake.

However, this costly mistake turned Espiritu Santo into a mecca for divers around the world, as the Coolidge is the largest, most intact and accessible wreck from World War II.

Located just a few kilometers from Luganville, Vanuatu's second largest city, on the island of Espiritu Santo, the shipwreck lies just steps from the relatively calm shore. Divers can reach it by boat or on foot using one of several dive centers based in Santo.

With visibility typically around 15-25 meters, this wreck dive provides exceptional clarity underwater . The exterior of the ship can be easily explored by novice divers. In penetration diving, most areas of interest allow divers to always see outside the vessel. However, it is strongly recommended that divers take their time exploring the surrounding area on the first few dives and gradually entering the wreck.

After the war, the Condominium authorities were left with a legacy of being, in their view, overpaid and overly ambitious natives of the New Hebrides. Today, many Vanuatu residents recall how the authorities came to their homes and took away what the Americans gave to their fathers. At the end of the war, Britain and France were left with little means to rebuild their own nation, and thus the economy of the New Hebrides faltered under a hopelessly inadequate dual political system. But the spark was lit and did not go out. By the 1960s it was ready to explode.

Father of Independence

Land, from a pre-independence Ni-Vanuatu perspective, was not something that could be owned. And therefore it could not be sold. It is kept in families, from generation to generation, as has been the tradition for many even before the birth of Christ. You can give away or sell the ownership of land, but not the land itself.

However, the Europeans took a completely different point of view. By the mid-1960s, European settlers claimed ownership of nearly 30% of the county. These settlers largely cleared the land to grow coconuts—copra was the mainstay of the economy for a time.

But when the price of copra fell, planters began looking for alternatives. Deciding to start raising cattle, the planters began clearing the jungle adjacent to their properties. This led to immediate protests in Santo and Malekula by local residents who strongly objected to the plunder of their "hereditary" land.

Objections grew, and the natural discontent that arose at the end of the war provoked the creation of political parties.

On the one hand, there were parties supported by France, such as the supposedly order-oriented Nagriamel movement. Led by the flamboyant and charismatic Jimmy Stevens, it stated that it was defending Melanesian claims to traditional lands.

On the other hand, in 1971, when Stevens appealed to the United Nations asking for early independence, Anglican minister Father Walter Leaney formed the Anglophone-supported Vanua'ku Party.

As the country became more politicized, Anglicans (a minority) joined the Vanua'aku Party, but the French ( most) fragmented. Many mixed-race and educated Melanesians considered themselves French rather than Melanesian, and were strongly opposed to the British stated goal of early independence.

Some wanted the Condominium to remain, while others wanted the British left and France annexed the country completely. This division, as well as the additional confusion caused by Santo's desire for autonomy, paved the way for the first general elections.

After enough controversy and accusations to fill several books, in November 1979 the party Vanuaaku, led by Lini, was victorious. But victory did not mean universal agreement. Since Vanuatu is one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth, trying to rule it has brought Condominium more grief than he could have imagined.

The French are known to be possessive of their colonies, but Despite their objections, independence was set for mid-1980. However, in May of that year, a few weeks before the end of the Condominium's rule, the Tanna Rebellion split the island in two. One faction supported the new government, while the other supported the French.

In Santo, Stevens took the opportunity to blockade the airport, control the police from his small area and declare Santo independent from Vanuatu, and raised the flag of the independent country of Venerama.

The unrest continued for the next few weeks. France did not agree to the intervention of British troops, and French troops did nothing. Stephen's men were armed only with bows and arrows, but they managed to hold Santo and demand ransom. Lini received virtually no support from the departing colonial powers other than verbal sympathy and assurances that everyone would be taken care of.

As Independence Day approached, Lini's party clearly found itself in a political impasse. Officially, he could do nothing since Vanuatu had not yet come under his rule. However, he called on neutral Papua New Guinean troops to intervene in what the world had come to farcically call the “Coconut War.”

It was a strange war of words and diplomatic double entenders, bows and arrows and French-speaking shrugs. It all ended abruptly when Stephen's son was shot dead while sitting in the back of a truck as it passed through a PNG military checkpoint. After Stephen stated that he did not mean to harm anyone, he surrendered and was arrested.

Documents also came to light indicating that the French administration had behaved deceptively; they officially supported Lini as the duly elected representative of the people of Vanuatu, but secretly supported the secessionist citizens and Stevens.

At midnight in June 1980, the French and British flags were lowered for the last time amid tears and brave cheers, and the flag of the Republic of Vanuatu was raised to celebrate the birth of a new nation. The vast majority of French citizens left Vanuatu, and ownership of the land was transferred entirely to the indigenous population of Vanuatu, with the land lease term set at 60 years.

Chief Roimata - ancient king of Vanuatu

In July 2008, the property of Chief Roi Mata was officially registered as a World Heritage Site - the first in Vanuatu. Just half an hour's drive north of Port Vila, this place offers a number of beautiful beaches, a breathtaking harbour, incredible views of the hat-shaped Artok Island and much more.

Vanuatu existed on the middle and southern islands the story of a great and powerful chief who, for the first time in ancient Vanuatu, united the warring and cannibalistic tribes of the region into a single and peaceful group of tribes.

In cultures where the language is not written, oral traditions are faithfully passed down from generation to generation per generation. The accuracy of such a story is often disputed in Western cultures, as what is heard may be changed when retold. And in general, how to distinguish fact from legend?

As the story goes, the supreme leader Roy Mata, surpassing other paramount leaders, took the title of king. Through sheer personal magnetism, Roimata managed to unite the warring and cannibalistic tribes of the region into a single, peaceful group in years that are fondly "remembered" as the halcyon years.

But the jealousy of his siblings cut short the life of this very revered man when his brother shot him in the throat with a poison dart. He did not die quickly, but suffered from a lingering illness.

His grieving family and clan carried the dying king around the island of Efate to say goodbye to those he had united.

Finally, he was taken to the famous Feles Cave on the island of Lelepa, where he died. It is then told how he was carried to Devil's Point, the entrance to the underworld, and through the underwater caves of Tukutuku to the nearby island or Retoku (Hat Island), where he was buried. And, as legends say, according to the custom of that era, men and women were buried with him. But perhaps most frighteningly, many of these people were buried alive.

How true can this legend be? One version tells how the waters between Tukutuku and Retoka Island parted, allowing the funeral party to cross. Of course, this could not be a fact.

As for the Tukutuku caves, they are quite real. Lava tunnels and lava flows covered with coral create an underwater labyrinth that can easily be considered as leading to a mythical underworld. But the caves have been carefully explored by scuba divers and do not lead to the island of Retoka.

But how long ago did this happen? On the maternal side, the Tongoans (who maintain an extensive oral history dating back to their first settlement in Vanuatu over 5,000 years ago) have narrowed it down to 1265 AD. After the burial, a seven-hundred-year-old taboo was imposed on Retoku under pain of death. Thus, no one lived there, and few had the courage to spend the night or even just go there, despite the abundance of turtle eggs and abundance of fish. Retoku began to be called the Island of the Dead and the ghost island.

In 1967, French archaeologist José Garanger proposed finding Roimata's grave to determine whether he was a real or mythological figure. The equally curious leaders of Lelepa gave the go-ahead on the condition that after exploration the grave would be returned to its original state.

On Retok, the object turned out to be surprisingly easy to find. Two stone slabs, like tombstones, at the foot of a large white tree were located in a natural "clearing" just 100 meters from the beach, on the northwestern side of the small island. Oral tradition said that not a single tree or bush would ever grow on the site of Roimata's grave.

In an area measuring 20 x 10 m, the archaeological team plunged a meter into the excavations; carefully revealing skeletons along the way. According to oral history, they were to discover 47 skeletons. When the bones were discovered, it quickly became apparent that a mass burial had taken place.

Finally, when the entire burial site was discovered, the evidence was carefully documented, photographed, and reburied intact, with rich decorations . Forty-seven skeletons were discovered with radiocarbon dating placing their time of death between 1250 and 1300 AD.

These facts confirmed the veracity of the oral stories. And from this story it became clear what the discoveries at this place actually meant. Hundreds of mourners accompanied Roimatu to his final resting place, and forty-six people never left.

Traditionally, when a prominent chief died, he demanded that a company of his family and supporters join him in his journey into the underworld of the underworld. At least one of his wives had to leave - it was believed that Roimata had ten of them.

Roimata also had to be accompanied by very old, terminally ill or incapacitated children whose mothers died in childbirth , wives of junior leaders whose daughter died, sick healers and wives of deceased sorcerers.

In fact, this was a general purge of economically unproductive people and those who could cause the death of others. For men, burial alive followed a ritual kava ceremony, during which the kava was laced with a soporific poison. But women were not allowed to drink kava, so they were either buried alive or strangled with a rope and then laid next to their husbands. They were all oriented to the southwest, so their spirits entered the dry "land of the dead" from Devil's Point. Those buried closest to Roimata were richly decorated with bracelets, shells, and carved bones.

They were most likely immediate family members or honored volunteers. Roimata's arms were surrounded by valuable full-circle pig tusks, and white "magic" shells were strategically placed around his body. His head rested on a slab of hewn limestone. Many skulls appear elongated, following the fashion of some northern islands, where the skull is stretched after birth.

Retoka Island is no longer taboo. The traditional owners of the island offer tours to explore the island and Roimata's grave.

Source: vanuatu.travel

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