The Republic of Vanuatu (French: République de Vanuatu, Bislama: Ripablik blong Vanuatu), is situated in the South Pacific Ocean approximately 1,750 km due east of northern Australia. An archipelago of volcanic origin, the islands were first inhabited by Melanesian people over 3,000 years ago. The pacific island nation is home to just over 240,000 Ni-Vanuatu people as well as a small population of ex-patriots from various countries. According to the International Monetary Fund, Vanuatu’s GDP of Intl.$4,916 per person is the eighth-lowest in the world, ranked 181 of 188 included countries.
First claimed for Spain in the early 17th century, Vanuatu had little contact with Europe until the 1880s when both France and the United Kingdom claimed parts of the archipelago for themselves. In 1906 the two countries agreed on a management structure, jointly governing the group of islands through a British-French condominium. 65 years later an independence movement surfaced and in 1980 the Republic of Vanuatu was established.
The name ‘Vanuatu’ was coined as a response to the independence movement and is derived from the word vanua, meaning ‘land’ or ‘home’ – a word which occurs in several languages of the region, and the word tu, meaning ‘stand’.
There is not much known about Vanuatu’s pre-colonial history although archaeological evidence supports the theory that Melanesian people arrived on the islands about 3,300 years ago. Life for the Ni-Vanuatu remained more or less unchanged during this time. Scattered throughout the archipelago was an extensive network of tribal villages, each with its own chief, customs and language.
Vanuatu first had contact with Europeans in 1606 when the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quirós observed what he believed to be part of a great southern continent or the fabled Terra Australis. Landing on the largest island in the archipelago, Quirós claimed it for Spain, naming it La Australia del Espiritu Santo or ‘The Southern Land of the Holy Spirit’. The island on which Quirós first landed still bears part of the name he bestowed upon it – ‘Espiritu Santo’, or ‘Santo’ for short.
For over 150 years there was no further contact with Europe until Louis Antoine de Bougainville of France rediscovered the islands in 1768. On his second voyage in 1774, Captain James Cook named the archipelago the New Hebrides after the isles of the west coast of Scotland.
The discovery of sandalwood in the early 1800s precipitated a rush of immigrants that ended in 1830 after a major dispute between immigrant Polynesian workers and indigenous Melanesians. In the mid 19th century, planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoa Islands, in need of labourers, facilitated a long-term indentured labour system which came to be known as ‘black birding’. Thousands of islanders worked for years overseas and at the height of the labour trade, more than half of the adult male population of several of the islands worked abroad. At this time the islands were also home to a great number of Protestant and Catholic missionaries working to convert the inhabitants to Christianity and a western way of life.
The late 1800s saw the development of the British–French Condominium government, a unique and somewhat ineffective system of joint-government. Not only were there two currencies, but there were two different sets of laws, courts, health and education systems. Road rules were also different depending on the area – sometimes you drove on the right, sometimes you drove on the left! According to most accounts it was more or less pandemonium although it lasted well over 60 years. The condominium refused to allow its Melanesian inhabitants citizenship of either governing power.
American Armed Forces were based in Vanuatu throughout the Second World War and brought with them money, patriotism and coca-cola. This ‘opening up’ to the west contributed to the rise of nationalistic tendencies throughout the islands. After a decade long independence movement, the Republic of Vanuatu was formed in 1980.
The Vanuatu of today is increasingly urbanised, with around 20% of the population living in its capital, Port Vila, compared with 10% only a decade ago. It is home to 44,000 people, many of whom live in informal squatter settlements in and around the city. Vila is also home to a solid community of ex-patriots, primarily Australian and New Zealanders, as well as a large Chinese population.
Tourism and agriculture are two massive employers and contribute substantially to Vanuatu’s economy, along with raising cattle and offshore financial services – Vanuatu is considered to be a tax haven and attracts a vast international clientele to its banks, trust funds and investment services.
The Ni-Vanuatu tend to live a subsistence lifestyle, supplementing what they can grow themselves with goods purchased at local markets. Typical foods include root vegetables such as yams, taro and kumera, coconut, fresh tropical fruit and of course local fish – abundant throughout the archipelago. Food is almost always boiled or steamed, often cooked over hot coals wrapped in banana leaves. A favourite traditional dish is ‘lap-lap’, a kind of bread or cake made from ground yam, banana or manioc, fresh coconut cream and meat. Kava is a traditional ceremonial drink made from the ground roots of a type of pepper plant, enjoyed for its relaxing and euphoric properties.
Despite great changes over the past decades, the Ni-Vanuatu remain a distinctly community focused and spiritual people. The influence of the missionaries in the 19th century was great – 83% of the population identify as Christian, while the other 17% follow traditional kastom beliefs and cargo cults (like the John Frum cult on the island of Tanna), buddhism and other religions.
Vanuatu as a Tourist Destination
Vanuatu relies heavily on its tourism industry – it is the country’s fastest growing industry and accounts for almost half the national GDP. From active volcanoes to world-class scuba diving, the country is a unique destination, finding itself on the top of many people’s must-do list.
We love to visit Vanuatu and would encourage anyone to make the trip if they haven’t before. Most people arrive via cruise ships but there is a great deal to offer travellers who are willing to stay a little longer. Yes it is a tropical paradise and has everything you would expect – pristine beaches, coral cays, coconut palms and dense jungle. But to many, visiting Vanuatu has always been about much more than that. Gentle and welcoming to visitors, the people of Vanuatu are unforgettable.
Beneath the external beauty, there is something indefinable that impresses itself into the heart and mind. Children playing in the street, the distinct mixture of scents – of mangoes and papaya ripening on the trees, wood smoke from community fires and earth fertile after rain; the soaring harmonies of church choirs or the playful delight of a string band – very soon you find that the spirit of Vanuatu is with you and lingers long after you’ve returned home.
- GDP figure is based on purchasing-power-parity (PPP) and is in International Dollars (Intl.$)