Vanuatu and People
The first humans to have colonised Vanuatu, some three thousand five hundred years ago, may have been Melanesian sailors from Papua New Guinea. Many other groups, some of them Polynesian, settled these islands at a later date. In May 1606, the Portuguese navigator, Pedro Fernandes de Queiros, was the first European to discover the archipelago. Believing he had at last reached the Southern continent, the whole purpose of his expedition, he christened the stretch of land he came ashore – Terra Australia del Espiritu Santo. The navigator established a colony on Santo Island called New Jerusalem, but soon took to the sea again because of the hostility of the natives.
In 1768, it was the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville who dropped anchor in these waters and gave the name Grandes Cyclades to the group of islands Santo, Pentecost, Malekula and Ambae that one by one he visited. Today the strait that separates Santo from Malekula bears his name.
A few years later, in July 1774, James Cook rediscovered these islands on board Resolution, during his second expedition to the Pacific. Cook drew the first maps of the archipelago, which he named New Hebrides after the islands off Scotland. Several navigators followed in quick succession – La Perouse, d’Entrecasteaux, Dumont d’Urville, Bligh and more.
These islands were to experience a slow and disorganised colonisation. The first settlement of Europeans dates back to 1825, when the Irishman Peter Dillon set up a sandalwood trade with China on Erromango. Some Australian planters settled some time later on the islands of Efate and Epi to harvest copra.
In 1882, the businessman John Higginson, of Irish extraction, established the Compagnie des Nouvelles-Hebrides then the Societe Francais des Nouvelles-Hebrides.
Throughout the nineteenth century, these islands were the object of a great deal of rivalry between France and the United Kingdom. Ultimately they decided to set up a form of joint administration and so that, in London on the 20th of October 1906, the Condominium of the New Hebrides came into being. During the Second World War, the New Hebrides constituted a major rear base for the Americans who built a number of roads and several airfields on Efate and Santo.
In the sixties, the population started to aspire to greater autonomy. In 1975, the Condominium authorities approved the organisation of the first elections by universal suffrage. In November 1979, the Anglophone party - New Hebrides National Party won the general elections and Walter Lini became the first Prime Minister. Independence was declared on the 30th of July 1980 and saw the birth of the Republic of Vanuatu, Georges Sokomanu was the first President of the Republic. The same year, a secessionist rebellion on the islands of Tanna and Espiritu Santo was quashed with the help of Papua New Guinea and Australia. Nowadays, the country lives in peace.
Vanuatu is made up of more than eighty islands and islets, most of them of volcanic origin, with a total area of twelve thousand, one hundred and eighty nine square kilometres and shaped like a ‘Y’ tilted to the left. Some nine hundred kilometres separate the Torres Islands to the north from Aneityum in the south. Since the end of 1994, these islands have been combined into six provinces: Torba, Sanma, Penama, Malampa, Shefa and Tafea.
Situated at the junction line of two continental tectonic plates, on the Pacific Rim of Fire, there are several highly active volcanoes.
Estimated at approximately two hundred and sixty six thousand inhabitants, the population of Vanuatu is comprised of a majority of Melanesians and is eighty four per cent Catholic. Two thirds are distributed among the four main islands:Efate, Santo, Malekula and Tanna. A very young population with forty five per cent under the age of fifteen years.
To the rhythm of centuries-old rites and celebrations, ancient culture is still very much alive. At the core of this culture, custom governs the social life, promotes respect and ensures law and order is maintained within the community. The significance of custom is apparent in every major event – marriages, funerals, circumcision, rites of passage. Singing and dancing are always a part of everything.
A country we have certainly enjoyed and one we will never forget. They say Vanuatu has been voted as the ‘Happiest Place on Earth to Live’. We cannot argue with that. We have been welcomed wherever we have explored and even after Cyclone Pam decimated the crops for this year, we have been offered gifts of fruit and vegetables, invited to eat and share in their life, very moving and certainly very humbling.
ALL IN ALL A VERY SPECIAL AND HAPPY FOLK
THE FRIENDLIEST, MOST OPEN PEOPLE I HAVE EVER MET