• Solomon Islands!

    Solomon Islands: Looking up at palm trees. Go Now!

    Solomon Islands
    This Melanesian country is best known for its many islands and beaches... and this natural landscape (pictured) is why most people go. Don't miss out on the unique Melanesian culture and foods though! Begin Your Journey!

  • Tonga!

    Tonga: Coastline. Go Now!

    The heart of Polynesian culture is rooted in Tonga, but most visitors just come for the natural beauty. Explore Tonga!

  • Vanuatu!

    Vanuatu: Jetty into the ocean. Go Now!

    Picturesque serenity is a good way to describe Vanuatu, but the culture offers much more, including the inspiration for bungee jumping, which remains a rite of passage for young men. Explore Vanuatu!

  • Palau!

    Palau: "70 Islands!" Go Now!

    Few people have even heard of this small Micronesian country, but those who have often return with stories of beauty unmatched elsewhere, such as view of the "70 Islands" (pictured). Go Now!

  • Explore the: Federated States of Micronesia!

    Federated States of Micronesia: Overlooking some islands. Go Now!

    Federated States of Micronesia
    This diverse country stretches for thousands of miles and has the diversity to prove it, including the people from Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Yap among others. Begin Your Journey!

  • Samoa!

    Samoa: A traditional home. Go Now!

    Among the most famous of the South Pacific's many countries, Samoa sits in the heart of Polynesia and has a culture to match. Begin Your Journey!

History of Vanuatu

Lying relatively close to New Guinea and mainland Asia, the islands of Vanuatu were settled much earlier than most of the South Pacific islands. The first people probably arrived sometime between 4000-2000 BC and were Austronesian. Later, it seems likely that additional waves of people arrived to the islands, probably from the region of Southeast Asia.

Although little is known about these early people and their culture, they have left behind some clues. The Austronesians moved further east to settle most of the South Pacific, meaning they must have had good boat and navigational knowledge. Their days were likely filled with hunting, gathering, fishing, and limited farming.

Oral traditions also states that they moved from very small local tribal groups to larger political rule under the king Roy Mata. However it seems for most of history the people were united on a small tribal or community scale and they had few large political organizations. Despite this, archeological evidence suggests that they did travel from island to island so communication and trade were common.

Although the Spanish, under Espiritu Santo, and others saw the islands of Vanuatu, and may have even stopped there in 1606, the Europeans didn't make much of an impact until the late 1700s. The culture of the people in Vanuatu changed little with these early explorers as the locals often fought the Spanish on their brief stops, but other than this, seemingly no significant cultural exchanges took place.

Over the next couple centuries little else changed in the islands. The people and their culture remained fairly static, while no foreign powers attempted to settle the islands in significant numbers, although many arrived in small numbers. It wasn't until the mid-1800s when the people truly changed. At this time numerous missionaries arrived to the islands to spread Christianity and soon after colonization efforts began.

The missionaries made headway throughout Vanuatu in the mid- to late-1800s, but few foreigners actually settled the islands and the strongest outside influence at this time came from these missionaries. Most of the local people converted to either Protestantism or Catholicism under the influence of these missionaries. However these missionaries also divided the people; the different sects of Christianity gave the people different belief systems and they even adopted new languages and customs relative to the missionaries who contacted them. Most Protestant missionaries were British and taught English, while most Catholic missionaries were French and taught the French language.

More than religion and language, the culture was also changing in the mid- to late-1800s due to economic changes. As many European countries began colonizing the South Pacific they sought to make a profit in numerous industries. In some cases this led to the deportation of the people to work on foreign islands and, later, it led to the growth of the domestic economy, which was based on farming. Under the direction of foreign settlers, coffee, bananas, and coconuts became popular crops to grow and trade as many of the people undertook this profession and much of the country's lands were occupied with these plants.

However, on the political side, tensions between the British and French built in the late-1800s. The French controlled nearby New Caledonia, but most of what is today Vanuatu was considered neutral ground. Due to the growing economic wealth from the islands and the increasing number of settlers, tensions grew. Most traders wanted their native country to colonize the islands as they became more and more divided on religion, language, economics, and even political preference. In 1889 Franceville (today the city of Port Vila) declared itself independent, perhaps in order to avoid all this confusion, but the country was short-lived.

The agreement to avoid governance over the islands between the British and French ended in 1906 when they decided to govern the land jointly. This only led to more confusion and division. Both countries inserted local governments and laws, while the indigenous people lost nearly all of their rights. Despite this, the rule of the British and French also expanded their changing culture. As in the past, some people became more "French," while others became more "British." However these changes primarily came in religion and language as the locals continued to run local political groups, lived off the land, or acted as laborers on large plantations. Meanwhile the foreigners tended to live in cities and ran the economic and political scenes.

Although Vanuatu was vastly divided during this time of joint rule, it was also fairly peaceful as the locals, the French, and the British seemed to live side by side with little troubles. This began to change with the arrival of World War II and the Americans in the 1940s. As the Allies fought the Japanese and pushed through the South Pacific, many Americans passed through Vanuatu and shortly after a number of independence movements began by the local people.

These movements continued building until it became the main issue on the locals' agenda in the 1960s, with the greatest motivation for independence being to reassert their control on the land and ownership of the land. Prior to and during this time the British cleared more lands for the additional planting of coconuts and other produce. This led to increased resistance by the local people as they believed the British had no rights to these lands. As the protests built and local resistance solidified, the British looked into granting the islands independence, but the French still resisted.

The 1970s experienced more calls for independence as the locals began to organize politically on a large scale. This was a major change for the people as in the past most political organization was localized. This movement united the people no matter their religion as they demanded the return of all lands, but France continued to resist the movement until 1980 when both France and the United Kingdom granted Vanuatu independence, this only came after a brief war between the locals and some French settlers (although France continues to hold on to New Caledonia as a colony).

Since independence, Vanuatu has remained fairly stable politically and economically, although they lag behind many countries in regards to education, healthcare, communication, and infrastructure. None-the-less, the country remains at peace and land ownership is still an important issue in the country as only local citizens can own land. Today the people continue to live as they have throughout much of history, off the land as farmers and fishers.

This page was last updated: February, 2013