Vanuatu owes its culturally diverse population to multiple incursions and sporadic immigrations by Melanesians and Polynesians for 4,000 years. The earliest archaeological evidence found on the islands date back to 2,000 B.C. which leads scholars to believe that that’s when early settlers first set foot in Vanuatu.
The island nation received its first European visitor in the person of Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernández de Quirós in 1605 when he believed Vanuatu to be part of Terra Australis. He was followed by French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bouganville in 1768.
It was in the 18th century when Europeans began settling in the islands after James Cook mapped and named the islands New Hebrides. Western impact on the small island nation would not be apparent until the 1860s when thousands of ni-Vanuatu men and women, who had previously served on plantations in Fiji, New Caledonia, and Queensland, began returning to their homes. Perhaps unconsciously adopting the ideals observed in the nearby lands, many have established new forms of political structures within their communities.
During the 1860s, communities were formed around Protestant missions. To protect the interests and safety of the British missionaries, the British and French governments soon formed a rudimentary government body with a Joint Naval Commission in 1887. In 1906 this political control was replaced by an Anglo-French condominium. Under this condominium, resident commissioners were responsible for their own nationals, and they jointly ruled over the indigenous people. This rule ran mostly unopposed by the locals as such political structures meant little to them when their primary contact with European culture was still with missionaries and planters.
This all changed during the Second World War, as the archipelago began to experience a political power struggle of its own as a movement known as the Jon (or John) Frum Cargo Cult on Tanna became a significant anti-European political movement. Tensions arose from land ownership concerns. At that time, more than one-third of the New Hebrides was owned by foreigners.
It wasn’t until 1977 when independence was reached in a conference in Paris and was attended by representatives from Great Britain, France, and New Hebrides. Elections occurred and a new constitution was drawn up in 1979. In mid-1980, there was an unsuccessful attempt to exclude the island of Espiritu Santo from the rest of the group and establish it as an independent nation. Despite this little episode which threatened the unity of the islands, the New Hebrides became the Republic of Vanuatu, an independent within the Commonwealth, on July 30, 1980. To further solidify its independence from European rule, Vanuatu entered into a defense pact with Papua New Guinea on July 1980 which effectively negated the need for British and French forces to defend the islands.
Despite having almost 3 centuries of European occupation, and having no written record of their history, the ni-Vanuatu were able to preserve most of their art in the forms of ritual celebrations, social life in villages, body decorations, tattoos, elaborate masks, hats, and carvings. The locals keep to their traditions to this very day, and even maintain them as an integral part of modern life.
Of their noteworthy ceremonies, the Naghol (known in today’s culture as Land Diving, the precursor to modern bungee jumping) still attracts tourists to witness this thrilling ritual. Legend has it that the original Naghol jumper was a woman who wanted to escape her abusive husband. She led him to believe that she climbed up a tree and jumped. He then followed and plunged to his death, not knowing that his wife secured her ankles to the tree with vines and was perfectly safe. Now the ritual is a rite of passage for the tribe’s males to complete the transformation from boy to man.
Get a chance to experience and explore this culturally exciting island nation and see for yourself how the time seems to stand still in Vanuatu despite the fast paced changes occurring outside its borders.
Glen works as a content producer for Air Vanuatu. When he’s not staring blankly at the computer screen trying to come up with something clever to write, he’s busy traveling to find stuff to write about.