The Early Explorers of Vanuatu

Archaeological expeditions have revealed the presence of inhabitants on the islands of Vanuatu as far back as 2000 BC. There is a great deal of cultural diversity in Vanuatu, as evidenced by the 113 distinct languages among a population that numbers a shade above 217,000. There are also many different dialects. This cultural diversity can be attributed to 4,000 years of sporadic immigration from numerous countries throughout the Pacific. Melanesia provided most of Vanuatu’s original settlers, but Polynesians also settled on the islands.

The expedition of Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros reached the islands in 1605, making de Quiros the first European to make landfall on the islands. De Quiros was under the mistaken impression that the islands belonged to the Terra Australis. Later, towards the end of the 18th century, James Cook’s second voyage took him to the islands which he called New Hebrides. Not long after, Europeans began settling in the islands.

A French-British naval commission established a cooperative administration of the islands in 1887 and eventually agreed to an Anglo-French Condominium in 1906. The islands of Efate and Espiritu Santo were used as allied military bases during World War II. As the 1960’s dawned, the ni-Vanuatu people began to clamor for self-governance and complete independence, and on July 30, 1980 full sovereignty was granted by both the French and the British. Vanuatu joined the UN in 1981 and the Non-Aligned Movement in 1983.

Because there was no written language, the oral histories and legends of Vanuatu took on a greater importance. There is a rich heritage of stories told through song and dance. It should come as no surprise that many forms of art flourished in such a culture, from body decorations and tattoos to elaborate masks, hats, and carvings. All of these remain a vital part of ritual celebrations and the social life of the islands. Despite the introduction of European ideas, Vanuatu preserved a cultural richness and diversity through the integration of traditional rituals and ceremonies into modern life. Much like the stories which abound in Aboriginal Australia, ni-Vanuatu culture also has many mythical stories and legends.

The Naghol is one of the most exciting ceremonies a visitor to Vanuatu can attend. It is an amazing display of adrenaline-pumping excitement also known as land diving, which was the forerunner of modern bungee jumping. The ceremony occurs each year around the time of the yam harvest in April and May. On Pentecost Island large wooden towers are constructed, some of them up to 70 feet tall. These towers are held together by vines found on the island. Not one piece of man-made building material is used to erect the towers. Young island men in traditional dress climb the tower and jump from a platform with only vines around their ankles. Very few tourists or visitors are allowed to observe the ceremony; only 30 observers are permitted to watch on designated days.

A popular legend claims that it was a woman who took the first jump. The story says that she was abused by her husband and was trying to escape his violence against her. The woman climbed a tree and jumped. Her husband followed her and attempted to make the same jump but was killed. He did not realize that the woman had tied liana vines to her ankles. For many years only women were permitted to dive during the ritual. The tribal elders eventually decided that men should take the dive to renounce their shame and prove their courage, and this is how the ceremony is conducted to this day.

Missionaries Come to Vanuatu

Missionaries were first dispatched to the islands of Vanuatu in 1839. The first two missionaries to arrive came to the island of Erromango and were not necessarily well-received. The rocky start to the conversion of the islands was further complicated by the death of John Williams of the London Missionary Society.

The mission societies decided to proceed cautiously and for the next nine years they used converted Polynesians as missionaries to the islands. Polynesians were essentially used to test the hostilities of the island tribes. The Europeans reasoned that if the Polynesians survived, they themselves could follow.

Samoan teachers were sent to Efate in 1845, but most were slain within a few years. The Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians all attempted to send missionaries to Vanuatu. All of their efforts were short-lived. The missionaries were either killed or chose to make a hasty retreat. Despite all of the resistance they encountered, the various denominations were persistent and by the 1860’s had managed to create numerous mission outposts throughout the islands.

The effect the missionaries had on the tribes was varied. Many of those who converted to Christianity soon found themselves facing new enemies in the form of diseases that had been introduced to the islands. Measles, dysentery, smallpox, and even the common cold became an ever-increasing deadly menace to a society that was also being exposed to Christianity at the same time. Those who did not convert saw the arrival of these deadly diseases as proof that the religion of the missionaries was worthless. All illnesses were believed to stem from sorcery, and when the tribes saw the impact of these new diseases they reasoned that Christianity must be particularly malevolent. Many missionaries were killed following each new epidemic that hit the islands.

The missionaries did not give up and eventually went on to have a profound impact on Melanesian society. Some areas saw the destruction of a rich cultural heritage which had been maintained for thousands of years. It seems that the Melanesians were more amenable to Catholicism because the Catholic missionaries permitted the converts to mix elements of their own beliefs with Catholicism. The influence of the Catholic missionaries was so great that it eventually played a role in how Vanuatu would come to be governed.

World War II

In 1940, reeling from the fall of France in WWII, the French settlers of the New Hebrides came out in full support of General De Gaulle’s Free French Forces. They were the first of the French colonies in the Pacific to do so. The French and British, who shared the Condominium that controlled Vanuatu, were technically at odds with the French under German rule. A new wrinkle soon eclipsed the tension between the French and British as forces from Japan were fast approaching.

The Japanese reached the nearby Solomon Islands in early 1942, and many of the colonists on the Vanuatu archipelago feared that they would be next. It was the Americans who arrived first, unannounced, in May of 1942. One can only imagine the sight which must have greeted the inhabitants of the islands. They looked out to find Mele Bay filled with warships. Some of the tribes mistakenly believed the Japanese had arrived and fled into the surrounding hills. It took some time to build trust and convince the tribes that the American’s stealthy approach was a necessary defensive strategy against the Japanese, an army that many considered unbeatable.

The Americans were somewhat brash in their occupation of the islands. They built a huge infrastructure to support their military operation and brought much equipment that would be used to mount a counter-offensive against the Japanese. Barracks and hospitals were constructed. Airstrips and wharves were built. A road was placed around the entire island. All of this happened rather quickly due to the proficiency of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Seabees who were motivated by Japan’s quick approach. As a consequence, France and Britain were shamed by how little they had managed to develop the islands during their control of them.

100,000 troops arrived in Espiritu Santo practically overnight, effectively doubling the population of the entire country. As this happened, a cultural and social phenomenon was occurring. The indigenous tribes of the New Hebrides were amazed at the equality among black and white military personnel. Many of the New Hebrideans went to work for the Americans and received wages unlike anything they had ever experienced before. In addition to this, the tribes were extended a measure of respect that they were unaccustomed to. The Americans were generous and provided clothing, furniture, and appliances which they requisitioned from the PX.

As it turned out, the early 1940’s were good years for the native islanders. There was only one Japanese attack. A Japanese aircraft was shot down and only one casualty—Besse the cow—was recorded. The islanders were largely spared the horrors of the war that had touched New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The residents of Vanuatu received fair treatment, improved living conditions, modern medicine, and much economic growth. Many of the facilities built during the war are still in use and have been only minimally upgraded.

The Americans Leave

The war ended three years later and the Americans left almost as quickly as they had arrived. It was not economically feasible to take many of their goods with them, so the Americans proposed selling them at seven cents on the dollar to the Condominium Government. Plant equipment, bulldozers and other modern machinery, cranes and trucks, and office equipment were all made available to the islands at a price the colonists could not refuse.

The Condominium chose to play politics instead and delayed a decision.They essentially played a game of chicken with the Americans. They reasoned that if the Americans were going to have to leave these things behind anyway, why should they have to pay for them? To their way of thinking, the items left behind would be a suitable compensation for the American occupation during the war. The Condominium refused to pay, and the response of the Americans was to bulldoze everything that could be moved into the ocean. This did not set well with the native islanders and gave them yet another reason to despise the Condominium’s rule. Much of the discarded war material can still be located by divers around Efate Island.

The post-war Condominium authorities believed that the Americans had turned the New Hebridean natives into overpaid and ambitious problem children. There are many today who can still recall how the authorities came into their homes to take away what had been given to them by the Americans. They took the radios, clothes, and appliances. In addition to this disrespect, the French and British also punished the islands economically. Both countries had been decimated by the war and were in an economic crisis. They had little enough money for themselves, let alone the islands. The economy of the island suffered horribly. All of these things only fueled a fire which was ready to ignite as the world moved into the latter half of the 20th century.

Many aspects of WWII can be directly or indirectly credited for the attitude which would ultimately blossom into the tribes’ desire for independence.