Before true independence came to the islands of Vanuatu, land ownership was not recognized. The long-standing tradition was that land be held in trust by families and passed down from generation to generation. Use of land could be assigned to another or given away but the land itself could not be sold for any price. This all began to change in the 1960’s when European settlers claimed ownership of roughly 30% of Vanuatu’s land mass. The settlers cleared most of the land for the planting of coconut trees. Copra, the dried meat or kernel of the coconut, became a central part of Vanuatu’s economy.

Formation Of Political Parties

Vanuatu politicsThe price of copra took a significant fall which forced settlers to consider other means of income including cattle production. Raising cattle created the necessity of clearing more land, specifically the jungle areas which adjoined the settlers’ properties. This sparked a wave of immediate protests from local tribes who resented more of their land being taken away for commercial gain. Unrest among the tribes led to the formation of various political parties, each with their own platforms and agendas. The Nagriamel Movement, a French-backed party led by Jimmy Stevens, was one such group. Stevens and his party were founded upon the concept of protecting the Melanesians’ claim to traditional lands.

In 1971, Jimmy Stevens took his platform before the United Nations. Stevens requested early independence for the islands. Opposition came in the form of another party formed by Father Walter Lini, an Anglican minister. Lini’s Vanua’aku Party attracted the Anglicans on the islands but remained a minority. While the French-backed parties were in the majority, they were fragmented. All of this political unrest eventually culminated in the first general elections on the islands.

The Birthing Of A Nation

Father Walter LiniAmid much wrangling and confusion, Father Walter Lini was declared the winner of the general election. His ascendancy was nothing close to a mandate of the people, however. There were over 80 islands in the archipelago and 113 different languages. Father Lini faced a tough task in attempting to unite the people under his Anglican banner.
France raised many objections, but despite its resistance the independence of the islands was set for mid-1980. In May, just a short time before the declaration of the island’s independence, an insurrection on Tanna divided the island into two factions. There were those who supported a new government and those who supported the existing one. Jimmy Stevens, still reeling from his political defeat by Father Lini, seized an opportunity to assert his own agenda once more.

Stevens occupied Santo and ousted the local police from their station. He then established a blockade at the airport and declared Santo independent of the island archipelago that was about to become Vanuatu. Stevens raised a flag over Santo and proclaimed it to be the independent country of Venerama.

Sheer pandemonium gripped the islands. Armed only with bows and arrows, Steven’s group virtually held the islands hostage. France would not send troops to intervene and refused to allow the British to do so. The colonial powers which were preparing to exit the island gave Father Lini very little beyond moral support and assurances that everything would work itself out. Because the islands had yet to officially become an independent nation, Father Lini could do very little because the new country was not yet his to govern. In desperation, Father Lini asked for the intervention of troops from Papua New Guinea. The world looked on with amusement and began to refer to the skirmish as the Coconut War.

The Coconut War

Vanuatu Coconut WarAs amusing as it may have seemed to the world at large, the Coconut War was a very serious matter for a country in the midst of being birthed as an independent republic. It was fought in a very primitive way with words and bows and arrows while France looked on with little more than a shrug of the shoulders.

The Coconut War ended in the same sudden manner in which it began. Jimmy Stevens’ son was shot and killed when the utility vehicle he was riding in crashed a roadblock erected by the troops from Papua New Guinea. Jimmy Stevens issued a statement in which he asserted that he never wanted anyone to be hurt. Shortly after releasing his statement, Stevens surrendered to the authorities.

In June of 1980 the flags of the French and British were lowered while many gathered to celebrate the official birth of Vanuatu. Most of the French nationals chose to leave the islands and were compensated by the French government. Land ownership reverted to the indigenous peoples of the islands.

The Vanuatu Flag

Vanuatu flagVanuatu’s flag was designed by Malon Kalontas and incorporates a rich symbolism. Kalontas chose a namele leaf and a pig’s tusk to represent peace and prosperity. Several colors were used in the design of the flag. Black was used to represent the Melanesian race, red to symbolize unity through blood, green for Vanuatu’s agriculture-based economy, and yellow for Christianity.

Vanuatu Emblem & Coat of Arms

Vanuatu EmblemThe emblem of Vanuatu is the pig’s tusk and namele leaf which respectively symbolize prosperity and peace. The Vanuatu Emblem is featured prominently on the coat of arms along with a depiction of Father Walter Lini, the first Prime Minister of Vanuatu. Lini is responsible for the motto on the coat of arms: In God We Stand. This was meant to express how the creation of the Republic of Vanuatu united all of the island tribes as one nation.