The History of Vanuatu

The Early Explorers

James Cook

Many of the islands of Vanuatu have been inhabited for thousands of years, the oldest archaeological evidence dates back to 2000 BC. Vanuatu is one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth, with a population of approximately 217,750, 113 distinct languages and innumerable dialects. This amazing diversity is a result of 4,000 years of sporadic immigration from many Pacific countries. Although most settlers arrived from Melanesia, the larger built, lighter skinned Polynesians also settled in the islands.

In 1605, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernández de Quirós became the first European to reach the islands, believing it to be part of Terra Australis. Europeans began settling the islands in the late 18th century, after British explorer James Cook visited the islands on his second voyage, and gave them the name New Hebrides.

In 1887, the islands began to be administered by a French-British naval commission, with the French and British agreeing to an Anglo-French Condominium on the New Hebrides in 1906.

The Missionaries

vanuatu missionariesThe first two missionaries set foot in Vanuatu, on Erromango in 1839. An inauspicious beginning, with the death of one of their most famous members (John Williams of the London Missionary Society), prompted the mission societies to proceed cautiously.

For the following nine years, they used converted Polynesian missionaries. Polynesians were regarded as a form of cannon fodder and if they survived, Europeans could safely follow.

In 1845, Samoan teachers landed on Efate, but most had been killed within a few years. The following years saw Catholic, Presbyterian and Anglican missionaries from England, Noumea and France making various short lived (through death) or aborted (rapid retreat) attempts to convert the ni-Vanuatu. However, through perseverance, by the 1860's various denominational mission stations existed throughout the islands.

The effect on the local populations varied. For those who converted to Christianity in one form or another, many died, due to the exposure of an entire range of introduced diseases. By then these included not only measles and dysentery, but smallpox, influenza, pneumonia, scarlet fever, mumps, whooping cough and the simple, but often quite deadly, common cold.

Traditional medicines when combined with a degree of genetic immunity, proved effective against endemic diseases, but had no impact on these new medical conditions. Consequently some considered that the new religion and its God were impotent in the face of disease.

Others took a more pragmatic view; as all illnesses stemmed from sorcery anyway, Christianity must be a particularly malevolent religion to attack its converts in such a violent manner. This attitude resulted in the death of several missionaries following epidemics.

However, the missionaries kept coming and eventually had profound impact on the Melanesian society, by destroying a rich cultural heritage centuries old. Catholicism in particular was more readily embraced as Catholic missionaries did not take a dim view of converts merging elements of their own beliefs with Catholicism. In the end, the success of the Catholics had an extraordinary effect on the way the country was to be eventually governed.

World War 2

vanuatu world war2With the fall of France to Germany in World War 2, the French side of the condominium technically became at war with the other half - Britain.

However in 1940, the French population of the New Hebrides immediately declared their support for General De Gaul's Free French Forces – the first of France's Pacific colonies to do so. This would be on of the only times of the Condominium that the French and British were not at odds with each other.

With France under German rule, the French Ambassador was placed in a difficult position as there was no support structure of a functioning French government. However, these concerns were overshadowed by the fast approaching Japanese forces.

In early 1942, the Japanese reached the nearby Solomon Islands and the New Hebridean's lived in fear that they would be next. The Americans, however, arrived first, totally unannounced, in May 1942 filling Mele Bay with warships.

Due to this unannounced arrival, a large number of the Vila population fled into the hills believing the Japanese had arrived. It took time to convince them otherwise, but the stealthy nature of the American arrival was key in its defensive strategy against the seemingly unbeatable Japanese.

Being at war, the Americans simply took over and built an entire infrastructure to support their introduced military population and the necessary equipment to wage a counter offensive. They brought in tens of thousands of tons of machinery, built barracks and hospitals, a road around the entire island, airstrips and wharves in a desperate attempt to push back the Japanese, leaving France and Britain in shame for all they had not done for the islands.

In Espiritu Santo, 100,000 troops arrived in short order, doubling the population of the country almost overnight.

Throughout the islands, an interesting social phenomena took place. New Hebrideans were astounded at the equality with which black and white military personnel were treated, so when they went to work for the Americans, they received respect and wages far in excess to anything they had ever experienced before. The typically generous Americans would also look at New Hebridean living conditions and provided clothes and beds, ice boxes and furniture where needed.

The early 1940's were calm years for the native New Hebrideans. Vanuatu was attacked only once by a Japanese plane (that was shot down), resulting in one casualty on Santo - Besse the cow.

Thus they never experienced the horrors of Japanese occupied New Guinea or Solomon Islands. Instead, they saw fair treatment, better living conditions, modern medical aid, economic growth and a vast expansion of facilities, many of which are still in use years later.

End of the War

deco world war 2 photoThree years later, the Americans left as swiftly as they arrived. As the policy that had funded the war effort meant the American economy could not sustain the influx of returning goods, the Americans suggested to the Condominium Government they might like to purchase plant equipment, bulldozers, modern workshop machinery, cranes, trucks and office equipment for a price of only seven cents in the dollar on the real value of the goods.

However, since the Americans were going to leave it behind anyway, the Condominium questioned the need to pay for it. So, the decision was made to bulldoze every movable object into the ocean. This reckless discard contributed to the already proliferating Cargo Cults throughout the islands, and the growing resentment of native New Hebridean's to Condominium rule. There are places around Efate Island where divers can discover much of this discarded war material; the most famous spot being Million Dollar Point in Espiritu Santo.

Perhaps the most well-known remnants of war and one of the most famous dive spots in the world is that of the SS Coolidge.

On February 21 1931, the widow of the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, christened the bow of the largest and finest merchant ship ever built by an American shipyard, before it set sail and ended its journey on Santo. The 654 foot, 21,936 ton "President Coolidge" was the one of the last truly opulent vessel s to be built anywhere.

In 1941 the Coolidge went into service with the American Army as a transport ship for reinforcing Pacific garrisons. Once fully converted in 1942 she was able to carry 5,000 troops.

The Coolidge made several South Pacific runs in 1942. In October, she departed San Francisco for New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo laden with the 5,092 officers and troops of the 172nd Regiment, 43rd Infantry division. They were to be much needed reinforcements for the American assault on Guadalcanal.

On the morning of 26th October 1942, the Coolidge approached Espiritu Santo by the Eastern side of the Segond Channel. Due to security, the navy were unable to radio the Captain special instructions on how to enter the channel.

As the ship began to enter the channel, and the failure of a patrol boat to stop her, radio officers had no choice but to break silence and issue a warning, but it came too late.

SS Ccoolidge in Santo before sinkingAn explosion struck the aft fire room - an explosion from a mine, one of many scattered in a deadly mine field across the channel. Thirty seconds later a second explosion hit the engine room - the ship was mortally wounded. Captain Nelson ordered the now listing ship to be turned to the shore and run aground. Immediately, abandon ship order issued.

Everyone aboard was told to leave their possessions and equipment, they could return for them later. Men abandoned hard hats, guns and personal equipment as they scrambled to leave the dying vessel.

Many suffered chemical burns as they landed in the oily waters and Santo had few facilities to accommodate such large numbers of injured. However, the ship was fully laden with the supplies need to treat the injured. But the Coolidge would never let her troops return for their possessions. Fifty five minutes after the she was beached, the great vessel gave a shuddering lurch and slid backwards into the oily water, disappearing to her grave at the edge of the Segond Channel.

As she sank, she rolled onto her Port side, taking with her two men who were never found.

The loss of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and the setback to the war effort were not large in the overall scheme of the War, but it was nevertheless a costly mistake.

Still, such a costly mistake has turned Espiritu Santo into a Mecca for divers worldwide, as the Coolidge is the largest, most intact and accessible wreck of World War 2.

Located only a few kilometres from Luganville, the second largest town in Vanuatu on the island of Espiritu Santo, the wreck lies only a few paces from the relatively calm shore. Divers can reach it by boat or by foot, through one of several dive operations based in Santo.

president coolidgeWith visibility normally around 15-25 meters, such a wreck dive offers exceptional underwater clarity. The outer parts of the ship can be safely seen by novice divers. For penetration diving, most areas of interest, allow divers to see outside the vessel at all times. However it is strongly recommended that divers take it easy at first, exploring the outside on the first few dives and making gradual penetrations of the wreck.

Following the war, Condominium authorities were left with a legacy of, from their perspective, overpaid and over ambitious New Hebridean natives. Today, many ni-Vanuatu recall how the authorities came into their homes and took what the Americans had given their fathers. Britain and France were left in tatters at the end of the War. They were left with little enough to rebuild their own nation and thus the New Hebridean economy staggered along under its hopelessly inadequate dual political system. But a spark had been lit and it would not die. By the 1960's it was ready to ignite.

Father of Independence

Land, from the perspective of Ni-Vanuatu before Independence, was not something that could be owned. And therefore it could not be sold. It is held in trust by families, from one generation to the next, as has been the tradition for many since before Christ was born. One might give away, or sell the use of land, but not the land itself.

Europeans, however, took an entirely different viewpoint. By the mid 1960's European settlers claimed ownership of almost 30% of the county's land mass. These settlers had, for the most part, cleared land to grow coconuts - copra being the mainstay of the economy for some time.

But as the price of copra fell, planters began to look at alternatives. With the idea of expanding into cattle production, planters began clearing jungle adjoining their properties. This led to immediate protests in Santo and Malekula from local villagers who objected strongly to yet more of their 'custom' land being pilfered.

The objections grew and natural resentment that started at the end of the war sparked the formation of political parties.

On the one hand were French backed parties such as the supposedly custom-oriented Nagriamel movement. Led by the colourful and charismatic Jimmy Stevens, it claimed to protect Melanesian's claim to traditional lands.

father walter liniOn the other hand, in 1971 when Stevens petitioned the United Nations for early Independence, the Anglican Minister Father Walter Lini formed the Anglophone backed Vanua'aku Party.

As the country became more politicised, the (minority) Anglicans joined the Vanua'aku Party, but the (majority) French fragmentised. Many mixed race and educated Melanesian considered themselves more French than Melanesian and were adamantly opposed to the British declared aim of early Independence.

Some wanted the Condominium to remain, whilst others wanted the British out and France to annex the country entirely. This division, and the added confusion the push for Santo autonomy, set the stage upon which the first general election was held.

After enough wrangling and accusations to fill several books, in November 1979, Lini's Vanua'aku Party emerged victorious. But being the winner did not mean everyone agreed. As Vanuatu is one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth, trying to govern it gave the Condominium more grief than it could have imagined. With virtually no preparation for Independence under the British/French rule, Lini was not going to have an easy time of it.

The French are notoriously possessive about their colonies, but despite their objections, Independence was set for mid-1980. However in May of that year, a few weeks prior to the end of Condominium rule, an insurrection on Tanna split the island in two. One faction supported the new government while the other supported the French.

In Santo, Stevens seized the opportunity to blockade the airport, run the police from their small station and declare Santo independent of Vanuatu, and raised the flag of the independent country of Venerama.

Pandemonium took hold for the next few weeks. France would not agree to British troops intervening and French troops did nothing. Steven's men were armed with only bows and arrows yet they managed to hold Santo to ransom. Lini was given virtually no support from the exiting colonial powers, except verbal sympathy and assurances that all would be taken care of.

With Independence Day fast approaching, Lini was clearly at a political impasse. Officially he could do nothing because Vanuatu was not yet his to govern. However, he asked the neutral Papua New Guinea troops to step into what the world farcically began to call, the ‘Coconut War’.

It was a strange war, of words and diplomatic double talk, bows and arrows and Francophone shrugs. It ended suddenly when Steven's son was shot and killed as he sat in the rear of a utility that ran through a PNG troop roadblock. Following Steven's statement that he had meant no-one to be harmed, he surrendered and was arrested.

Documents also came to light that indicated the French administration had been deceitful; they officially backed Lini as the duly elected representative of the people of Vanuatu, but they had secretly supported the secessionist citizens and Stevens.

On midnight June 1980, the French and British flags were lowered for the last time, amidst tears and brave salutes and the flag of the Republic of Vanuatu was raised in celebration at the birth of a new nation. The vast majority of French nationals left Vanuatu and land ownership reverted entirely to the indigenous ni-Vanuatu with leases of land set at 60 years.

Chief Roimata - Ancient King of Vanuatu

vanuatu hat island roimata historyIn July 2008, Chief Roi Mata’s Domain was formally registered as a World Heritage site – the first in Vanuatu. At just half an hour’s drive north of Port Vila, the site features a string of perfect beaches, a breathtaking harbour, spectacular views of the hat-shaped island of Artok and so much more.

Throughout the middle and southern islands of Vanuatu there existed the story of a great and powerful chief, who united the warring and cannibalistic tribes of the area into a unified, and peaceful group of tribes, a first in ancient Vanuatu.

In a cultures where language is unwritten, oral traditions are faithfully passed down from generation to generation. The accuracy of such history is frequently disputed by Western cultures, for what is heard can be changed in the retelling. And in any case, how does one separate fact from legend?

As the story goes, a paramount chief beyond paramount chiefs, Chief Roi Mata took on the title of King. Through sheer personal magnetism, Roymata, managed to unite the warring and cannibalistic tribes of the area into a unified, peaceful group in what are fondly 'remembered' as halcyon years.

But sibling jealousy ended the life of this much revered man, when his brother shot a poison dart into his throat. He did not die quickly, but suffered a lingering malaise.

His grieving family and clan carried the dying King around the island of Efate, to say farewell to those whom he had unified.

Finally, he was taken to the famous Feles Cave on Lelepa Island where he died. It is then told how he was carried to Devil's Point, the entry to the underworld, and through the underwater caverns of Tukutuku to the nearby Island or Retoka (Hat Island) where he was interred. And, say the legends, following the custom of the era, men and women were interred with him. But perhaps most spine chilling was that many of these people were entombed alive.

How true could the legend be? One version tells of how the waters between Tukutuku and Retoka Island parted to allow the funeral party across. Certainly that could not be fact.

As to the caverns of Tukutuku, they are very real. Lava tunnels and coral encrusted lava flows create an underwater labyrinth that could easily be thought to lead to a mythical underworld. But the caves have been explored extensively by scuba divers and do not lead to Retoka Island.

But how long ago did this happen? By matrilineal decent, the people of Tongoa (who retain an extensive oral history going back to their first settlement in Vanuatu over 5,000 years ago) narrowed it down to 1265 A.D. Following the interment, a seven hundred year-long tabu, on pain of death had been placed on Retoka. As such, no-one lived there and few plucked up the courage to sleep, or even go there, despite its wealth of turtle eggs and abundant fish life. Retoka became known as the Island of the Dead and a ghost island.

In 1967 a French archaeologist, Jose Garanger, offered to search for the grave of Roymata to determine if he was a real, or mythological figure. The chiefs of Lelepa, equally curious, gave their go-ahead on condition that the grave be returned to its original state after investigation.

Once on Retoka, the site was surprisingly easy to find. Two rock slabs, like tombstones, at the base of a large white wood tree were located in a natural 'clearing' only 100m from the beach, on the North West side of the small island. Oral tradition stated that no tree or bush would ever grow over the site of Roymata's grave.

In an area 20m x 10m, the archaeological team dug down a metre; carefully uncovering skeletons as they went. According to oral history, they were to discover 47 skeletons. As bones were uncovered it quickly became evident that a mass burial had taken place.

Finally, with the entire grave site exposed, the evidence was carefully documented, photographed and reburied intact, complete with rich adornments. Forty seven skeletons were unearthed with radio-carbon dating placing their time of death between 1250 and 1300 AD.

These facts verified the oral histories was true. And from such history was revealed what the discoveries at the site really meant. Hundreds of mourners had accompanied Roymata to his final resting place and forty six were never to leave.

Traditionally, when a prominent Chief died, he required the company of his family and supporters to join him in his journey to the subterranean netherworld. At least one of his wives must go - Roymata was reputed to have had ten.

Those also to accompany Roymata were the very old, incurably sick or incapacitated, children whose mothers had died in childbirth, lesser chief's wives where a daughter had died, sick witch doctors and wives of dead sorcerer's.

Practically, this was a general clearing out of economically unproductive people, and those who may have caused the deaths of others. For the men, being buried alive followed the ritual kava ceremony where the kava would have been laced with a soporific poison. But women were not allowed to drink kava, so they were either buried alive or strangled with a cord, then laid out beside their husband. All were orientated towards the southwest, so their spirits entered the dry 'country of the dead' out from Devil's Point. Those buried closest to Roymata were richly adorned with bracelets, shells and carved bones.

These were most likely immediate family or honoured volunteers. Roymata's arms were ringed with valuable full circle pig's tusks, and white 'magic' shells placed strategically around his body. His head was supported on a slab of dressed limestone. Many skulls appear elongated, following the fashion of some northern islands to stretch the skull by biding after birth.

Retoka Island is now no longer tabu. The customary owners of the island offer tours to explore the island and Roymata's grave.