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The Republic of Vanuatu is a South Pacific Island nation situated east of northern Australia and New Guinea, northeast of New Caledonia, and southeast of the Solomon Islands. Its nearest neighbor is New Caledonia. Port Vila, the capital of New Caledonia, is just over three hundred miles from Vanuatu, separated by the Coral Sea.

The archipelago is made up of 83 small islands, all of volcanic origin. 65 of them are inhabited. Its largest island is Espiritu Santo, while its capital city of Port Vila is on the island of Efate, about two hundred miles to the southeast.

The islands of Vanuatu were first settled by the Lapita people, who also settled New Caledonia, about three thousand years ago. They traveled long distances in canoes, leaving evidence of their occupation from northeastern Papua New Guinea to Samoa, in the form of their characteristic pottery. The early settlers of the islands did not come as a nation, or even as a united people. They lived in clans, separated by deep ravines, nearly impenetrable jungle, and stretches of sea.

The traditional religion of the Lapita people lived in the shadow of the spirits of their ancestors. Some ghosts were benevolent, while others brought famine, disaster, and military defeat. Magic was widespread, and the Lapita practiced cannibalism. War between the clans were not unheard of, and skirmishes were common. Often, the victor would capture some of the men of the defeated clan for those of high rank to eat. The relatives of the victims were mount reprisals, so hostilities often continued for long periods of time.

The Lapita brought a system of agriculture. The cultivation of yams determined the cycle of the year, with months named after yams. Women tended to the gardening, the cooking, and the pigs. Pigs were a symbol of wealth among the clans, and were used as currency.

Fernandes de Queirós, a Portuguese navigator, was the first European to arrive in Vanuatu. He came in 1605. In the service of the Spanish government, he was seeking Australia, which was rumored to exist but had not yet been mapped. Arriving at Espiritu Santo, he believed he had found Australia, naming the island Terra Australis del Espiritu Santo, and claiming it for Spain. Queirós attempted to settle at Big Bay, but his crew mutinied after 49 days and sailed for Mexico. It was more than a 160 years before another European arrived on the islands of Vanuatu.

Commander James Cook, who had not yet been promoted to Captain, was the next European to map and name the islands of Vanuatu. He came in 1774. Some of the names that he assigned to the islands are still in use, including Tanna, Erromango, Ambryn, and the Shepherd Islands. He named the archipelago New Hebrides. William Bligh arrived in 1789 during his epic journey to the East Indies after the mutiny of the HMS Bounty. Sighting several previously unrecorded islands, he later returned to confirm his discoveries.

It wasn't until sandalwood was discovered on the islands in 1825 that the European presence was felt by the islanders. There was a huge demand for sandalwood in China, where it was used for incense. Sandalwood traders exchanged metal tools for sandalwood but, as sandalwood became scarce on the islands, the islanders began demanding guns, ammunition, and tobacco, as well as pigs, and even assistance in waging war against an enemy clan. All of the sandalwood was gone by 1868.

In the 1870s, European slave traders began capturing islanders who were made to work in sugar cane fields in Fiji or Australia, the nickel mines of New Caledonia, or the coconut plantations of Samoa. Whole villages were sometimes taken, and the people were sold to the highest bidder. Some of them returned after the work was completed, but many did not survive.

The first missionaries to come to the islands were killed and eaten. Eventually, Presbyterianism became the major Christian denomination in Vanuata, with a third of the population, and the Roman Catholics and Anglicans also have a presence.

The first European settlement was in 1854, when a cattle rancher settled on Aneityum, and was followed by other settlers from Australia who grew cotton while prices were high during the American Civil War. As there were French and British settlers on the islands, in the early 1900s, an arrangement was made for a dual British-French administration, with each having its own police department, health services, educational services, and prison systems. Overseas visitors had to opt for one or the other.

By the 1960s, Europeans owned 30% of the land, and when they began taking more of it, there were protests from island natives. This led to calls for secession from some of the islands, and finally insurrections. Independence was declared in 1980, and Vanuatu is now a republic.

 

 

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