Dicover... a timeless Archipelago
Since the days of the
explorers, the local
people have remained
deeply attached to
their culture. Nature
is as generous as
ever. In Vanuatu,
July 1980, nothing
seems to have
changed, or hardly
3,500 years of History
The southern lands of the Holy Spirit
The first humans to have colonized Vanuatu, some 3,500 years ago, may have been Melanesian sailors from Papua New Guinea. On their fragile canoes, they carried animals and plants on long and perilous crossings. Many other groups, some of them Polynesian, settled these islands at a later date.
In May 1606, the Portuguese navigator, Pedro Fernandes de Queiros, was the first European to discover the archipelago. Believing that he had at last reached the Southern continent, the whole purpose of his expedition, he christened the stretch of land where he came ashore « Terra Australia del Espiritu Santo ». Hence the name of Espiritu Santo Island ! The navigator established a colony
there, called New Jerusalem, but soon took to the sea again because of the hostility of the natives. In 1768, it was the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville who dropped anchor in these waters and gave the name « Grandes Cyclades » to a group of islands (Espiritu Santo, Pentecost, Malekula, Ambae…) that he came to one after the other. Today the strait that separates Santo from Malekula bears his name.
From James Cook to John
A few years later, in July 1774, James Cook (re)discovered these islands on board the Resolution, during his second expedition to the Pacific. We have this famous captain to thank for the first ever chart of the archipelago which he named «New-Hebrides» (in reference to the islands off the west coast of Scotland). Several navigators followed in quick succession in the region: La Pérouse, d'Entrecasteaux, Bligh, Dumont d’Urville, etc.
These lands were to experience a slow and disorganized colonization.
The first settlement of Europeans dates back to 1825, when the Irishman Peter Dillon set up the sandalwood trade with China. Some Australian planters settled some time later on the islands of Efate and Epi to harvest the copra. After having earned a lot of money in
New Caledonia, the businessman John Higginson, of Irish extraction, in turn set his sights on the archipelago. In 1882, he established the Compagnie Calédonienne des Nouvelles- Hébrides then, twelve years later, the Société française des Nouvelles-Hébrides.
Estimated at approximatively
260,000 inhabitants, the
population of Vanuatu is
comprised of a majority
of Melanesians and is
84% Catholic. Two thirds
are distributed among
the four main islands:
Efate, Espiritu Santo, Malekula and Tanna. A very young population, with 45%
under 15 years.
In this country that a number of accommodating tax laws turned into a tax haven and where foreign capital nowadays represents two thirds of the GNP, food crops and subsistence fishing continue to set the gentle pace of life in most villages. Although cocoa, coffee, kava, pepper, pumpkin… are starting to take off, copra remains the prime resource of a country where the economy also relies on the export of beef and fish and logging operations. Tourism, despite the world-wide economic recession, represents a fast-growing sector, with a milestone of 100,000 visitors having been achieved in 2009. Most of them come from Australia, New Caledonia and New Zealand.
Arts and crafts
Varying from one island to another, arts and crafts remain very rich in Vanuatu. To a large extent, it reflects life in the olden days, through items of daily use or used for custom ceremonies. The craftsmen fashion wooden dishes depicting stylised turtles, birds, fish, intended for preparing food.
They also make pestles, knives, clubs, spears, bows. Most carvings represent human faces.
Although previously widespread, nowadays pottery is only found in West Santo. The women use their knees to mold the baked clay, roll it and shape it into a bowl. Weaving, on the other hand, is still widely practised, the women produce mats, bags or baskets using pandanus and coconut leaves or the bark of the burao.
Located in the Pacific Ocean, 540 km to the North-East of New Caledonia, Vanuatu is made up of more than 80 islands and islets, most of them of volcanic origin, with a total area of 12,189 km2 and shaped as a Y tilted to the left.
Some 900 km separate the Torres Islands, to the north, from Anatom, in the south. Since the end of December 1994, these islands have been combined into six provinces: Torba, Sanma, Penama, Malampa, Shefa and Tafea.
Situated on the junction line of two continental tectonic plates, on the Pacific Rim of Fire, the country frequently experiences earthquakes and minor tsunamis. There are several highly active volcanoes, especially on the islands of Tanna, Ambrym and Lopévi, and some others to a lesser degree, such as on Ambae and Gaua. To the east of Epi, when flying low over the sea, you can often detect bubbling in the water caused by two submarine volcanoes.
Culture and custom
The islands of Melanesia have always been migration points from Asia to the Pacific. Vanuatu holds a central place in this migratory trend. To the rhythm of centuries- old rites and celebrations, ancient culture is still very much alive. But beyond the number of traditions, it is a whole way of life that influences every thought and dictates every day-to-day gesture. At the core of this culture, custom governs the social life, promotes respect and ensures law and order is maintained within the community. Disputes can thus be settled in a peaceful manner, through the exchange of pigs and mats. The significance of custom is apparent in every major event – marriages, funerals, circumcisions, rites of passage. Singing and dancing are
always part of everything.
While the people ensure the upholding of traditions so future generations can also live in peace and harmony, these traditions have inevitably evolved with the passage
of time. For instance, the nakamal, « themen’s meeting place », where kava is served, is now opening up to women.
The « nambas », or penis sheath, worn by men, is made from the bark or the leaves of the pandanus. Women wear skirts made of leaves, woven mats or burao bark. These are the basic items of clothing, then depending on the ceremony, the people may also wear masks (sometimes made of backed clay or tree ferns), head-dresses and ornaments.
A unique experience : the
Throughout the 19th century, these islands were the object of a great deal of rivalry between France and the United Kingdom. Ultimately they decided to set up a form of joint administration and so it was that, in London, on 20 Octber 1906, the Condominium of the New Hebrides came into being.
Place your meat order 48 hours prior to departure; some butcheries take care of everything for you, including your Quarantine export certificate.
During the Second World War, the New Hebrides were the first French colony to join forces with General de Gaulle. They also constituted a major rear base for the Americans who built a number of roads and
several airfields on Efate and Santo.
In the sixties, the population started to aspire to greater autonomy. In 1975, the Condominium authorities approved the organization of the first elections by universal suffrage.
In November 1979, the anglophone party of Father Walter Lini won the general elections. The Vanua’aku Pati secured 26 seats in the Assembly and Walter Lini became the first Prime Minister in history. Independence was declared on 30 July 1980 and saw the birth of the
Republic of Vanuatu (Ripablik blong Vanuatu in Bislama).
Georges Sokomanu was the first President of the Republic. Since then, francophone and anglophone governments have alternated in the running of the country.
The same year, a secessionist rebellion on the islands of Tanna and Espiritu Santo was quashed with the help of Papua New Guinea and Australia. Since then, the country has lived in peace, to the rhythm of the trade winds and the harvesting of yams.
Vanuatu’s reputation in the Pacific for the beauty and diversity of its marine life has been long since established. Its marine fauna could include some 300 varieties of coral and 450 species of fish.
Snorkelling and scuba diving open up an unforgettable and spectacular scenery. Several diving outfits offer courses for beginners and for the more experienced divers, some fabulous underwater treasures. At Lamen Bay (Epi) and Port Resolution (Tanna), it is not uncommon to come cross dugongs (seacows).
As for amateurs of game fishing, there is no shortage of choice – bonito, tuna, barracuda, swordfish and marlin abound...
A fairly highly endemic flora.
Vanuatu’s flora is characterized by a high level of endemism and includes, within the rain forests, a significant number of plants and trees found nowhere else. The vegetation varies considerably as you move inland from the coast. Mangroves, coconut trees, casuarina, pandanus, sea trumpets... – just to name some of the better known species – abound along the coast.
Further inland, towards the heart of the islands, the vegetation thickens and becomes more luxuriant, consisting of whitewood, kaori, banyan, tree ferns, wild orchids and
other creepers. Close to the settlements, an abundance of mango trees, pawpaw trees, banana trees, orange trees... have grown. All around, you can admire masses of trees and shrubs with the most beautiful flowers: hibiscus, bougainvillea, frangipani, flame trees, etc.
A lot of animals – pigs, chickens, cows, horses… – were imported by mankind. Over 121 species of birds have been recorded, a dozen or so of which are endemic to Vanuatu.
There are numerous butterflies in the country, among which the one known as the « good news » butterfly, several endemic insects and a dozen different bats, including the fruit bat. Reptiles here are not dangerous. Among the better known, there are geckos, lizards and the harmless Pacific boa.
Yam, taro and manioc are staple foods, while copra, kava, cocoa make up a large part of exports. The beef is excellent. There are a number of well-organised niche export markets and the meat can be labelled as organic. Vanuatu vanilla – Vanilla panifolia – originally from Mexico, 100% pure, and of a very high quality, grows mainly in Santo and is exported to New Zealand and Australia.
Then there is pepper, white or black, which also enjoys an excellent reputation overseas, because of its high piperine content and powerful flavour.
Last but not least, there is Tanna coffee, which is being more and more sought after, to the point where production cannot keep up with the demand from overseas markets.