Vanuatu’s prehistory is unknown; archaeological evidence suggests that people speaking Austronesian languages initially arrived on the islands about 3,300 years ago. Pottery pieces ranging from 1300–1100 BC have been discovered.
The Vanuatu group of islands first came into contact with Europeans in 1606, when the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, sailing for the Spanish Crown, arrived on the largest island and named the group La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo, or “The Southern Land of the Holy Spirit,” believing he had arrived in Terra Australis, or Australia. The Spanish built a short-lived colony at Big Bay on the island’s north side. The name Espiritu Santore is still used today.
Europeans did not return to the islands until 1768, when Louis Antoine de Bougainville found them. Captain Cook called the islands the New Hebrides in 1774, a designation that lasted until the islands gained independence in 1980.
The merchant Peter Dillon found sandalwood on the island of Erromango in 1825, sparking a surge of immigration that stopped in 1830, after a conflict between newcomers and Polynesian labor. Planters in Australia, Fiji, New Spain, and the Samoan Islands needed laborers during the 1860s, so they promoted a long-term bonded labor trade known as “blackbirding.” During the peak of the labor trade, more than half of the adult male population of many of the islands worked in other countries. Fragmentary evidence suggests that Vanuatu’s present population is much less than it was before contact.
Catholic and Protestant missionaries from Europe and North America visited the islands in the nineteenth century to engage with the locals. For example, John Geddie, a Scots-Canadian Presbyterian missionary, landed to the island of Aneityum in 1848 and spent the rest of his life there, converting the people to Christianity and western habits. John Gibson Paton was a Scottish missionary who spent his whole life in the area.
Settlers arrived in search of land for cotton plantations. Planters moved to coffee, cocoa, bananas, and, most effectively, coconuts when worldwide cotton prices fell. Initially, the bulk of immigrants were British subjects from Australia, but the formation of the Caledonian Company of the New Hebrides in 1882 drew more French subjects. By the turn of the twentieth century, the French outnumbered the British by a factor of two.
The jumble of French and British interests in the islands resulted in calls for one of the two countries to annexe the area. France and the United Kingdom agreed to share administration of the islands in 1906. It was a one-of-a-kind system of government known as the British-French Condominium. Only in a combined court did the different governing systems come together. Melanesians were not allowed to become citizens of either power.
The early 1940s saw the emergence of challenges to this system of governance. The entrance of Americans after WWII, with their informal customs and relative affluence, aided the development of nationalism among the islands. An indigenous cargo cult (a movement trying to acquire industrial products via magic) promising Melanesian salvation was founded on belief in a legendary messianic person called John Frum. John Frum is now a religion as well as a political party with a member in Parliament.
The New Hebrides National Party was the first political party to be formed in the early 1970s. Father Walter Lini, who subsequently became Prime Minister, was one of the founders. The Vanua’aku Pati, renamed in 1974, campaigned for independence, which was won during the short Coconut War.
Vanuatu’s independence as a republic was declared in 1980.
Vanuatu had a period of political instability in the 1990s, which resulted in a more decentralized administration. A salary disagreement prompted the Vanuatu Mobile Force, a paramilitary organization, to attempt a coup in 1996. There were accusations of corruption under Maxime Carlot Korman’s administration. Since 1997, new elections have been called numerous times, most recently in 2004.