Locals in warrior garb, Efate, Vanuatu

Vanuatu, One of the World's Happiest Countries - in a Nutshell

Author: Sue
Date: 2nd December 2012

A Brief History of Vanuatu

  • Vanuatu was first inhabited by Melanesian settlers ( the Lapita peoples). It's thought maybe 3,000 years ago, but there are no written sources and there has been little investigation. In any case, the area is so volcanic that any archaeological evidence has been destroyed.
  • The first Europeans to visit the islands were a Spanish expedition led by Portuguese navigator Fernandes de Queirós. He arrived on the largest island, Espíritu Santo, in 1606. Queirós claimed the archipelago for Spain, as part of the colonial Spanish East Indies, naming it La Austrialia del Espíritu Santo.
  • The islanders were fearsome cannibals. the first two British missionaries to arrive, in 1839, were promptly eaten.
  • In the 1880s, both France and the United Kingdom claimed parts of the archipelago, and in 1906, they agreed on a framework for jointly managing the archipelago, now known as the New Hebrides. (The name was coined by Captain Cook, when he explored there in 1774.)
  • An independence movement arose in the 1970s, with some violent incursions and the Republic of Vanuatu was founded in 1980.

Facts and Factoids

  • Vanuatu is an archipelago of roughly 80, mainly volcanic, islands which stretch for 1,300 kilometres. Two of these islands (Matthew and Hunter) are also claimed and controlled by France, as part of the French collectivity of New Caledonia
  • This was assessed to be the riskiest country in the world, when it comes to natural disasters: earthquakes, storms, volcanic eruptions, flooding, etc.
  • More than 100 languages are found in Vanuatu, making it per capita the world's most linguistically diverse country. A form of pidgin English called Bislama is widely spoken
  • Cargo cults thrive in the islands. Believers maintain that the manufactured goods utilised by non-native culture have been created by spiritual means, such as deities and ancestors and were actually intended for the local indigenous people. The foreigners have appropriated them instead, but the spirits wild make things right eventually. One such cult, on the island of Tanna, fastened on Prince Phillip, who they decided was the descendant of a Tanna spiritual ancestor (he was wearing his white uniform when he visited). So, The Prince Philip Movement, grew up.
  • Vanuatu often features high on the list of world's happiest countries.

What to See in Vanuatu

  • This is one of the world's least visited countries, (it's not very easy to get to) but the islands offer plenty of scuba diving and snorkelling at coral reefs, underwater caverns and wrecks, such as the WWII-era troopship SS President Coolidge. And beautiful beaches, especially on Espiritu Santo
  • And there's even more excitement - with the most accessible volcano in the world, Mount Yasur at Tanna
  • Head for the totally exotic. The ritual of land diving (known in Bislama as Nanggol), now a tourist attraction is performed by the men in the southern part of Pentecost Island. They jump off wooden towers around 20 to 30 metres high, with two tree vines wrapped around the ankles. It's done at the time of yam harvest. It was just performed annually but demand has increased the length of the season (April-June). A good dive equates with a good harvest. Legend has it that the first divers were actually women. The practice was initiated by a woman who was trying to escape from her husband, jumping from a tree. According to the Guinness World Records, the g-force experienced by those at the lowest point in their dive is the greatest experienced in the non-industrialized world by humans. And this is also said to be the precursor to bungee jumping. I've even read that the locals tried to sue, for stealing the idea.
  • Or just relax in Port Vila, the nation’s capital and economic centre, on a large lagoon on the island of Efate.

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