The islands of Vanuatu have been inhabited for thousands of years. The earliest known settlement (4000 years BC) was in Malo, a small island south of Espiritu Santo. Ancient pottery has been found on many islands in the north and in the centre of the archipelago.
The first European to see the islands was the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Pedro de Quiros who came across a large island in the north of the group. Believing he had discovered the mythical southern continent, he called it Terra del Espiritu Santo (Land of the Holy Spirit) – now known as Santo.
Captain Cook chartered the group of islands in 1774 and gave it the name of New Hebrides, after the islands off the coast of Scotland.
The first missionaries sent by the London Missionary Society arrived in Erromango in 1839 and were immediately massacred. It took several decades before missions were established throughout the archipelago.
From 1864, unscrupulous traders started ‘recruiting’ by force or ruse, native labour for the sugar plantations of Queensland. This practice, known as ‘blackbirding’, didn’t end until the beginning of the 20th century when most of the surviving islanders were repatriated home. Some of them stayed in Queensland where their descendants have formed the distinct community of ‘South Sea Islanders’.
In 1906, the French and British Governments agreed to form a condominium – a unique form of government aimed at protecting the interests of their respective citizens. Under this system, the New Hebrides were provided with two resident commissioners (one French, one English), two public services, two courts and two police forces.
During World War II, the islands of Santo and Efate were used as important military bases for the American forces in the Pacific. The path to independence in the 1970s was marked by deep divisions between the pro-French parties and the nationalist anglophone parties. After the election of an anglophone, Father Walter Lini, to the post of Chief Minister in 1979, the islands of Santo and Tanna (where most of the pro-French population lived) declared themselves independent.
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