Today is Independence Day in Vanuatu, officially the Republic of Vanuatu (Ripablik blong Vanuatu), an island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean. Vanuatu was first inhabited by Melanesian people. The first Europeans to visit the islands were the members of a Spanish expedition led by Portuguese navigator Fernandes de Queirós, who arrived in 1605. He claimed the archipelago for Spain and named it Espiritu Santo (Holy Spirit), which remained the name of the main island after the archipelago was renamed the New Hebrides. In the 1880’s France and the United Kingdom claimed parts of the country, and in 1906 they agreed on a framework for jointly managing the archipelago. An independence movement arose in the 1970s, and the Republic of Vanuatu was founded in 1980. On independence the nation adopted the name Vanuatu, derived from the word vanua (“land” or “home”), which occurs in several Austronesian languages, and the word tu (“stand”). Together the two words indicated the independent status of the new nation.
After the initial discovery in 1605, Europeans did not return until 1768, when Louis Antoine de Bougainville rediscovered the islands. In 1774, Captain Cook visited (naming them the New Hebrides), and in 1825, trader Peter Dillon’s discovery of sandalwood on the island of Erromango began a rush that ended in 1830 after a clash between immigrant Polynesian workers and indigenous Melanesians. During the 1860s, planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoan Islands, in need of laborers, encouraged a long-term indentured labor trade called “blackbirding”. At the height of the blackbirding, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the Islands worked abroad.
It was at this time that missionaries, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, arrived on the islands. Settlers also came, looking for land on which to establish cotton plantations. When international cotton prices collapsed, they switched to coffee, cocoa, bananas, and, most successfully, coconuts. Initially, British subjects from Australia made up the majority, but the establishment of the Caledonian Company of the New Hebrides in 1882 soon tipped the balance in favor of French subjects. By around the start of the 20th century, the French outnumbered the British two to one.
Challenges to this form of government began in the early 1940s. The arrival of U.S. nationals (military and civilian) with their informal demeanor and relative wealth during World War II was instrumental in the rise of nationalism in the islands. The belief in a mythical messianic figure named John Frum was the basis for an indigenous cargo cult (a movement attempting to obtain industrial goods through magic), promising Melanesian deliverance from foreigners. Today, John Frum is both a religion and a political party with two members in Parliament. Perhaps the final political impetus towards independence was the central issue of land ownership which arose during the 1960s. The ancient customs of the Ni-Vanuatu meant that land was held in trust for future generations by the current custodians. Europeans viewed land more as a commodity and owned about 30% of the land area. This European-held land had been mostly cleared for coconut production, but when they began clearing yet more land for coconut production, protests began in both Espiritu Santo and Malekula islands led by Jimmy Stevens and his kastom (indigenous heritage) movement called “Nagriamel”.
In the 1960s France opposed Britain’s desire to de-colonize the New Hebrides, fearing that the independence sentiment would be contagious in their mineral-rich colonial possessions in French New Caledonia. The first political party was established in the early 1970s and originally was called the New Hebrides National Party. One of the founders was Walter Lini, an Anglican Priest, who later became Prime Minister. Renamed the Vanua’aku Party