Vanuatu facts and information about the country.


According to historians and archaeologists the first settlers, coming from New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, might have landed in Vanuatu approximately 3,000 years ago. It is likely that they used sturdy, seagoing canoes for the journey. The first European to discover Vanuatu was the Spanish explorer Captain Pedro Ferdinand De Quirós (1565–1615), in 1605. He named the islands Tierra Australis del Espíritu Santo (“Southern Land of the Holy Spirit”), assuming that he had discovered the southern continent of Australia. The island on which he had landed still bears the name Espíritu Santo.

The French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1729–1811) landed in Vanuatu in 1768. He came ashore and traversed the islands of Aoba, Pentecost, and Maewo, which he renamed Cyclades after the famous Greek Islands. He named the strait between the islands after himself. In 1774 Captain James Cook (1728–79) sailed through the island chain from north to south. He explored many of the islands and renamed the archipelago the New Hebrides after the islands off the coast of Scotland. After Cook the islands were repeatedly visited by French explorers.

By 1895 both the French and English had settled here. In 1902 both nations appointed resident commissioners. In October 1906 Britain and France signed an agreement resolving their various claims to the country and establishing joint sovereignty. This condominium was the only government of its kind in the world. Apparently as occurred in other places where Europeans had contact with the indigenous peoples, the native people of Vanuatu contracted diseases brought in by the missionaries and traders and died in large numbers.

The population fell from over a million in 1800 to less than 50,000 in 1935. In late 1978 the condominium arrangement ceased, and elections were held in November 1979. Vanuatu became independent on July 30, 1980, and joined the UN on September 15, 1981.


The land area Vanuatu is approximately 5,675 square miles, and the territorial waters stretch over 173,750 square miles. When the very first islands sprang up from the sea, they had little or no vegetation. They were gradually overrun by plants from neighboring countries, brought in by the birds, wind, sea currents, and human beings. The plants initially brought in by people served as sources of food as well as building materials for houses, canoes, fences, and so forth. Vanuatu is now covered with an immense variety of plants, trees, and shrubs. Close to the sea, the commonly found trees include mangroves, coconut palms, casuarinas, pandanus, burao (a small tree growing up to a height of 30 feet, often forming dense thickets), and namele (a species of fern and used on the national flag) among others. In the interiors of the islands the vegetation becomes denser with a profusion of melek trees, kauri trees, banyan trees, ferns, wild orchids, and vines. The local fauna includes insects, worms, lizards, snakes, bats, birds, and domesticated species such as pigs, chickens, cows, and horses.

There are more than 100 species of birds in Vanuatu. The country also has many varieties of colorful butterflies, some of which are known as “good news” butterflies. The most commonly seen reptiles are the gecko, the green lizard, the Pacific boa, and crocodiles. The sea skirting the islands is home to a wide variety of fish such as yellowfin tuna, barracuda, swordfish, marlin, and shark.

The climate of Vanuatu is tropical in the north and tends to be subtropical in the southernmost parts. The average midday temperature in the capital of Port-Vila is 84°F in summer and 77°F in winter; rainfall is about 93 inches annually. The archipelago lies between two sides of a fault in the Earth’s crust that rub against each other, causing volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Vanuatu has both extinct and active volcanoes. The Ambrym and Lopevi volcanoes are permanently active. Lopevi was dormant for many years but became active about 50 years ago. On the southern island of Tanna is located Yasur, which can easily be reached by travelers and explorers. There are no rivers on the island, and its highest point is an unnamed location on Banaba at 266 feet.


The economy of Vanuatu is based on small-scale agriculture, the source of livelihood for 65 percent of the total population. Fishing, offshore financial services, and tourism are other important industries. Mineral deposits are negligible, and there are no petroleum deposits. Tax revenues come mainly from import duties. Economic development is hindered by dependence on relatively few commodity exports (the island of Espíritu Santo produces the bulk of Vanuatu’s exports including cocoa, coffee, coconuts, and high-quality beef), vulnerability to natural disasters, and long distances from major markets. In mid2002 the government stepped up its efforts to boost tourism. Australia and New Zealand are the main sources of tourists as well foreign aid. Agriculture, especially animal husbandry, is a second target for growth.


Kava is a beverage consumed on most Pacific Islands. It is prepared from the roots of the plant with the same name (Piper methysticum). Kava is usually planted in a field far away from the village, making it difficult to transport kava roots from the fields to the village. For preparing the drink, kava roots are first chopped into very tiny pieces. Then the pieces are ground and twisted by both hands. A little water is added to the mashed kava roots, and the doughlike stuff is kneaded well. A certain quantity of liquid comes out as a result of the squeezing of the kneaded roots. The liquid is then filtered through a sheet of coconut fiber and served in a coconut cup.


The social fabric of Vanuatu is recognized as a highly cosmopolitan one. On Vanuatu small communities of French, British, Australians, New Zealanders, Vietnamese, and Chinese live in peaceful coexistence.

Up to the 1980s Vanuatu (formerly known as the New Hebrides), was jointly administered by France and Britain as a condominium. Most of Vanuatu’s islands have very thick vegetation and forest cover. Some of the islands are uninhabited. Among the inhabited ones the Malekula and Ambrym are home to groups of primitive people who live in inaccessible areas. Tanna Island is famous for the John Frum Cargo Cult as well as the Toka ritual dance. During this dance men wear tasseled skirts, paint their hair in different hues, and leap in a frenzy trying to trap women in their dance circles. Catching one, they toss her up and down, fondle, and pinch her. This continues all night. In the morning: pigs are slaughtered, followed by feasts.

On the island of Pentecost, the famous landdiving ritual takes place during April and May: Men jump off towers (constructed with bush and shrub materials) with dried-up vines tied to their legs. This is a highly risky practice because the jumpers’ heads may be grazed by the solid earth and cause accidents or injuries.

It is customary on Pentecost for local people to communicate with their eyebrows and facial expressions. If someone raises his or her eyebrows, it can mean “hello” or “yes.” What is more, one can even flag down a bus with the appropriate facial expression. It is also a common practice among the islanders to hiss at each other in order to get someone else’s attention.


The intermingling of cultures and racial groups in Vanuatu is strongly reflected in its cuisine, which is a delicious fusion of Melanesian and European styles. Some interesting dishes are warm chicken salad laced with marinated feta, sun-dried tomatoes, and balsamic dressing sweetened with honey; tuluk (minced beef sealed in a manioc pastry) is served piping hot in cabbage jackets. Poe is the highly popular dessert (made of baked pumpkin mixed with manioc until it forms a smooth dough, to which are added sugars, a vanilla pod, and coconut cream). Coconut crabs, wild pigeons, and flying foxes (bats) are traditionally cooked in ground ovens and said to be highly palatable.

Pork is the mainstay of the local diet, and roast pork is a common dish. Raw ingredients include cabbages, bananas, pink grapefruit, skewered nuts, coconuts, fish and seafood (including squid, mussels, baby octopus, coconut crabs, and lobsters). French dishes served in Vanuatu’s restaurants have a local touch, such as la tarte a l’oignon (onion tart). The men of Vanuatu drink kava at local kava bars. The rich, tropical soil in the vicinity of the active Yasur volcano on the island of Tanna is conducive to the cultivation of coffee beans, and coffee is also a highly popular beverage.

Public/Legal Holidays


Observed by:General Public Observed on:December 31–January 1 The people of Vanuatu say good-bye to the old year and joyously welcome the new one, which brings new hopes and aspirations for everyone. In Vanuatu, as in most parts of the world, New Year’s Day is celebrated in the company of one’s family, friends, and acquaintances. The day is marked by partying and get-togethers, dance and musical programs, and general gaiety and mirth. This is a public holiday.


Observed by:General Public Observed on:May 1 The earliest origins of Labor Day are sometimes ascribed to the pagan spring celebrations practiced by farmers, peasants, and villagers in Europe well before the Middle Ages. Their customs may have influenced the choice of May 1 to celebrate the contributions made by workers to their societies. In 1889 the Second International, a consortium of socialist organizations, declared May 1 a day to recognize the importance of workers around the world and scheduled the first demonstrations and celebrations for the following year, 1890. They coordinated this observance with the strike called by the U.S. labor union, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), demanding an eight-hour workday.


Among the Ni-Vanuatu, cannibalism was long a tradition in their tribal cultures, with the exception of the islands of Banks and Torres, where it was never practiced. The last recorded act of cannibalism was in 1969 among the Big Nambas tribe on Malekula, said to have been the last tribe to become Christians. There are also unconfirmed reports of cannibalism in Efate as late as 1987. Accurate information is hard to come by because the government has suppressed the subject of cannibalism; it is a sensitive issue because there are still people alive who once ate human flesh.

Why eat other human beings? Some tribes believed that eating human flesh endowed them with magical powers. For other groups it was a practical solution: If pigs weren’t available, they sacrificed a person and then ate him or her. The meat was said to taste better and to be more tender than pork. A majority of such main courses were slain specifically to be eaten; only on Tanna were people who died of natural causes consumed. In spite of such exceptions cannibalism was usually the result of tribal warfare, though some missionaries were also served up. Europeans, however, weren’t generally considered tasty because they were too salty. According to those who know the best parts were the buttocks, the inner upper arms and thighs; the palms of the hands and women’s breasts were regarded as delicacies.

In Vanuatu on this occasion, the government draws up plans and implements several schemes for the amelioration of the workers’ conditions and their general welfare. This day is marked by speeches, processions, and other trade union activities. This is a public holiday. This day is also celebrated as May Day or Workers’ Day.

See also Volume III: LABORDAY


Observed by:General Public Observed on: July 30 In Vanuatu July 30 is celebrated as Independence Day. It is a day of festivities, and the waterfront in town is crowded with people from the outer islands who have come to join their relatives for the party. In some years the government adds another day or two to the celebration, depending on the mood of the people and whether it falls close to a weekend.


Observed by:General Public Observed on:November 29 On this day in 1977 a civil uprising took place on the main island demanding liberation from foreign control. (Freedom came in 1980.) A number of people were injured while others hid themselves after an encounter with the armed police. This incident threw the entire region into chaos and disorder.

On this occasion every year the president of Vanuatu addresses the nation. Medals are awarded to those citizens who have made significant contributions to their society and the country at large. The general public prays for lasting peace and the unity of their nation. Some people also go on picnics and enjoy group amusements on this day. This is a public holiday and schools, businesses, and government offices are closed.

Religious Holidays


Observed by:Christians Observed on:Friday before Easter Good Friday, also called Holy Friday, Great Friday, or Mourning Friday, recalls Jesus’ agony and death on the Cross. As in many other countries of the world, in Vanuatu this solemn occasion is marked by readings of the Psalms and Gospels, hymn singing, and church services.




Observed by:Christians Observed on:First Sunday after Lent Easter is a Christian feast that celebrates the Christian belief in Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead three days after his Crucifixion. It is sometimes called Resurrection Day. This is a day of utmost importance because the fundamental teaching of Christianity is that Jesus, through his death, freed all his believers from the penalty of sin.

The holiday falls on the first Sunday after Lent and is celebrated by Christians the world over. They often buy new clothes for this special day and go to church to pray. The word easter is derived from the name of the Germanic mother goddess Eostre. She was the revered fertility goddess of the Saxon people who lived in northern Europe. Easter eggs, fertility symbols, once associated with the goddess, are now associated with the Christian festival. They are symbols of new life.

Easter signifies the resurgence of hope and a fresh lease on life for all humanity. Early in the morning the people attend Mass and prayer services in the local churches. The rest of the day is spent in outdoor activities and sports. The spirit of joyfulness and festivity spills over to the following day Easter Monday.




Observed by:Christians Observed on:Forty days after Easter For a period of 40 days after his Resurrection, Jesus preached and intermingled with his Apostles and other followers. Ultimately he ascended into heaven, and this event is celebrated as Ascension Day by Christians. In Vanuatu the local people go to church and attend special prayer services and Masses.




Observed by:Christians Observed on:August 15 Assumption Day celebrates the day when Mary, the mother of Jesus, was received into heaven. Devout Christians consider this evidence of Jesus’ promise to all believing Christians that they too will be received into paradise. People of Vanuatu celebrate the festival in the traditional way with prayers and visits to churches.



John Frum Cargo Cult

The island of Tanna is home to the John Frum Cargo Cult, reputedly one of the world’s most enigmatic religions. When Presbyterian missionaries came to the Pacific Islands during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they brought with them Western ideals and material goods that began to erode the Vanuatu traditional, or kastom (“custom”), way of life. During the 1930s several reports of sightings of John Frum spread like wildfire through the island. He was believed to be a spiritual messiah who had come to lead the people back to their traditional ways. The actual character and traits of John Frum are still shrouded in mystery. The Ni-Vanuatu believe that he is the Son of God who may take the form of a black Melanesian, or even a white man. According to popular beliefs, he lives in the crater of the Yasur volcano with an army of 20,000 men.


Observed by:Christians Observed on:December 25 Christmas is a day of great joy for Christians all over the world because it celebrates the birth of Jesus, whom they believe was the son of God, and the messiah promised in the Old Testament. In Vanuatu a strongly Christian country, the day is marked by prayers in churches, feasting, giving and receiving of gifts, and general festivities. Both in rural and urban areas, groups of people wander from house to house throughout the night, singing until the inhabitants waken, come out of their homes to listen, and finally donate small gifts of cash or food. Christmas launches the festive Bonane season (pronounced bone-AN-nay, from the French Bonne Année, which means “good year”). The celebrations continue right up to New Year’s.



Observed by:Christians Observed on:December 26 The origins of Boxing Day are uncertain but may be based on the ancient practice (particularly among the British) of giving cash or durable goods to public servants and those of the lower classes on the day after Christmas. Gifts among equals were exchanged on or before Christmas Day, but the less fortunate were given gifts the day after. Since Vanuatu was under the influence of Britain for a fairly long time, this practice has become a local custom. In some countries this day is also observed as St. Stephen’s Day. St.

Stephen was the first Christian martyr. In Vanuatu the day is also called Christmas Bank Holiday. See also Volume III: BOXINGDAY; CHRISTIANITY

Rites of Passage


In Vanuatu the young boys undergo circumcision between ages five and seven, but the ritual is not performed for religious or cultural reasons. It originated in a tribal legend about a woman who was married to two brothers. After one brother had accidentally circumcised himself as he passed by a low bamboo branch while out hunting, his wife told him that she enjoyed making love with him more than she did with his uncircumcised brother. On hearing this bit of intimate information, the other brother was circumcised and everyone lived happily ever after. Because of this happy ending, circumcising men became customary on some islands. While all men on Tanna are circumcised, those living on EspírituSanto are not.

For this important rite of passage they are quarantined or segregated from their families, before and after the actual act, for a total period of nearly three months. Circumcision is often performed by qualified doctors. During this period the female relatives of the boys cannot cook for them or pay them a visit. It is the paternal grandfathers of the boys who are given the task of looking after them. On the actual day of the circumcision the boys don traditional skirts, get their faces painted, and wear colorful feathers as headdresses. On this occasion the maternal uncles of the boys enjoy a great deal of importance, because traditionally they are responsible for the milestones in the lives of their nephews: circumcision, beard shaving, and getting married. The fathers of the boys prepare food and drinks (especially kava) and offer it to the guests who come together to celebrate the occasion. In the evening traditional dances are performed to which the public is invited.


In Vanuatu, a traditional marriage ceremony is spread over many days. Prior to the marriage in the villages of the bride and the bridegroom respectively, the families prepare for the wedding by collecting gifts and other belongings that the couple will use in their new life. Traditional dances also take place in the man’s house. Thereafter the relatives and kinsfolk of the bridegroom come and take away the bride (along with her belongings) to the village of the groom. The bride’s people pretend to cry. As the bride leaves the house her parents unfold a big red mat over her head so that she is not visible to the bystanders. In earlier days the bride customarily killed a tusked boar at this point; now she merely taps the head or skull of the tusked pig with a walking stick. (In Vanuatu a boar or pig is a symbol of wealth, prosperity, and affluence.) All those who plan to attend the wedding throng the village of the bridegroom.

The bride, led by her paternal aunt, moves to the middle of the ceremonial ground (sara) in the village. The bride and groom stand by huge packages containing the bride’s belongings. Some of the members of the groom’s family then walk over to the bride; her aunt and her father (who join them later) walk in circles around them, and touch the hem of the bride’s father’s clothes. This gesture shows acceptance of the gifts as well as the bride. Then the mothers of the couple each bring a sack of raw yams to the spot where the ceremonies are being conducted. A sister of the groom gnaws a bit of the raw yam and spits it out. This symbolizes that her brother (the bridegroom) will spit out his semen into the bride. This yam is cooked and eaten only by the sisters of the bridegroom.

An extravagant wedding feast follows in the groom’s village, where guests are entertained with lots of kava and special dishes (vwavwaligi) cooked in earthen ovens. Vwavwaligi involve a process of baking in a casserole. They require heating up many stones, a lot of firewood with which to heat them, and leaves of heliconia in which the raw food items are wrapped. The relatives and kinsfolk of the bridegroom are assigned the tasks of fetching firewood, the stones, and the leaves in addition to managing the entire banquet. In traditional societies of Vanuatu there are two commodities that play key roles in all weddings: red mats and pigs. Bwana, or a big red mat (made with pandanus leaves), is a kind of traditional money. Bari, small red mats, are used to supplement the big red mats in case of exchange or payment. Small red mats are also used as traditional clothing. Women once used them as G-strings and men as loincloths.

Further Reading

Joel Bonnemaison et al., eds., Arts of Vanuatu (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996); Haidy Geismar, Vanuatu Stael: Kastom & Creativity (Cambridge: University of Cambridge, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2003); Randall Prior, Gospel and Culture in Vanuatu: The Founding Missionary and a Missionary of a New Frontier (Wattle Park, New South Wales, Australia: Gospel Vanuatu, 1998); Felix Speiser, Ethnology of Vanuatu: An Early Twentieth-Century Study, D. Q. Stephenson, Trans. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996); R. Gerard Ward and Elizabeth Kingdon, eds., Land, Custom, and Practice in the South Pacific (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).


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