In this episode of 80 Days: An Exploration Podcast, we’ll be talking about The Republic of Vanuatu, a Pacific island country located in the South Pacific Ocean, around 1,700 kilometres (or 1,000 miles) east of northern Australia and 540 kilometres (340 miles) northeast of New Caledonia.
First inhabited by Melanesian people around 3,000 years ago, parts of the archipelago were settled by British and French colonists in the 1800s, and in 1906 France and the United Kingdom agreed to administer the islands jointly in a unique form of government known as the British-French Condominium. Vanuatu gained its independence in July 1980, and is today home to around 270,000 people.
Only around 65 of the archipelago’s 82 islands are inhabited, and although the country is spread across 12,200 square kilometres (4,700 sq mi) its land surface is very limited to around 4,700 square kilometres or 1,800 sq miles, a similar size to the Falkland Islands or our old friend The Gambia. The indigenous population, called ni-Vanuatu, is overwhelmingly Melanesian, and the main language is a pidgin creole known as Bislama, though English and French are both widely spoken, as are up to 113 indigenous languages. According to The NYT Magazine, “A meaningful national identity has been constructed from a common appreciation of ceremonial pig-tusk bracelets and the taking of kava, a very mild narcotic root that looks like primordial pea soup and tastes like a fine astringent dirt.”
Straddling the seismic strip called the ‘Ring of Fire’, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis have all been relatively commonplace over recent decades, earning Vanuatu the unfortunate distinction of being the world’s most dangerous place when it comes to natural disasters.
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Your hosts, as always, are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly in Hong Kong, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 in the UK, and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach in Ireland . (Theme music by Thomas O’Boyle @thatthomasfella). We’d also like to thank Professor Lamont Lindstrom for his contribution to this episode. You can find more about him here.
Some further reading:
- Science Magazine has more on the graves of the Lapita peoples, the first settlers of the Western Pacific.
- The DNA research by David Reich of Harvard Med School on these ancient civilisations can be found here.
- Early Vanuatu Chief Roi Mata, discussed in this episode, is profiled by Lonely Planet.
- His domain has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can read more about that at the UNESCO website.
- Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, the French navigator mentioned in this episode, is profiled by Brittanica here.
- You can read more about Peter Dillon, the sandalwood trader, at the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
- The Australian National University has further reading on Erromango, the Martyr’s Isle.
- There is also further reading from the same source on the British-French Condominium (definitely our favourite form of government).
- Joe’s stories of planters gambling with the servitude of natives as currency were sourced from this article at The Pacific Historial Review.
- The Wall Street Journal has an extensive article about the Allied bases that were set up on Vanuatu during World War II.
- Some excellent photos of the same bases can be found at WW2Wrecks.
- The obituary of Jimmy Stevens, the Coconut War revolutionary, can be found here.
- The New International has more information on The Phoenix Foundation and the role they played in the so-called Coconut War.
- Walter Lini, Vanuatu’s first Prime Minister, is profiled here by Brittanica.
- Extensive info on the Flag of Vanuatu can be found on Gettysburg Flag Works.
- The United Nations University report on Vanuatu’s vulnerability to natural disasters can be found here.
- More info on Vanuatu’s economy can be found at The Commonwealth.
- You can also find Vanuatu on the Happy Planet Index — it currently ranks #4 in the world.
- If you’d like to hear more about Bislama, there is a TED Talk on it and other similar languages by Tess Walraven here.
- The mindblowing video of Land Diving that we all enjoyed can be seen below:
Music that might interest listeners:
- Vanuatu National Anthem – Yumi Yumi Yumi
- The Water Drummers of Vanuatu, which we sadly neglected to mention here, have to be seen to be believed.
- There is also a documentary on the Sounds of Vanuatu which is worth a watch.