Language, Culture and History

Language

There are over 120 distinct languages in use in Vanuatu - the world's highest con­centration of different languages per head of population. Official languages are English, French and Bislama (Pidgin English).

Culture

Vanuatu is home to an incredibly diverse culture, demonstrated through the existence of over 120 native languages spoken across its 83 islands. In general, the people of Vanuatu largely retained their traditional life and the dances, ceremonies, weddings and funeral rites which vary from island to island -- and sometimes from village to village. The bulk of Vanuatu's population lives in small rural villages where they grow their own produce in extensive gardens. Though it may not appear so to the visitor, village life is well-structured. Each village has a chief who acts as a justice of the peace and delegates responsibility to the people of his village.

If you're visiting a village without a guide, you should attempt to meet the chief or at the very least obtain permission from one of the chief's repre­sentatives in order to walk around freely.

Women's rights are still in the early stages in Vanuatu and traditional gender roles remain a very strong part of Vanuatu culture. Over 90% of Ni-Vanuatu practice Christianity.

In Sanma Province (Espiritu Santo and surrounding islands), the urban centre of Luganville is the most developed area of the northern islands. Residents of Luganville are conditioned to tourists and other than at the market, you may not find much in the way of traditional life or customs in town. If you want to view and experience more traditional culture, you'll need to travel beyond Luganville. Day tours are available to many areas on the island of Espiritu Santo that is still rich in custom and a traditional way of life. Longer tours can be arranged, including multi-day treks to more remote villages.

History

Europeans first discovered Vanuatu in 1606 when the Spanish explorer, Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, sailed into Espiritu Santo's Big Bay. It was another 50 years before the next Europeans arrived but by the mid 1800s, foreigners were starting to settle in Espiritu Santo, capitalizing on Santo's magnificent sandalwood. Unfortunately, black birding came to Vanuatu in the late 1800s and by the 20th century, the indigenous people of Espiritu Santo began to resent European settlers and a resistance movement began.

Resistance was delayed by WWII when the Americans, seeking a secure base for staging action in Pacific, selected Espiritu Santo. With the natural harbour of Segond Canal, it was the ideal location for a military base and the town of Luganville as it is known today was born. During the war, Luganville could accommodate up to 50,000 people and throughout the war years, over 500,000 military personnel were stationed here. In addition to building roads and erecting numerous Quonset huts, the Americans constructed 40 cinemas, four military hospitals, and five airfields. When the war ended, the Americans left almost as quickly as they arrived and Espiritu Santo returned to a peaceful, quiet existence.

By the mid 1960's, resentment of Europeans had only increased and Ni-Vanuatu protests led to the formation of a kastom movement called Nagriamel, led by the charismatic Jimmy Stevens. Through a tense political period, Vanuatu sought independence but just 8 weeks before national independence was achieved, the Nagriamel movement staged a coup in Espiritu Santo known as the Coconut Rebellion. They occupied Luganville and called their new country Vemarana. The land was short-lived, however, as elections went ahead and the newly farmed Vanuatu government recruited troops from Papua New Guinea, who quickly restored order to Espiritu Santo and unity to the entire nation. Today, Espiritu Santo remains a peaceful slice of paradise welcoming visitors from all over the world.