History of Vanuatu

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The history of Vanuatu begins obscurely. The commonly held theory of Vanuatu's prehistory from archaeological evidence supports that peoples speaking Austronesian languages first came to the islands some 4,000 to 6,000 years ago.[1] Pottery fragments have been found dating back to 1300 B.C.[2] What little is known of the pre-European contact history of Vanuatu has been gleaned from oral histories and legends. One important early king was Roy Mata, who united several tribes, and was buried in a large mound with several retainers.



The first island in the Vanuatu group discovered by Spaniards was Espiritu Santo when, in 1606, the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Fernández de Quirós, spied what he thought was a southern continent. Europeans did not return until 1768, when Louis Antoine de Bougainville rediscovered the islands. In 1774, Captain Cook named the islands the New Hebrides, a name that lasted until independence. 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 labourers, encouraged a long-term indentured labour 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 favour of French subjects. By the turn of the century, the French outnumbered the British two to one.

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