The Nation of Vanuatu

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Podcast Transcript

Located in the southern Pacific Ocean lies the small nation of Vanuatu

While it shares many features with other Pacific Island nations, there are things about Vanuatu which are unlike any other country in the world. 

Its language, religion, and history all have elements that are unlike any other country in the world 

Learn more about the nation of Vanuatu and everything which makes it unique on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Vanuatu is an archipelago of islands located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean.  It is roughly located between Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and Fiji. 

It is located in the region of the Pacific which is known as Melanesia, which includes New Caledonia, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands

Geographically, the Vanuatu archipelago is a Y-shaped collection of 83 islands that are volcanic in origin, 65 of which are inhabited by humans. The are several active volcanoes in the country, most notably Mount Yasur on Tanna Island,  which has been erupting almost continuously, at least since 1774 when Captain Cook spotted it. 

The people of Vanuatu share a very similar history to that of other people in the South Pacific. 

The first migration of humans was believed to have occurred around 3,300 years ago by the ancient Lapita people. 

The Lapita is the name given to the culture that settled the Melanesian Islands and first developed the seafaring technology to move between islands. 

The Lapita are believed to have originated from somewhere in the Northern Philippines, but the settlers to Vanuatu probably started from somewhere closer.

There was probably more than one migration event over time that brought humans to the Vanuatu archipelago. 

Due to a lack of written accounts, there is little we know about the very first people to settle in the region. 

One of the first people we know of from Vanuatu’s history was a chief by the name of Roi Mata, who lived in the late 16th or early 17th century. 

He was known for having conquered and united many of the islands, and one of the reasons he is known is because of the oral traditions passed down about him and the discovery of his tomb in 1967.

The first recorded European sighting of the island occurred in 1606 when the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós thought that he had found Australia. He named the land La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo, which means The Southern Land of the Holy Spirit. 

The largest island in Vanuatu is still called Espiritu Santo today.

Despite the early European visit, no Europeans bothered to come back for over 150 years. In 1768, the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville named the islands the Great Cyclades after the islands in Greece

However, when Captain Cook arrived in 1774, he named the islands the New Hebrides, which is the name that stuck until they became independent.

The islands didn’t have much in the way of resources that Europeans were interested in. 

The resource they did have was people. In the 1860s, British plantations in the Pacific needed workers, so they captured men in Vanuatu and forcibly coerced them to work in the fields. The act of capturing and forcing people to work was known as Blackbirding, and it was, for all practical purposes, slavery. This is despite the fact that Britain had outlawed slavery decades earlier.

Blackbirding may have resulted in half the male population in Vanuatu to have been taken, and some demographers believe that the population of Vanuatu in the mid-19th century before Blackbirding began may have been larger than the population of the islands today. 

By the 1880s, the people in the New Hebrides became better armed and were able to resist the Blackbirders, causing them to shift their efforts to Papua New Guinea. 

An 1882 exposé written in the Melbourne Age newspaper exposed the practice, which led to the eventual repatriation of most workers. 

The New Hebrides were not formally a territory or colony of any European country at this time. Both the French and the British had established small trading communities in the islands, most notably Franceville, which later became the current capital city of Port Vila. 

In 1878, Britain and France declared the New Hebrides to be neutral territory. This lack of direct control resulted in Fraceville declaring its independence in 1889.

Independent Fraceville, it should be noted, became the first country in the world to establish universal suffrage without regard to sex or race. At the time of independence, the population consisted of 500 native people and only 50 Europeans.

The lack of direct European control wasn’t to last very long. In many parts of the world, the French and the British would fight over territories and colonies. In 1906, having done this for centuries, the two countries did something unusual. 

They agreed to joint control the New Hebrides in a unique institution called the British-French Condominium.

The resulting system was confusing and chaotic. There were two sets of laws administered, and you could choose which set of laws you wished to be under. There were parallel systems for almost everything, including currency, education systems, hospitals, and police.

It was so confusing and awkward that it was known locally as the “Pandemonium” rather than the Condominium.

One of the biggest events to happen to Vanuatu was World War II. About 10,000 native men were recruited to serve in the Vanuatu Labor Corps, which existed from 1942 to 1945. The United States eventually took over the project after the British and French couldn’t adequately run the operation, and the men were complaining about working conditions. 

The Vanuatu Labor Corps was short-lived, but it had an incredible impact on the men who served. It popularized the John From Movement, which still exists to this day. 

The John From movement is a cargo cult, which really requires its own episode to explain fully. Having seen the airplanes and all the cargo being flown in, followers of the movement believed that a man named John From, which is probably a form of “John From America,” would one day return and bring with him “cargo.” 

The John From movement became a full-fledged religion.

The followers of John From created landing strips to welcome the planes that would bring cargo. They did ritualistic marching like soldiers and adopted the Red Cross flag as their symbol. 

The number of John From followers was in the thousands, but today there are believed to be only about 500 who are mostly in the village of Lamakara on the island of Tanna. 

After the war, as was happening in most of the world, decolonization and independence were put on the table. 

The problem was that the New Hebrides couldn’t just seek independence from one country. They had to seek it from two countries because of the Condominium arrangement. 

The British were pretty quick to agree to independence, having gone through this process with a number of former colonies. The French, however, were very reluctant let any of their colonies become independent. None of their colonies in the Pacific or the Caribbean ever became independent. Rather, they were just rolled into France proper.

Eventually, a plan for independence was agreed upon, and it was to happen in 1980. In the weeks before independence in June 1980, an anti-independence rebellion broke out, which had links to the John From movement.

Despite requests from the local government, the French did nothing to put down the rebellion because they didn’t want independence, and they also blocked the British from doing anything. 

So, the local officials asked the government of Papua New Guinea to send in troops who were warmly welcomed by the locals. The rebellion ended when the son of the leader of the rebellion drove through a blockade and was killed by Papuan soldiers. 

The entire 12-week incident became known as the Coconut War. 

On July 30, 1980, the Condominium of the New Hebrides was dissolved, and the independent nation of Vanuatu was born. 

Supposedly, when the French left after independence, they destroyed all of the offices they had in the country, going so far as to pull all of the copper wiring out of the walls. 

There are things in Vanuatu that you will find nowhere else on Earth. 

Bungee jumping was actually based on the ritual known as land diving, which is practiced on Pentecost Island in Vanuatu. 

The people of Pentecost will build wooden towers 20 to 30 meters or 65 to 100 feet high. The men will then jump off the towers with vines attached to their ankles. The towers are usually built on hillsides with fresh, soft soil beneath them in the landing zone. 

The vines absorb most of the energy from the fall, and it is designed such that most divers will hit the soil moments after the vines have stopped their fall. There are some incredible videos of it available online. 

The most remarkable thing about Vanuatu isn’t the cargo cults or land diving, it is the languages. 

Vanuatu has a population of a little over 300,000 people. However, there are 113 native languages in the country. That means each language averages under 2,000 native speakers and gives Vanuatu the highest linguistic density of any country on Earth.

In reality, the number of speakers isn’t evenly distributed, and there are several languages that are near extinction. 

If Vanuatu has so many languages, how does everyone communicate?

Despite all of the native languages in the country, there are only three official languages. English, French, and Bislama.

I’m sure you wondering, what is Bislama? There is a good chance you never even heard of it before. You probably have never encountered a Bislama department in college, never seen a Bislama phrase book in a store, or even seen a Bislama course on Duolingo.

Bislama is an English-based pidgin or creole language. 

A pidgin language is a simplified language that often develops when people are put together who don’t speak the same language. In the case of Vanuatu, it happened when men were Blackbirded in the late 19th century.  

They all spoke the many different languages of the region, and to communicate, they developed a pidgin that was based on a simplified English language vocabulary but using grammar from Melanesian languages. 

A pidgin becomes a creole when it develops a population of native speakers, which is what happened in Vanuatu. 

I visited Vanuatu years ago, and when I heard people speaking Bislama, I could catch about a third to half of what they were saying because the words were all based on English. 

I found that even if it doesn’t seem like a word was based in English, you could usually figure out the origin if you thought about it for a few seconds. 

An example would be the National Anthem of Vanuatu, Yumi, Yumi, Yumi. 

“Jumi” is spelled y-u-m-i, which is just an alternate spelling of the words you and me. Yumi is the word for “we,” you-me.

The name of this podcast in Bislama would be “Evri samting evri ples evri dei.”

Because it has a limited vocabulary, many word meanings are determined by context.

Perhaps the most important and commonly used word is “blong” which comes from the English word “belong.”

It can be used to describe almost anything in relation to something else.

Buk blong mi means, the book belongs to me.

Laet blong trak, means the light is on the truck. 

Man blong Amerika, means the man is from America.

Another word with many uses is “long”, which can me in, to, on, or by. 

Because the vocabulary is simplified, it is often necessary to use descriptive phrases to describe something. 

All vehicles are called truks, all birds are pidjins, and all fish are fis. So, describe different types of vehicles, birds, or fish you need a more lengthy description rather than a single word. 

For example, the phrase for a toothbrush is Bras blong tut, which would literally translate to the brush of the tooth. 

Because Bislama has an English language vocabulary, it is one of the easiest languages for native English speakers to learn. From reports I’ve heard, you can have reasonably fluent conversations after about a week or two of study. 

Bislama is also very similar to Tok Pisin, which is the English-based Creole spoken in Papua New Guinea. 

Vanuatu, as you can see, is actually a really interesting country.  It is pretty easy to visit with direct flights from neighboring countries, including Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji.  Once you are there, there are a host of natural and cultural things to see and do. 

It also might be a great place to visit if you are looking at the easiest way to pass your school’s foreign language requirement.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener rskillion over on Apple Podcasts in the United States They write

15 Minute Daily Gems

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Thanks, rskillion! I do make a point of keeping the show short and tight. It benefits you and it benefits me….and quite frankly if the show was any longer, it would be difficult for one person to produce.

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