Welcome to the official website of the Trade Commissioner of the Republic of Vanuatu
Trade Commissioner Office of the Vanuatu in Hong Kong has been making best efforts not only to promote exchanges and cooperation between Republic of Vanuatu and Hong Kong.
Aside from general information on Vanuatu and the relations between Vanuatu, Hong Kong and China, our website entails Vanuatu’s current diplomatic issues and details on visa requirement to enter Vanuatu. Also, it is a pertinent resource as it is linked with many useful websites of government-invested corporations .
Our Trade Commissioner, on behalf of the Republic of Vanuatu Government, plans to further strengthen Vanuatu’s cooperative relations with Hong Kong and main land China in every field including trade, investment, culture, education, and tourism.
Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or need further information.
Land, from the perspective of native New Hebrideans, was not something that could be owned. And therefore it could not be sold. It is held in trust by families, from one generation to the next, as has been the tradition for many since before Christ was born. One might give away, or sell the use of land, but not the land itself. Europeans, however, take an entirely different viewpoint. By the mid 1960’s European settlers claimed ownership of almost 30% of the county’s land mass. There are places around Santo where more land was claimed than existed – unless one measured a fair distance underwater. Settlers had, for the most part, cleared land to grow coconuts – copra being the mainstay of the economy for some time. But as the price of copra fell, planters began to look at alternatives. With the idea of expanding into cattle production, planters began clearing jungle adjoining their properties. This led to immediate protests in Santo and Malekula from local villagers who objected strongly to yet more of their ‘custom’ land being pilfered. The objections grew and natural resentment that started at the end of World War II sparked the formation of political parties. On the one hand were French backed parties such as the supposedly custom-oriented Nagriamel movement. Led by the colourful, Charismatic Jimmy Stevens, it claimed to protect Melanesian’s claim to traditional lands. On the other hand, in 1971 when Stevens petitioned the United Nations for early Independence of the archipelago, the Anglican Minister Father Walter Lini formed the Anglophone backed Vanua’aku Party.
As the country became more politicised, the (minority) Anglicans joined the Vanua’aku Party, but the (majority) French fragmentised. Many mixed race and educated Melanesian Francophones considered themselves more French than Melanesian and were adamantly opposed to the British declared aim of early Independance. Some wanted the Condominium to remain, whilst others simply wanted the British out and France to annex the country entirely. This division amongst the Francophones and the added confusion of Jimmy Stevens push for Santo autonomy (with Malekula and Tanna making similar overtures) was the stage upon which the first general election was set.
After enough wrangling and accusations to fill several books, in November 1979, Father Walter Lini’s Vanua’aku Party emerged the clear winner. But being the winner did not mean everyone agreed. It should be remembered that the archipelago is made up of over 80 islands and over 113 languages. It is one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth. Trying to govern it had given the Condominium more grief than it could have imagined.
With virtually no preparation for Independence under the British/French rule, Father Walter Lini was not going to have an easy time of it.
The French are notoriously possessive about their colonies, but despite their objections, Independence was set for mid 1980. However in May of that year, just a few weeks prior to the end of Condominium rule, an insurrection on Tanna split the island in two. One faction supported the new government while the other supported the French. In Santo, Jimmy Stevens seized the opportunity to blockade the airport, run the police from their small station and declare Santo independent of the about to be born country of Vanuatu, and raised the flag of the independent country of Venerama.
If pandemonium was thought to exist during the Condominium, then it reigned sovereign for the next few weeks. France would not agree to British troops intervening and French troops did nothing. Jimmy Steven’s men were armed with only bows and arrows yet they held the about to be born country to ransom.
Father Walter Lini was given virtually no support from the exiting colonial powers, except verbal sympathy and assurances that all would be taken care of. With Independence Day fast approaching, Lini was clearly at a political impasse. Officially he could do nothing because Vanuatu was not yet his to govern. However, he asked the politically and racially neutral Papua New Guinea troops to step into what the world farcically began to call, the Coconut War.
There are many in depth political treaties and historical documents written on the Coconut War. Although it was not an amusing situation for an ill prepared country struggling with the pangs of birth, the events surrounding this ‘War’ are perhaps best understood in the light of recent colonial history and Melanesian culture. A short, witty and very readable account, by Sydney journalist Richard Speers titled the “The Coconut War” is available through Penguin books or from most libraries.
It was a strange war, of words and diplomatic double talk, bows and arrows and Francophone shrugs. It ended suddenly when Steven’s son was shot and killed as he sat in the rear of a utility that ran through a PNG troop roadblock. Following Steven’s statement that he had meant no-one to be harmed, he surrendered and was arrested. Documents came to light that clearly indicated the French administration had played a double game. Whilst officially backing Lini as the duly elected representative of the people of Vanuatu, they had secretly supported the secessionist citizens and Jimmy Stevens.
On midnight June 1980, the French and British flags were lowered for the last time, amidst tears and brave salutes and the flag of the Republic of Vanuatu was raised in celebration at the birth of a new nation, finally freed of the colonial yoke. The vast majority of French nationals left Vanuatu, who were compensated by their lost lands by the French Government, and land ownership reverted entirely to indigenous ni-Vanuatu with a land leased long term of 60 years or so.
National Flag and Emblem of Vanuatu
The Pig’s tusk and the Namele leaf represent Prosperity and Peace respectively.
Yellow is a bright colour that is full of light, and it symbolises the light of Christ which shines over the whole of the Republic of Vanuatu, the letter “Y”. Designer of the National Flag of the Republic of Vanuatu – Malon Kalontas. At school Malon had learned that Vanuatu was shaped as a “Y” and I wondered what colours might have a symbolic significance for his compatriots, as citizens of a newly independent country. So Malon drew a “Y” and played around with different colours. He selected the following colours as having a special meaning for Vanuatu: Black: for Melanesia and the Melanesian race, Red: for unity through blood, Green: for agriculture, the basis of Vanuatu’s economy. Yellow: for Christianity
The Coat Of Arms
The Coat of Arms has incorporated the Vanuatu Emblem, which is the pig’s tusk and leaf namele in the background. Hon. Walter Hayde Lini (is the statue) who fought for the country to become Independent and was the first Prime Minister. He declared on Independence Day to all the people that “Long God Yumi Stanap” (In God we Stand) to be Vanuatu’s motto meaning from 30th July 1980 (the Country’s Independence Day), all people of Vanuatu must stand together as one nation.
The Vanuatu Emblem The Pig’s tusk and the Namele leaf represent Prosperity and Peace respectively.
The Early Explorers
In the late sixteen century, there existed a powerful belief amongst European explorers that a great continent must exist in the Southern Hemisphere in order to balance the huge land masses of the Northern. Two Spanish expeditions had left Peru in a fruitless search, with only the Solomon Islands reached. A Portuguese lieutenant on this second expedition, Pedro Ferdinand de Quiros, had saved the expedition when the Pilot, Mendana, died at Santo Cruz, by successfully navigating the return voyage to the Philippines. For the next ten years de Quiros partitioned the Spanish crown to sponsor yet another expedition. In 1605 his wish was granted and he was ordered to find this great land mass, colonise it and convert any native to Catholicism. (The then Spanish king was Pope Clement VIII).
On December 21st de Quiros left Peru with three small ships and 140 adventurers, seamen, soldiers and monks. After a less than harmonious voyage, he arrived once more in the Solomon’s and learned that if he travelled south, he would come across a great land called ‘Mallicollo’.
On April 25th 1606 the lookout spied the tall peak of Mere Lava. De Quiros stopped briefly at Gaua then pressed on southward. On May 3rd he sailed into Big Bay and because of its great size, believed his quest was over. He called the land Australia del Espiritu Santo.
With diplomacy typical of the Spanish in this era, he landed in Big Bay, promptly shot those curious natives who showed themselves, and declared the country theirs in the name of God and Spain. De Quiros established a colony named New Jerusalem near the river Jorden. Unfortunately his mental instability surfaced and declaring himself King, promptly knighted the entire crew down to the last cook.
Fever, increased native hostility and other depravations caused the crew and colonists to revolt against the increasingly unstable de Quiros. Thus, only 54 days later, de Quiros was forced to leave. His unrealistic glowing reports of this fabulous new world had little impact on the Spanish Court and his attempts to return failed. The islands were left once more in peace for another one hundred and sixty years.
In 1766 the Frenchman Louis Antoine de Bougainville also set forth on a voyage of discovery in two ships. His explorations of the islands were somewhat more thorough and he labeled Maewo, Pentecost, Ambrym (although he could not tell if they were one continuous island) and Malekula Islands, in addition to proving that Espiritu Santo was in fact an island, not the fabled Southern Continent. In a typical explorer’s fit of ego, he name the strait dividing Malekula and Santo after himself.
Bougainville’s only landings were to collect timber and, to counter the onboard scurvy, fresh fruit. On each occasion his crew encountered general passive and sometimes active hostility from the natives.
Bougainville also made the observation that the people of Aoba (now called Ambae, or more popularly named by James A. Michener, Bali Hai) seemed to be of two quite distinct types, one being smaller and darker than the other. As this distinction no longer exists it is extremely likely that the most recent Polynesian/Melanesian immigration occurred no more than a few hundred years before, at most.
Before Bougainville had arrived home, James Cook, the English explorer, had set out on his first voyage of discovery. However it was not until his second voyage in 1771 that he was to find Vanuatu.
Like his predecessors, Cook sailed with two ships. In November 1773, north of New Zealand the two ships became separated by a violent storm. The second vessel “Adventurer” returned to England in the summer of 1774. Cook spend some time searching for “Adventurer”, first sailing southeast then northwest. He was in the Easter Islands in May 1774 then in Tonga in June. Leaving there on the 1st July 1774 , at 3pm on the sixteen of that month he sighted land. The following day he realized he was in sight of Australia del Espiritu Santo.
Cook’s sailing explorations of the islands were more extensive than either of his precursors. As he sailed south he established that Pentecost and Ambrym were separate islands, and that Ambrym had twin active volcanoes. Further south, he thought Paama and Lopevi were one island. He identified Epi sailed west and anchored in Port Sandwich on Malekula, one of the finest anchorage’s in the islands.
Over the following weeks cook sailed further south, to Efate, Erromango and Tanna, meeting a mixed reception from the essentially suspicious indigenous peoples. He landed several times to collect timber and fresh water, trading cloth and in one case dogs, for food and the right to collect water and fell a tree necessary to repair a rudder. However he was universally denied entry inland to any of the islands and thus prevented from climbing Yasur volcano on Tanna Island. He finally left the group, having sailed north past the west coast of Malekula and Santo.
Like Bougainville, Cook observed that distinctly different races inhabited different parts of the islands. He also observed the peculiarly flattened and elongated skull shapes of many northern islanders but had no idea it was due to traditional head binding.
In 1786 La Perouse was sent to the South Seas by the French government. He was last heard from in Botany Bay, Australia, then disappeared without trace. Only recently has his fate been discovered, for he was shipwrecked off the Santa Cruz Islands (the southernmost islands of the Solomon’s, just north of the Torres group in Vanuatu).
Explorers sent to find La Perouse, d’Entrecastaux in 1791 and Dumont d’Urville in 1825 both recorded sighting Vanuatu, though neither landed.
Dillon, also in search of La Perouse’s fate (though after forty years one must wonder what they thought to discover) set out in 1826 and landed on Erromango Island, in the bay which now bears his name. However by now the South Seas had become a reasonably well known area, mostly as a consequence of the English settling Australia. Unfortunately these relatively remote islands attracted the attention of what has sadly, but accurately been described as the scum of the white race. What horrors followed saw the reduction of an estimated 1 million people in Cook’s era to less than 45,000 by World War II.
World War II
With the fall of France in W.W. II. the French side of the Condominium were, from the Vichy point of view, technically at war with the other half – Britain. However in this year of 1940, the French population of the New Hebrides immediately declared their support for General De Gaul’s Free French Forces. In fact they were the first of France’s Pacific colonies to do so. Perhaps for the only time in the life of the Condominium, the French and British were not at complete odds with one other. With France under German rule, the French Ambassador was placed in a difficult position with no support structure in terms of a properly functioning French government. But concerns over such matters were overshadowed by the fast approaching Japanese forces.
In early 1942, the Japanese reached the nearby Solomon Islands and the New Hebridean’s lived in real fear that they would be next. The Americans, however, arrived first, totally unannounced, in May 1942.
American Troops make first arrival late 1930’s. It is a sight that can only be imagined; to wake up and glance out in the dawn light to the vast expanse of Mele Bay – filled with warships. A good number of the Vila population fled into the hills in the belief that the Japanese had arrived. It took some time to convince everyone otherwise, but the stealthy nature of the American arrival was imperative in its defensive strategy against the the seemingly unbeatable Japanese.
Being inherently rather brash, and being at war, the Americans simply took over. They built an entire infrastructure to support their introduced military population and the necessary equipment to wage a counter offensive. They brought in tens of thousands of tons of machinery, built barracks and hospitals, a road around the entire island, airstrips and wharves, all with the totally efficient lightening speed typical of the Seabees and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, albeit in a desperate need to push back the Japanese. Regardless of the reasons, it left the foot shuffling beurocracies of France and Britain in shame for all they had not done for the islands.
In Espiritu Santo, 100,000 troops arrived in short order, doubling the population of the country almost overnight. And throughout the islands an interesting social phenomena took place. Indigenous New Hebrideans were astounded at the apparent equality with which black and white military personnel were treated. And when these New Hebridean natives went to work for the Americans, they received respect and wages far in excess to anything they had ever experienced before. The typically generous Americans would also look at the native New Hebridean living conditions and give them clothes and beds, ice boxes and furniture, – all requisitioned from the PX.
Plane crash relics of the second world war, Santo
The early 1940’s were Halcyon years for the native New Hebrideans. Vanuatu was attacked only once by a Japanese plane (that was shot down), resulting in but one casualty on Santo – Besse the cow. Thus they never experienced the horrors of Japanese occupied New Guinea or Solomon Islands. They saw only fair treatment, better living conditions, modern medical aid, economic growth and a vast expansion of facilities, many of which are still in use with only minimal upgrading, fifty six years later.
Three years later and the end of the war, the Americans left as swiftly as they arrived. The lend lease policy that had funded the war effort, meant the American economy could not sustain the influx of returning goods. Thus, the Americans suggested to the Condominium Government they might like to purchase plant equipment, bulldozers and modern workshop machinery, cranes and trucks, office equipment and, well, everything, for a price of only seven cents in the dollar on the real value of the goods.
Typically, the Condominium foot shuffled and hedged and finally replied that, since the Americans were going to leave it behind anyway, why should the Condominium pay for it? The disgusted response was to bulldoze every movable object into the ocean. This wanton discard contributed to the already proliferating Cargo Cults throughout the islands, and the growing resentment of native New Hebridean’s to Condominium rule.
There are places around Efate Island where divers will find much of this discarded war materiel, but the most famous of all is a place called Million Dollar Point in Espiritu Santo. The postwar Condominium authorities were left with a legacy of, from their perspective, overpaid, over ambitious New Hebridean natives. Today, many ni-Vanuatu recall how the authorities came into their homes and took what the Americans had given their fathers; clothes, furniture and such precious treasures as ice boxes and radios. Britain and France were left in tatters at the end of the War. They had little enough to rebuild their own nations and economies, to be concerned over the needs of distant Pacific outposts and thus the New Hebridean economy staggered along under its hopelessly inadequate dual political system. But a spark had been lit and it would not die. By the 1960’s it was ready to ignite.
On February 21 1931, the widow of the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, christened the bow of the largest and finest merchant ship ever built by an American shipyard. The 654 foot, 21,936 ton “President Coolidge” was the one of the last truly opulent vessel s to be built anywhere.
Photo on the left: Courtesy of Aquamarine Santo
Everything about the ship combined comfort and elegance. Passengers could relax in one of two saltwater pools, one with an artificial sand beach. They could enjoy fine music from the Musician’s gallery in the First Class dining Room or enjoy the quiet elegance of a well stocked library. However perhaps the most impressive room was the First Class Smoking Lounge. At one end there was a verde antique marble fireplace.
Above the mantle a large decorative panel of majorca depicted a ‘lady and unicorn’. The room was fitted with overstuffed, walnut armchairs upholstered in green leather, large gaming tables and glass topped smoking stands.
As to services, the ship featured a gymnasium, children’s playroom, shopping arcade, soda fountain, barber shop and beauty salon, a marine tea-garden and play deck for golf, tennis, handball, squash and quoits. There was even a stock exchange.
Fine passenger dining and a strict schedule made the “Coolidge” a favourite of the Sunshine Route, from San Francisco to Honolulu, Yokohama, Kobe, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Manila.
However in 1941 and the likelihood of America entering the European War, the Coolidge went into service with the American Army as a transport ship for reinforcing Pacific garrisons. When fully converted in 1942 she could carry 5,000 troops. One swimming pool was converted to a hold and most of the luxurious furnishings were replaced with bunk beds and extra toilets. But permanent fixtures such as the Lady, remained.
The Coolidge made several South Pacific runs in 1942. On October 6th that year she departed San Francisco for New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo laden with the 5,092 officers and troops of the 172nd Regiment, 43rd Infantry division. They were to be much needed reinforcements for the American assault on Guadalcanal and as such, were a self contained unit. The Coolidge was well and truly laden with the machinery of war.
On the morning of 26th October 1942, the Coolidge approached Espiritu Santo by the Eastern side of the Segond Channel. The navy had neglected to give Captain Nelson ‘Special Instructions’. These instructions could not be radioed due to the necessity of security. Following a series of misadventures and misunderstandings, the patrol boat at the entrance failed to stop her. AS the ship began to enter the channel, radio officers had no choice but to break silence and issue a warning at 0930 “STOP, you are entering a…..” – the warning came too late.
An explosion struck the aft fire room – an explosion from a mine, one of many scattered in a deadly mine field across the channel. Thirty seconds later a second explosion hit the engine room – the ship was mortally wounded. Captain Nelson ordered the now listing ship to be turned to the shore and run aground. Immediately, life boats and nets, Jacob’s ladders and ropes were lowered and the abandon ship order issued.
Everyone aboard was told to leave their possessions and equipment, they could return for them later. In the flurry men abandoned hard hats and guns, personal equipment – even a typewriter as they scrambled to leave the dying vessel. Perhaps because they were mostly military and ship’s crew and accustomed to taking orders, accounts for the loss of life during the abandon ship.
Many suffered chemical burns as they landed in the oily waters and Santo had few facilities to accommodate such large numbers…the ship was fully laden with their supplies. But the Coolidge would never let her troops return for their possessions. Fifty five minutes after the she was beached, at 10.55, the great vessel gave a shuddering lurch and slid backwards into the oily water, disappearing to her grave at the edge of the Segond Channel.
She rolled onto her Port side as she sank, taking with her two men who were never found. One, an Army Captain, had returned to search for a missing man, He was never found although some years back, his service revolver was found amidst the broken crockery of the galley.
The loss of millions of dollars worth of equipment and the setback to the war effort were not large in the overall scheme of the War, but it was nevertheless a costly mistake – the second within a few months as the U.S.S. “Tucker” had met a similar fate on the other side of Segond Channel just months before.
Still, such a costly mistake has turned Espiritu Santo into a Mecca for divers worldwide, for the Coolidge is the largest, most intact and accessible wreck of World War II.
Located only a few kilometers from Luganville, the second largest town in Vanuatu on the island of Espiritu Santo, the wreck lies only a few paces from the relatively calm shore. Divers can reach it by boat or by foot, through one of several dive operations based in Santo.
With visibility normally around 15-25 meters, such a wreck dive offers exceptional underwater clarity. The outer parts of the ship can be safely seen by novice divers.
For penetration diving, most areas of interest, including the famous Lady, allow divers to see outside the vessel at all times. However it is strongly recommended that divers take it easy at first, exploring the outside on the first few dives and making gradual penetrations of the wreck.
The first two missionaries to set foot in Vanuatu, on Erromango in 1839. This inauspicious beginning, with the death of one of their most famous members (John Williams of the London missionary Society) prompted the mission societies to proceed somewhat more cautiously. For the following nine years, they used converted Polynesian missionaries. Polynesians were regarded as a form of cannon fodder – if they survived, Europeans could safely follow. In 1845, Turner landed Samoan teachers on Efate, but most had been killed within a few years.
The following years saw Catholic, Presbyterian and Anglican missionaries from England, Noumea and France making various short lived (through death) or aborted (rapid retreat) attempts to convert the ni-Vanuatu. However, they were nothing if not persistent and by 1860’s various denominational mission stations existed throughout the islands.
The effect on the local populations varied. For those who converted to Christianity in one form or another, many soon died, mainly because they were more exposed to the entire range of introduced diseases. By then these included not only measles and dysentery, but smallpox, influenza, pneumonia, scarlet fever, mumps, whooping cough and the simple, but often quite deadly, common cold.
Traditional medicines, that, combined with a degree of genetic immunity, proved effective against endemic diseases, had no impact on these new medical horrors.
Consequently those who did not convert to the new religions took up interesting and entirely understandable viewpoints. Some considered that the new religion and its God were impotent in the face of disease.
Others took a more pragmatic view; as all illnesses stemmed from sorcery anyway, Christianity must be a particularly malevolent religion to attack its converts in such a violent manner. This attitude resulted in the death of several missionaries following epidemics.
However, the missionaries kept coming and eventually proved to have a profound impact on Melanesian society, in some areas forever destroying a rich cultural heritage centuries, perhaps millennia old. Catholicism in particular was more readily embraced for surprisingly, the Catholic missionaries did not take a dim view of converts incorporating elements of their own animistic beliefs with Catholicism. The success of the Catholics was, in turn, to have an extraordinary effect on the way the country, then known as the New Hebrides, was to be eventually governed.
Trade, Tourism, Commerce and Industry
The Ministry of Trade, Tourism, Industry and Commerce co-ordinates the formulation and implementation of government’s policy for the development of tourism, industry and commerce through promoting and facilitating increased investment and trade by local and foreign investors. Government policy on investment and trade is to:
Improve economic diversification and domestic value added through enhancing the productivity, competitiveness and the capacity of manufacturing sector to move up the value chain.
Enhance linkages and spill over’s among economic sectors.
Create enabling environment for the private sector as the main engine for economic growth and enhance it productivity, capacity utilization and trade capacity.
Promote tourism development.
Contribute to the improvement of the merchandise trade balance and balance of payments through enhancing Vanuatu’s exports, based on the country’s comparative advantage.
The Ministry coordinates the functions performed by:
– Department of Trade, Commerce and Industry
– Department of Tourism
– Food Technology Centre
– Vanuatu Government Office of the Registrar of Cooperatives &
Business Development Services
It also maintains close working relationship with:
– Department of Tourism Vanuatu
– Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry
– Vanuatu Investment Promotion Authority
– Vanuatu Commodities Marketing Board
The objective of the Ministry is to ensure that the policies of the government of the day are implemented to achieve increased socio-economic advancement of the people of this country through increased investment and trade. This will be achieved through the following programs:
Strengthen planning and implementation (within and between Ministries and the private sector)
Promotion of Foreign Investment
Tourism promotion and development
Promote and facilitate the establishment of processing and manufacturing industries with a special focus on agro-processing
Trade promotion and facilitation
These programs will be implemented to achieve the above objective and to address three gaps in the economy:
(a) Savings gap – the lack of investment funds from domestic savings
(b) Imbalance of trade – the excess of imports over exports
(c) Fiscal gap – the gap between recurrent revenue and expenditure
With a population of approximately 290,000 (from the 2017 January Census, Vanuatu National Statistics Office), Vanuatu boasts 113 distinct languages and innumerable dialects. This makes it one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth. This amazing diversity is a result of 3,000 years of sporadic immigration from many Pacific countries. Although most settlers arrive from Melanesia, the larger built, lighter skinned Polynesians also settled in the islands. As with all nations and peoples, over millennia these different groups came into both peaceful and violent contact, sometimes intermarrying and sometimes having losing their cultural identity to a more dominant group. Each successive wave of immigrants carried with them all the tools needed to live. Food crops, tree seedlings and their most important animal – the pig. This animal is probably the most significant aspect of life in Vanuatu, for it symbolises not simply a source of protein, it is the cornerstone of their ritual life, a token of wealth and power upon which entire societies are founded. Over the millennia, natural boundaries; large open stretches of water, dense jungle and mountainous terrain, isolated many groups, even from the same ethnic origins, from each other. And isolation bred not just warfare, but quite different, sophisticated societies and political systems. Unfortunately, when Europeans began trading in Vanuatu, they often used such warfare to their own advantage. Today, there are four main cultural areas. In the northern areas, there are two variations of a social and political society where men and women can ‘purchase’ positions of status. Wealth, in the form of mats and pigs – particularly pigs with rounded tusks – is not defined so much by how much an individual owns, but by demonstrating how much he can give away. Grade taking ceremonies, where large numbers of pigs are ritually killed and gifts given to members of an extended family, are elaborate affairs. Although the status of a person may be publicly displayed with, for example, certain body decorations, and a respect for their status, there is no real authority attached. In the central areas, Polynesian type systems have predominated. Here, a hereditary chief is a powerful authority figure reigning over an entire class system, complete with nobles and commoners.
In the southern islands, particularly Tanna, titles or names are bestowed on certain men, which designate them as chiefs. This status can give them rights over land and even possessions of entire social groups. Women hold a very low status whereas in places like Ambae and the Shepherds, women can achieve the rank of Chief.
The situation is complicated even further by the introduction of more recent ‘religions’ such as the John Frumm’s (cargo cult) and the Half Halfs and various men’s secret societies, both on Tanna and to a lesser extent, on Santo and other islands. However, throughout all the islands one thing remains constant, life is characterised by a constant cycle of ritual events. Every aspect of a person’s life is celebrated by extended families that number in the hundreds, filial relationships being remembered back in time through countless generations. Birth, circumcision and initiation, the achievement of status, marriage and death are a paramount feature of a community’s social life. With so many relatives, there seems always to be a significant ritual of some sort happening, or about to happen, somewhere with no written language, storytelling, songs and dances are of paramount importance. Art, in its many forms, from body decorations and tattoos, to elaborate masks, hats and carvings are also a vital part of ritual celebrations and the social life of the village. Similar to Australian Aboriginal stories of the dreamtime, and Maori legends of the past, ni-Vanuatu culture is also abundant in mythic legends. Natural formations, the presence and causes of volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters, are all imbibed with legends of significant cultural importance.
Even today, natural events are considered not to be the result of, say, plate tectonics or a chance passing of a cyclone, but events brought about by the actions of individuals who may have offended certain spirits. In the past, such beliefs caused animosity between villages and islands, to the extent that warfare often resulted (a classic example is the eruption of Ambrym volcano in 1913).
Naturally, traditional societies’ economies are based on produce from the land. Staple foods are mostly root crops; yam, taro and manioc. Seasonal fruits like breadfruit are important mainstays. In most areas a portion of the jungle is simply cleared to plant crops. However in places where there is plenty of water, taro is grown in complex terraces hand built from earth and rocks. As mentioned above, pigs are a mainstay of the economy not just as food but as a form of money and prestige.
A village’s economy plays a significant role not just in simple survival, but as part of the complex rituals. One of the simplest examples are circumcision ceremonies. On some islands, mothers ‘pay’ the uncles of boys to be circumcised. The boys are taken into the bush for weeks, sometimes months, where they are introduced to the ways of manhood – as well as having their foreskins removed. From that point on they no longer run naked, but wear a penis sheath. The price paid to the uncles is in pigs, mats, dances and food crops. And that price cannot be paid unless the mother’s have accumulated sufficient wealth.
In years following natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions (acidic ash rain can damage crops significantly) or cyclones, young boys can reach almost adult age without being circumcised. And they are still treated as babies as a result, until the mothers can once again accumulate sufficient food crops and pigs to pay the circumcisions price.
Although Kava is not a food crop, it is a significant part of Vanuatu cultural society. Kava is a derivative of the pepper tree family. Traditionally it is cut and chewed into a pulp, then spat into a bowl. The mushy pulp is squeezed and the resultant liquid drunk in. On some islands, both men and women may drink kava as an evening soporific after a hard day’s work. On Tanna it has become more ritualised as a ‘men only’ pastime, so much so that women dare not pass near nakamal’s (men’s houses) at the time kava is being drunk, lest they accidentally see the ritual and be punished with a beating. Because of a long history of inter island and inter village trading, many ni-Vanutau speak numerous languages. Since the arrival of Europeans, a lingua franca evolved. It’s name, Bislama, derived from the Bech-der-mer (sea cucumber) traders. Essentially a phonetic form of English, with much simplified grammar, if it is listened to closely and spoken slowly, it can be understood by most English speaking people.
Despite the introduction of European ideas, the disastrous effects of missionaries and blackbirders and the development of Bislama as a universal language (loss of language being a prime destroyer of primitive cultures worldwide) Vanuatu’s richness and diversity of culture is one of its primary attraction to visitors. Rituals, the obligations of kinship and traditional ceremonies is an integral part of modern life and one that can be appreciated more fully by a visit to one of Vanuatu’s many islands. While in Vanuatu a trip to the National Museum & Cultural Center is really mandatory. Although you will find many masks and carvings for sale in shops, the more magnificent ancient pieces, historical photos and rare artifacts are on permanent display. You can also purchase audio recordings and video footage of cultural events.
Trade Commissioner in Vanuatu
23/F, Sunshine Plaza
353 Lockhard Road Wanchai