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Rosemary I Patterson

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For Survivor Vanuatu fans: A Brief History of Vanuatu.
By Rosemary I Patterson
Last edited: Saturday, September 12, 2009
Posted: Thursday, August 12, 2004



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Rosemary I Patterson

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Vanuatu has a unique culture and history somewhat different from other Melanesian places.

A Brief History of Vanuatu. By Rosemary I. Patterson, Ph.D. To picture Vanuatu all the reader needs to do is to think of the islands portrayed in all their eccentricities in the movie "South Pacific." The New Hebrides Islands, now called Vanuatu were the very islands that inspired James Michener to write his famous novel based on his war experiences in Espiritu Santu and Efate. Originally called the New Hebrides by Captain James Cook in the mid 1700's Vanuatu has had a most unusual history. From discovery by the Spanish in 1606, kidnappers known as "Blackbirders" regularly plucked warriors dressed in boar tusk necklaces and little else for laborers on Colonial plantations. It is no wonder that the inhabitants became increasingly distrustful of outsiders, increasingly reclusive and developed their Cannibalistic societies into efficient murder machines to protect themselves. By 1908 the population of the islands had been reduced to 60,000 from 1,000,000, including 300 French settlers and 200 English ones. France and Britain in some back room negotiation had reached an agreement to rule the islands jointly in what is known as the "Condominium." Clever island chiefs pitted the French rulers against the English as they desperately tried to preserve their culture and ways from the encroaching missionaries. The New Hebrides were extremely fertile producing three crops of corn a year as well as coffee, millet for broom-making and the staple of the South Pacific, coconuts, split and dried and turned into copra. The natives of the islands lived mainly in villages surrounded by stockades made of interwoven reeds and stubbornly clung to their culture including what the colonialists referred to as grass temples, idols and music and dancing of the rudest possible state. On many of the islands a form of land diving was practiced (possibly the forefathers of Bungee jumping) in which men dove head first from a ramshackle tower held together by vines from as high as eighty feet above the ground. What stopped their death defying fall were vines attached to their ankle and a platform that would collapse as the diver reached the end of his fall and absorb some of the impact. The jump was done to facilitate the yam harvest. In 1942 culture shock hit most of the islands and particularly on Efate and Espiritu Santu as thousands of American servicemen arrived and built two huge air bases to supply the servicemen battling the Japanese during the Guadalcanal campaign. Now the New Hebrides men abandoned their customary boar tusk necklaces and poisoned arrows and turned to western pants and shorts, cut their hair and learned to drive the myriads of jeeps and heavy equipment as they became the heavy labor force for the war effort. A diet of pigs, yams and fish changed to one of canteen rations, cigarettes and whiskey. The carefully cultivated boars tusks, clubs, canoes and grass skirts were now sold to the servicemen as souvenirs. At the war's end all of the military cargo disappeared along with the servicemen and on some of the islands a cargo cult developed to use customary magic to lure back the great cargo-carrying airplanes. Mock military drills were conducted with the men dressed in carefully preserved military uniforms hoping to convince the gods to restore the manna. Some of the islands had little fringing reef or flat coastal areas making landings virtually impossible and people on these islands were able to preserve much of their culture. For example, by 1970 on Pentecost Island the grass huts were now western shaped but the topless women still wore grass skirts and the men wore fibre belts and a sheath. The spectacular land divers still dove from high platforms to ensure a good yam crop. Vanuatu was given its independence in 1990 and at last the confusing and inefficient British/French joint rule ended but the islanders were faced with a new threat, radioactive fallout from the extensive French, nuclear tests in nearby French Polynesia that were only ended in 1996. The islanders joined their fellow South Pacific people in protests to end the testing. In 2004 the economy is mainly devoted to Tourism and the spectacular Land Divers and recreations of New Hebrides dances now thrill tourists from all over the world.  

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