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.
The jumbling of French and British interests in the islands brought petitions for one or another of the two powers to annex the territory. The Convention of 16 October 1887 established a joint naval commission for the sole purpose of protecting French and British citizens, but claimed no jurisdiction over internal native affairs.
In 1906, however, France and the United Kingdom agreed to administer the islands jointly. Called the British-French Condominium, it was a unique form of government, with separate governmental systems that came together only in a joint court. The condominium's authority was extended in the Anglo-French Protocol of 1914, although this was not formally ratified until 1922. Melanesians were barred from acquiring the citizenship of either power and were officially stateless; to travel abroad they needed an identity document signed by both the British and French resident commissioners.
Many called the condominium the "Pandemonium" because of the duplication of laws, police forces, prisons, currencies, education and health systems.
Overseas visitors could choose between British law, that was considered stricter but with more humane prisons, or French law and French prisons, which were somewhat uncomfortable but with better food.
In their book, Vanuatu by Jocelyn Harewood and Michelle Bennett, is this memorable passage referring to the 1920s: "Drunken plantation owners used to gamble... using the `years of labour' of their Melanesian workers as currency. Islanders used to be lined up against the wall, at the mercy of their employers' dice. Long after America's Wild West was tamed, Vila was the scene of the occasional gunfight and public guillotining."
Perhaps the final political impetus towards independence was the central issue of land ownership which arose during the 1960s. The ancient customs of the Ni-Vanuatu meant that land was held in trust for future generations by the current custodians; Europeans viewed it more as a commodity and owned about 30% of the land area. This European-held land had been mostly cleared for coconut production, but when they began clearing more land for coconut production, protests began in both Santo and Malekula led by Jimmy Stevens and his kastom movement called "Nagriamel".
In the 1960s France opposed Britain's desire to de-colonize the New Hebrides south of the Solomon Islands fearing that the independence sentiment would be contagious in their mineral-rich colonial possessions in French New Caledonia.
The first political party was established in the early 1970s and originally was called the New Hebrides National Party. One of the founders was Walter Lini, an Anglican Priest, who later became Prime Minister. Renamed the Vanua'aku Party in 1974, the party pushed for independence. A Representative Assembly was created in 1975 but dissolved in 1977 after demands for the elimination of government-appointees and immediate independence. In 1979 foreign owners were dispossessed and received compensation from their own governments and a date set for full independence.
France was unhappy. A couple of significant rebellions occurred on Tanna and Espiritu Santo and paperwork revealed the direct culpability of France in its desire to see Espiritu Santo become a separate French colony.
"Whereupon French officials - not British - tore out telephones, air-conditioners and all equipment and furnishings from administrative offices so as to burden the new public service and its budget. Vanuatu was alone in Pacific Islands (sic) in attaining independence at the perceived cost of defeating a more powerful, and openly antagonistic, adversary. Had it not been for Britain, independence would still have been a dream today in Vanuatu.".
Since independence, only kastom owners and the government can own land; foreigners and other islanders who are not kastom owners can lease land only for the productive life of a coconut palm - 75 years.