Tuesday, May 06, 2008

May 6, 2008 - To Vanuatu, Day 7

It is awfully nice to be back in the tradewinds. Today has been a glorious day of downwind sailing. We will arrive at Aneityum, the southernmost island of Vanuatu, in the morning.

When we were home for the holidays, we visited Sten's grandmother Doris. She showed us a box full of these blogs, which Uncle Jim had printed out for her to read. But rather than just printing the blogs as I write them, he gave her fully annotated versions, with country reports and background information on the places and things I talk about in here. It was fantastic. But it made me realize that I probably don't do a good enough job providing a context for our impressions of the places we visit. So here's a quick synopsis of this quirky little country's history.

Vanuatu is a country comprised of 83 little islands, situated between Fiji and New Caledonia, north of New Zealand, and south east of Paupa New Guinea. The total landmass of these islands could fit inside of the State of Connecticut, but they are spread over 700 miles of ocean. Vanuatu lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and has several active volcanos. We plan to go see one of them.

It is a multicultural society. The people are predominantly Melanesian, though there are a few Polynesians and whites mixed in. Some of the Polynesians arrived via canoes in the 11th century. More recent migrations have been via 747. The first whites to arrive were the usual mix of European explorers (Captain Cook named the archipelago the New Hebrides), followed quickly by traders who realized how valuable the native sandalwood trees were, and blackbirders (slavers) who realized how valuable the native people were. By 1839, Protestant missionaries arrived to try to convert some souls. The islanders wisely dealt with this latest threat by eating them.

Unfortunately, the explorers, traders and missionaries brought with them a collection of germs and diseases that wiped out whole villages: cholera, measles, smallpox, influenza, pneumonia, mumps, scarlet fever, and the common cold. The population of these islands is estimated to have numbered 1 million in the early 1800's. By 1935 there were fewer than 41,000 ni-Vans left.

Early European settlers hailed from England and France, the latter usually via the penal colony next door in New Caledonia. In 1906, the two countries set up a Condominium government in Vanuatu, which granted both of their nationals equal rights. During the Condominium, there were two sets of laws - one applying to the French, one to the English and both to the ni-Vans (it pretty much sucked to be a native). There were two sets of courts, two police forces, even conflicting rules about which side of the road to drive on. One wag referred to this time as the Pandemonium.

During World War II, 500,000 Allied Troops passed through Vanuatu. James Michener wrote Tales of the South Pacific based on his experiences in Vanuatu during the war. The Allies hired the ni-Vans to work on the military bases. The disenfranchised ni-Vans were surprised to receive good wages for working on the U.S. military bases and were astounded by the seemingly equitable treatment of black and white soldiers. Not surprisingly, after the troops pulled out, an independence movement developed. In 1980, the New Hebrides became the Republic of Vanuatu.

The population of Vanuatu is now estimated to be around 200,000, 50% of which is under the age of 15. It is a young country in so many ways. But it is also full of people practicing very old ways of life, particularly on the out islands. We're looking forward to exploring the various cultures of Vanuatu over the next month. Oh, and we're pretty sure they don't eat people anymore. The last official report of cannibalism was in 1987.

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