24 interesting facts about Vanuatu

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The most interesting facts about Vanuatu, from inventing bungee jumping, worshipping a British prince and being one of the happiest countries in the world.

Interesting facts about Vanuatu include inventing bungee jumping
Interesting facts about Vanuatu include inventing bungee jumping (Shutterstock)

Fast facts

Official name: Republic of Vanuatu
Capital city: Port-Vila
Population: 298,333
Area: 12,189 sq km
Major languages: Bislama, English, French 
Time zone: UTC+11 (Vanuatu Time)
(Source: CIA World Fact Book)

Interesting facts about Vanuatu

1. Vanuatu is a country in Oceania made up of 83 islands, of which around 65 are inhabited.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

2. It is believed the first inhabitants of Vanuatu were the Melanesian people of the Lapita culture, arriving from around 1300BC.
– Source: Britannica

3. The first Europeans to see Vanuatu believed they had discovered Australia. In 1606, Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernández de Quirós named an island Terra Australis del Espiritu Santo. Today the island is called Espiritu Santo.
– Source: Loney Planet

4. In 1774, British explorer Captain Cook charted the islands and named them the New Hebrides.
– Source: BBC News

An island in Vanuatu
Vanuatu is made up of 83 islands (Shutterstock)

5. In 1906 the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides was created. The dual administration was often farcical and was nicknamed ‘the Pandemonium’ as multiple systems were created including two police forces, two health services, two education systems, two currencies and two prison systems.
– Source: Lonely Planet

6. During the Second World War, Vanuatu played an important role in the liberation of Pacific islands occupied by Japan. Over 500,000 Allied soldiers passed through the islands and left behind huge quantities of equipment.
– Source: Lonely Planet

7. One of the most famous sites is the wreck of the SS President Coolidge. The ship was an American luxury ocean liner converted to a troopship. In 1942, the ship struck a mine and sunk off the coast of Espiritu Santo. Today it is regarded as one of the world’s most accessible wreck dives.
– Source: National Geographic Magazine Vol 173, Lonely Planet

8. In 1980 the New Hebrides achieved independence and was renamed Vanuatu. 
– Source: BBC News

9. In the late 19th century, Vanuatu was among several Pacific islands to suffer from ‘blackbirding’. Blackbirding was the kidnapping of people for use as forced labour on plantations in Fiji and Australia. The despicable practice ended around 1872 and led to several countries banning overseas-labour recruitment.
– Source: Lonely Planet

10. Prince Phillip – the husband of British Queen Elizabeth II – is worshipped by villagers of Yaohnanen on Tanna Island in Vanuatu. Followers of the Prince Philip Movement believe the Duke is the son of their ancestral mountain god.
– Source: The Independent

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement
Two odd facts about Vanuatu derive from its unusual religions (Thompson/CC 2.0)

11. In the 1930s, the ‘John Frum cargo cult’ emerged and is still observed in some places today. Devotees believed that goods owned by American and European visitors were actually meant for locals but had been intercepted by the newcomers. Followers believe John Frum will one day return and shower them with riches.
– Source: Smithsonian Magazine

12. Some of the world’s most recent cases of cannibalism were reported in Vanuatu. Most anthropologists agree that Vanuatu’s last recorded case of cannibalism took place on the island of Malekulu in 1969.
– Source: The Telegraph

13. Vanuatu is the country most at risk of experiencing natural disasters according to the 2020 World Risk Report, compiled by the United Nations.
– Source: World Risk Report 2020 (PDF)

14. In 2015, Vanuatu was hit by Cyclone Pam, one of the most powerful tropical storms ever recorded in the South Pacific. The cyclone caused widespread wreckage, killed 16 people and left thousands homeless.
– Source: The Guardian

15. Bungee jumping was invented in Vanuatu. For centuries men on Pentecost Island in Vanuatu practiced nagol – land diving. In a ritual associated with the annual yam harvest, men dive from a wooden tower up to 30m high with only vines attached to their ankles.
– Source: National Geographic (video)

16. Vanuatu is home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes. According to the Volcanic Explosivity Index, a ranking of the largest volcanic explosions in recent geological history, Ambrym is currently joint-second.
– Source: Volcanic Explosivity Index, Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program (GVP)

Mount Yasur volcano
Mount Yasur volcano in Vanuatu (Shutterstock)

17. Vanuatu is also home to Mount Yasur, considered to be the world’s most accessible active volcano. It is possible for visitors to hike to the crater rim and peer into its cauldron.
– Source: The Telegraph, Lonely Planet

18. Vanuatu is one of just 22 countries without a standing army.
– Source: The Atlantic

19. ‘Basket blong titi’ is the word for a bikini in Bislama. Bislama, a Melanesian pidgin-English, is the national language in Vanuatu and one of over 100 dialects spoken.
– Source: BBC Travel

20. The English word ‘taboo’ comes from Vanuatu. The Bislama word ‘tabu’ means sacred, forbidden or no entry when written across a doorway. Failure to observe tabu can require the payment of pigs or even death.
– Source: Lonely Planet

21. The sacrifice of pigs is a common religious ritual in Vanuatu. So much so that their blood is represented in the dark red stripe of the national flag which also features a pig’s tusk.
– Source: Britannica

22. The complete flag consists of a green stripe which represents the lush vegetation of the country; a black triangle representing the rich soil and the people; a Y-shape representing the layout of the islands with the yellow signifying peace and Christianity. Finally, there are two crossed namele leaves encircled by the pig’s tusk.
– Source: Britannica

The flag of Vanuatu
The flag of Vanuatu (Shutterstock)

23. Kava is a traditional mildly narcotic drink in Vanuatu and throughout much of Polynesia and Melanesia. To decline kava when offered it is to decline friendship.
– Source: Lonely Planet

24. Vanuatu is the fourth-happiest country in the world and the happiest country outside the Americas. The Happy Planet Index assesses a country’s wellbeing, life expectancy and inequality levels, as well as its ecological footprint.
– Source: BBC Travel