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Some of the islands have been populated continuously for thousands of years and others are still uninhabited today. The earliest known settlement was on Malo Island, where pottery at least 4000 years old has been unearthed. Prehistoric cultures in Vanuatu were plagued by inter-tribal warfare. The tribes' rich spiritual life attributed all natural and human-induced bad luck or calamities to sorcery, and they staged lavish festivals to appease the gods. The elaborate burial chamber of a nobleman buried in AD1265 was excavated on Eretoka Island, off the coast of Efate, and bears evidence of human sacrifice.

Explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros laid eyes on the islands in 1606, naming the first one he sighted Nuestra Señora de Austrialia del Espiritu Santo, known today simply as Santo. His lofty - if quixotic - ideal was to found New Jerusalem in the Pacific on the banks of a river he called the Jordan. But the locals didn't really want to be saved and the prevailing south-easterlies continually hindered the Spanish landings. De Quiros wandered off into the Pacific not long after he arrived, presumably believing his failure had condemned the unsuspecting ni-Vanuatu to burn for eternity. Among the Spanish, Portuguese and French explorers who followed was Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who wrote that he had been 'transported to the garden of Eden'. The Englishman Captain James Cook was perhaps less starry-eyed in 1774 when he wrote that the traditional manner of preparing kava 'is as simple as it is disgusting'.

Vanuatu's more recent history brims with a panoply of pulpit-pounding priests, scurrilous slavers and fumbling colonial bureaucrats. Hot on the heels of the explorers came the adventurers to harvest whales and sandalwood and the missionaries to harvest souls. The Europeans brought epidemics of influenza and measles, venereal disease and the slave trade, and the populations of some islands, particularly in the north, have never recovered. The English and French, often at war with each other last century, settled uneasily next to each other in the New Hebrides, as the archipelago was known until independence, and formed probably the strangest colonial administration the world has seen. Two declared enemies were sitting in each other's pockets and forced to cooperate in a far-flung outpost of the European empire. They finally settled on a joint mandate early this century with the Anglo-French Protocol (the 'Condominium', sometimes referred to as the 'Pandemonium'), establishing equal influence for both powers.

By far the greatest misery inflicted on the islanders was 'blackbirding', the South Seas' own version of slavery that continued into the early years of the 20th century. Thousands of ni-Vanuatu were persuaded and downright kidnapped to work on the sugar and cotton plantations of Queensland and Fiji, and many never returned. WWII brought a massive influx of US military personnel to Efate and Santo, which became crucial bases in the Pacific War. The country was awash with American know-how and dollars, and many ni-Vanuatu earned real wages for the first time in their lives. More importantly, the islanders observed black Americans enjoying the material benefits and luxuries afforded the whites, and this played no small part in their agitation for independence.

In the late 1960s the Nagriamel movement began to attract thousands of followers, mostly in the northern islands. Its leader was Chief President Moses (Jimmy Tupou Patuntun Stevens), and it was originally confined to obtaining rights to the 'dark bush', the land Europeans had never claimed or settled. Nagriamel became increasingly politicised, however, and petitioned the United Nations in 1971 for an 'act of free choice' over the archipelago's independence. Britain and France agreed that under the terms of the Condominium neither would withdraw without the other, which became a recipe for inaction. They were finally dragged to constitutional reform by 1974-75, and as the islanders agitated for further rights they conceded to elections. Condominium bureaucrats could see the writing on the sand by then - even they were aware of the stink of colonialism in the modern world.

Independence was set for mid-1980, but amid widespread secessions the Condominium fractured over its inability to agree on much more than the height to fly their standards. Anglo-French troops could not halt the violence and looting that broke out even in the larger towns, and the local government finally called in troops from PNG to restore order and declared independence on 30 July 1980. The 1990s have seen bouts of instability in government. A scheme by the paramilitary Vanuatu Mobile Force to overthrow the government and establish martial law over a pay dispute was thwarted in 1996. Allegations of massive bank fraud by members of the Carlot Korman government were aired the same year, and continuing political uncertainty has seen the economy slow down, foreign investment fall and the economy shrink despite the flood of money that has washed in owing to the country's tax-haven status. In February 1997 the government signed an agreement with the Asian Development Bank to significantly restructure the economy with private investment funds.

In November 1997 Vanuatu's president, Jean-Marie Leye, dissolved parliament and called fresh elections. He made the decision so Vanuatu could find a solution to its problems and because the current government had not kept its promises. Despite elections and a new governement in March 1998 there was another change late 1999. Around the same time Vanuatu was hit by an earthquake and tidal wave which caused extensive damage on Pentecost Island.

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