Human settlement in present-day Vanuatu dates back at least 4,000 years. Archaeological findings suggest that the first settlers were related to the Melanesian people of the islands to the west of Vanuatu. Polynesians from the central Pacific islands arrived between the 11th and 15th centuries, establishing settlements on the southern islands of Vanuatu. Spanish explorer Pedro de Queiros sighted the islands of Vanuatu in 1606 while searching for a purported southern continent. In 1768 French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville sailed through the islands and landed on several of them. British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in 1774 and began mapping the islands. He named them the New Hebrides after a similarly rugged group of islands off the west coast of Scotland.
More substantial European contact began in 1825, after an Irish seaman discovered sandalwood, valuable in trade with China, on the islands. Despite several violent incidents between Europeans and local residents, the sandalwood trade flourished until the late 1860s, by which time most of the supply had been depleted. In 1839 the first British missionaries arrived in the New Hebrides, and during the 1840s and 1850s missionaries used new Christian converts from the Samoa Islands to establish Christianity, especially Presbyterianism, among the ni-Vanuatu. European settlement on the New Hebrides began in the late 1850s. About this time, European and Australian labor recruiters known as blackbirders began to persuade—and in many cases kidnap—islanders to work on plantations in Australia and on other Pacific islands. The practice of blackbirding continued throughout the 19th century.
By the late 1800s British and French planters had acquired vast tracts of land in the New Hebrides. In order to protect their respective interests and maintain order, Britain and France created a joint naval commission in 1887 composed of naval officers from both countries. However, the commission had no authority to intervene in matters such as land disputes between settlers and native islanders, and thus failed to achieve its purpose. In 1906 the two countries established a unique political body, the British and French Condominium. Each country had authority over its own nationals, and a joint administration was established to govern non-European islanders. Although the arrangement proved to be cumbersome and largely ineffective, it remained in place until 1980.
Shortly after the United States entered World War II in 1941, American military forces established bases at Port-Vila and Luganville. The visible wealth and power of the Americans, along with the apparent equality among soldiers of different races, undermined the islanders’ willingness to obey colonial rule. Many ni-Vanuatu began to feel that the colonial rulers were intentionally denying them the wealth that seemed to exist in the outside world. Several anti-European social and religious movements emerged on the islands after the war ended in 1945.
In the 1960s and 1970s political parties formed in opposition to colonial rule and began working with activists to prevent further sales of land to foreigners. In 1975 the colonial government agreed to the formation of a local legislative body, the Representative Assembly. However, while Britain was eager to rid itself of colonies and thus willing to grant the New Hebrides full independence, France was reluctant to leave. English-speaking and French-speaking islanders became increasingly divided along political lines, and secessionist movements emerged on Espiritu Santo and Tanna. Nevertheless, with military assistance from Papua New Guinea, the New Hebrides’ assembly managed to restore order. French, British, and local government officials reached a final independence agreement in mid-July 1980. On July 30 the islands became the sovereign and independent nation of Vanuatu, under a constitution that had been drafted the previous year.