On the map, Vanuatu (called the New Hebrides until 1980) is a “Y” shaped group of some eighty islands, situated in the south-western Pacific, between latitudes 12 and 21 degrees south and longitudes 166 and 171 degrees east. It is 2,500 kilometres north-east of Sydney, and 800 kilometres to the west of Fiji.
The total area of the islands is about 12,000 square kilometres, and the area of their exclusive economic zone is 450,000 square kilometres. Geologically, the islands are young, the majority of the rocks being less than 30 million years old.
Climate varies from topical in the north to sub-tropical in the south, with an average annual rainfall at Port Vila, the capital, of 235 centimetres, where average relative humidity at 11 a.m. varies from 70% in winter to 78% in summer, and average maximum temperatures are 30C in summer and 23C in winter. The natural vegetation mainly consists of dense forest, and in all islands the grass in the cleared areas in the cleared areas is suitable for grazing. Hills, beaches and small islands provide interesting scenery.
The group was first discovered by Europeans in 1606, charted by Captain Cook in 1774, and was first commercially exploited, by sandalwooders, in the 1820’s. Missionary activity and labour recruitment for Australia were a turbulent combination until the beginning of the twentieth century, with European planters and traders increasing in number in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1906, after repeated requests for effective government, Britain and France agreed to establish a Condominium over these islands, which lasted until July 1980, when the islands became an independent republic.
The population is presently estimated at about 240,000, including 2,000 Europeans, and is increasing annually at about 2 1/2%. About 40,000 people live in Port Vila, and 15,000 in Luganville, the main northern town.
Vanuatu today offers marked contrasts, ranging from active volcanoes and the primitive isolated tribes of the interiors of some islands, through cattle-raising, copra-growing and fleet-fishing, to tourist hotels, restaurants and the activities of the international financial community.