Sailing across the Pacific Ocean, in May 1606, the Portuguese navigator, Pedro Fernandez de Quirós landed on the large island he named Australia del Espiritu Santo, believing it to be part of an elusive southern continent. The island, which has retained the name Espiritu Santo, is today the largest of the Y-shaped chain (see the national flag below) of more than 80 small and large islands (around 65 are inhabited), which in 1980 became the independent Republic of Vanuatu. (Vanuatu was governed by both Britain and France from 1906 until this time).
July 1774, the English maritime explorer Captain James Cook visited a number of southwest Pacific islands in the group he named the New Hebrides, which formed part of what became known in 1832 as the ethno-geographic region of Melanesia (from the Greek, ‘black islands’), which was distinguished from the Pacific Islands regions of Polynesia and Micronesia.
Polynesian missionaries, from Samoa in 1839 and the Cook Islands in 1842, began Christian work in the islands. In 1848, the Nova Scotian missionary, John Geddie arrived to live on Aneityum, and many others followed. Today the largest Christian denomination is Presbyterian, followed by Anglican/Episcopal and Roman Catholic.
Christianity played a significant part in breaking down boundaries of cultural difference and in creating new unities in the Islands, that is, in forging the new nation and its acceptance in the world community. Symbolically, the development of the idea of kastom (tradition) has been important in efforts to reclaim some of the old cultural values lost under Christianization.
Vanuatu is recognized as the world nation with the highest linguistic density: its 220,000 people occupy a land area of approximately 4,200 square kilometres, and speak 110 distinct languages. Vanuatu’s main industry is tourism, and eco-tourism sites dot the islands. The country’s several active volcanoes are popular sites with visitors. Agriculture is another local industry.