In 2006 VANUATU, a small archipelago of volcanic islands at the geographic center of Melanesia, got perhaps the best publicity ever when the new Economics Foundation placed it at the top of its list of the happiest countries in the world, a list that “combines environmental impact with human well-being to measure the environmental efficiency with which, country by country, people live long and happy lives.” In 2010 Lonely Planet agreed, naming Vanuatu #1 on its list of the World’s Happiest Places. You may say that “ni-Vanuatu,” the people of Vanuatu, would have a pretty easy time being happy, what with all their islands’ blue water, blue sky and white sandy beaches, but if you look at either list, no other Pacific islands came close. So what is Vanuatu doing right? “People are generally happy here because they are very satisfied with very little,” Marke Lowen of Vanuatu Online, the country’s online newspaper, told the UK’s Guardian when asked about the ranking in 2006. “This is not a consumer-driven society. Life here is about community and family and goodwill to other people. It’s a place where you don’t worry too much.” And, he added, “Don’t tell too many people, please.”

Melanesians lived (perhaps happily) on Vanuatu for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived in 1605. The Spanish heeded Mr. Lowen and didn’t tell too many people about their visit–they didn’t colonize–leaving the islands to be “rediscovered” in 1768 by the French. (They called the islands the New Hebrides.) In the mid-1800s Catholic and Protestant missionaries arrived to convert the islanders to Christianity, and other settlers came to convert the islands’ cotton, banana, cocoa, coffee and coconut crops into profit.

By the 1880s both the British and French had a vested interest in the islands. In the early 1900s the French outnumbered the British by a margin of 2 to 1. Still, in an unaccustomed act of colonial compromise the British and French agreed to administer the islands together. In the “British-French Condominium” (“the Pandemonium?”) there were two separate systems of government that made decisions together through a joint court. The agreement didn’t extend British or French citizenship to Vanuatuan Melanesians.

During World War II Americans used Vanuatu as a naval base, inspiring ni-Vanuatu to think about a future that didn’t include the British or French. The arrival of Americans bearing airplanes full of military gear and contemporary consumer goods also inspired some ni-Vanuatu to believe that a messianic American named John Frum would appear one day bearing planes and ships full of cargo to “improve” their lives.

The John Frum “cargo cult” actually arose on the Vanuatuan island of Tanna in the late 1930s, before the Americans arrived. Members of a local religion worshiped Keraperamun, a god associated with the island’s highest mountain. Some say John Frum was a spirit that appeared to those who drank the intoxicating beverage, kava, and told ni-Vanuatu that to receive material riches they must disavow themselves of trappings of European society such as money, Christianity, Western education and work on Europeans’ plantations. Others say that a man named Manehivi, calling himself “John Frum,” appeared in Tanna dressed in Western clothes and promised great wealth. Either way, in 1941 believers in John Frum (perhaps “John From America…”) spent all their money, dropped out of missionary school or quit working on plantations and moved into the interior of Tanna to live according to kastom (traditional customs). According to some reports, the European colonial leaders disapproved and arrested Manehivi/Frum, exiling him and some of his leading followers to a distant island. Others believed Frum had not yet come and would soon appear either as a light or dark-skinned man. In the early ’40s when 300,000 American troops landed in the New Hebrides the cult of John Frum revived. After the Americans left, John Frum followers built docks and landing strips to encourage cargo-bearing ships and planes to return, which they have yet to do. The John Frum movement exists to this day as both a religious and political entity which even has members in Parliament. Every February 15th followers on Tanna celebrate John Frum Day and eagerly anticipate the day Frum himself will join them.

Though Frum followers generally disapproved of Vanuatu’s becoming independent, fearing centralized government would increase the ni-Vanuatu’s Westernization and make Frum’s return less likely, the ascendance of the John Frum movement, focusing on a return to “kastom” and the promise Melanesian salvation, helped inspire thoughts of independence among the ni-Vanuatu.

More information:
Wikipedia on John Frum | Smithsoian Magazine on John Frum: “In John They Trust“: “John promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago, and none has come,” the article’s author asks Chief Isaac, a John Frum movement leader. “So why do you keep faith with him? Why do you still believe in him?” Chief Isaac replies “You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth and you haven’t given up hope.” | Also why do some ni-Vanuatu worship Prince Philip, husband of the British Queen? Read this BBC report on the worship of Prince Philip: “Is Prince Philip an Island God?

By the 1960s the issue of land ownership became very contentious in the New Hebrides. According to ni-Vanuatu custom, land was a sacred trust that passed from generation to generation and therefore belonged to the people of the islands. The Europeans viewed land as something that could be bought or sold for profit and had found a way to purchase about 1/3 of the land on the islands. When European companies started to clear more and more of the land for coconut production, Nagriamel, a “kastom”-focused political movement related to John Frum, inspired protests. In the early ’70s the first political party formed; the New Hebrides National Party, eventually renamed the Vanua’aku Party, pushed for independence.

In early 1980 the British and French had had enough of fighting the ni-Vanuatu, and each other, and promised the islands’ their independence on July 30th. In June, Jimmy
Stevens, part-European, part-Malanesian, part-Polynesian messianic leader of Nagriamel, renamed the island of Espiritu Santo the “Republic of Vemerana,” and declared its independence. After Vanuatu as a whole became independent the new nation called for international intervention on Espiritu Santo/Vemerana; in August 1980 Papua New Guinean troops helped put an end to the revolt. Later, reports surfaced that proved Stevens not only acted upon the blessing of the French but had also received $250,000 from the American-based libertarian Phoenix Foundation that intended establish an international tax haven in the new republic. (Read Wikpedia’s account of the Coconut War | Learn about another failed Phoenix Foundation attempt to form a tax haven)

Today inhabitants of Vanuatu are almost exclusively Melanesian and also primarily Christian. Political power still divides (tensely) between English-speaking and French speaking islanders. Vanuatu is not at all a wealthy nation, but it does base a substantial amount of its contemporary economy on money. In Vanuatu there are very few taxes–no income tax, no capital gains tax, no inheritance tax…. The Phoenix Foundation would be proud. Despite recent promises by Vanuatu’s leadership to change the nation’s tax laws, multinational corporations still choose the island nation as their official home base. Many international shipping companies also fly the Vanuatan flag, as do file-sharing companies like KaZaA and other entities that hope a Vanuatuan home would make them less susceptible to international regulation.

Vanuatu has proven less vulnerable to international financial pressures than it has to the brute forces of nature. Being a volcanic archipelago in the “Pacific Ring of Fire,” the islands face fairly regular earthquakes, tsunamis and the threat of volcanic eruptions. All that international money may find some way to survive a natural disaster, but for most ni-Vanuatu the local economy shakes every time the earth does.

More information:
Wikipedia on Vanuatu’s path to independence | The 2009 Happy Planet Index the criteria changed for 2009 and Vanuatu was no longer in contention | Is Vanuatu really such a happy place? Blogger Ransom Riggs travels to Vanuatu for to see for himself |’s introduction to Vanuatu’s culture: the tamtam, the three-holed flute and more than 100 indigenous languages | The ni-Vanuatu essentially invented bungee jumping: National Geographic’s video of “land diving” on the island of Pentacost

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