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Over time it is thought that the Lapita either mixed with, or acted as pioneers for, migrants coming from the Bismarks and elsewhere in Melanesia, ultimately producing the darker-skinned physiognomy that is typical of modern ni-Vanuatu. Linguistically, however, the Lapita peoples’ Austronesian languages were maintained, with all of the numerous 100+ autochthonous languages of Vanuatu being classified as belonging to the Oceanic branch of the Austronesian language family.

This linguistic hyper-diversity resulted from a number of factors: continuing waves of migration, the existence of numerous decentralized and generally self-sufficient communities, hostilities between people groups, with none able to dominate any of the others, and the difficult geography of Vanuatu that impeded inter- and intra-island travel and communication. The geological record also shows that a huge volcanic eruption occurred on Ambrym in circa 200 AD and on Kuwae in c. 1452–53 AD, which would have devastated local populations and likely resulted in further population movements.

Arrival of Europeans (1606–1906):

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Pedro Fernandes de Queirós
The Vanuatu islands first had contact with Europeans in April 1606, when the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, sailing for the Spanish Crown, departed El Callao, sailed by the Banks Islands, landing briefly on Gaua (which he called Santa María). Continuing further south, Queirós arrived at the largest island, naming it La Austrialia del Espíritu Santo or “The Southern Land of the Holy Spirit”, believing he had arrived in Terra Australis (Australia). The Spanish established a short-lived settlement named Nueva Jerusalem at Big Bay on the north side of the island.

Relations with the Ni-Vanuatu were initially friendly, though due to poor treatment of the local people by the Spanish, the situation soon soured and turned violent. Much of the crew, including Queirós, were also suffering from ill health, with Queirós’s mental state also deteriorating. The settlement was abandoned after a month, with Queirós continuing his search for the southern continent.

Europeans did not return until 1768, when the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville sailed by the islands on 22 May, naming them the Great Cyclades. Of the various French toponyms Bougainville devised, only Pentecost Island has stuck.

The French landed on Ambae, trading with the native people in a peaceful manner, though Bougainville stated that they were later attacked, necessitating him to fire warning shots with his muskets, before his crew left and continued their voyage. In July–September 1774 the islands were explored extensively by British explorer Captain James Cook, who named them the New Hebrides, after the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, a name that lasted until independence in 1980. Cook managed to maintain generally cordial relations with the Ni-Vanuatu by giving them presents and refraining from violence.

In 1789 William Bligh and the remainder of his crew sailed through the Banks Islands on their return voyage to Timor following the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty‘; Bligh later returned to the islands, naming them after his benefactor Joseph Banks.

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James Cook landing at Tanna island, c. 1774
Whaleships were among the first regular visitors to this group of islands. The first recorded visit was by the Rose in February 1804, and the last known visit by the New Bedford ship John and Winthrop in 1887. In 1825, the trader Peter Dillon‘s discovery of sandalwood on the island of Erromango, highly valued as an incense in China where it could be traded for tea, resulted in rush of incomers that ended in 1830 after a clash between immigrant Polynesian workers and indigenous Ni-Vanuatu. Further sandalwood trees were found on Efate, Espiritu Santo, and Aneityum, prompting a series of boom and busts, though supplies were essentially exhausted by the mid-1860s, and the trade largely ceased.

During the 1860s, planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoan islands, in need of laborers, encouraged a long-term indentured labour trade called “blackbirding“. At the height of the labor trade, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the islands worked abroad. Because of this, and the poor conditions and abuse often faced by workers, as well the introduction of common diseases to which native Ni-Vanuatu had no immunity, the population of Vanuatu declined severely, with the current population being greatly reduced compared to pre-contact times. Greater oversight of the trade saw it gradually wind down, with Australia barring any further ‘blackbird’ laborers in 1906, followed by Fiji and Samoa in 1910 and 1913 respectively.

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