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During the 1920s–30s, indentured workers from Vietnam (then part of French Indochina) came to work in the plantations in the New Hebrides. By 1929 there were some 6,000 Vietnamese people in the New Hebrides. There was some social and political unrest among them in the 1940s due to the poor working conditions and the social effects of Allied troops, who were generally more sympathetic to their plight than the planters. Most Vietnamese were repatriated in 1946 and 1963, though a small Vietnamese community remains in Vanuatu today.

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US Navy Hellcats on Espiritu Santo island in February 1944

The Second World War brought immense change to the archipelago. The fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940 allowed Britain to gain a level of greater authority on the islands. The Australian military stationed a 2,000-strong force on Malakula in a bid to protect Australia from a possible Japanese invasion. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 the United States joined the war on the Allied side; Japan soon advanced rapidly throughout Melanesia and was in possession of much of what is now Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands by April 1942, leaving the New Hebrides on the frontline of any further advance. To forestall this, from May 1942 US troops were stationed on the islands, where they built airstrips, roads, military bases on Efate and Espiritu Santo, and an array of other supporting infrastructure.

At the peak of the deployment some 50,000 Americans were stationed on the two military bases, outnumbering the native population of roughly 40,000, with thousands more Allied troops passing through the islands at some point. A small Ni-Vanuatu force of some 200 men (the New Hebrides Defence Force) was established to support the Americans, and thousands more were engaged in construction and maintenance work as part of the Vanuatu Labor Corps. The American presence effectively sidelined the Anglo-French authorities for the duration of their stay, with the Americans’ more tolerant and friendly attitude to the Ni-Vanuatu, informal habits, relative wealth, and the presence of African-American troops serving with a degree of equality (albeit in a segregated force) seriously undermining the underlying ethos of colonial superiority.

With the successful reoccupation of the Solomons in 1943 the New Hebrides lost their strategic importance, and the Americans withdrew in 1945, selling much of their equipment at bargain prices and dumping the rest in the sea. The rapid American deployment and withdrawal led to growth in ‘cargo cults‘, most notably that of John Frum, whereby Ni-Vanuatu hoped that by returning to traditional values whilst mimicking aspects of the American presence that ‘cargo’ (i.e. large quantities of American goods) would be delivered to them. Meanwhile, the Condominium government returned, though understaffed and underfunded, it struggled to reassert its authority.

Lead-up to independence (1945–1980):

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1966 flag of the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides
Decolonization began sweeping the European empires after the war, and from the 1950s the Condominium government began a somewhat belated campaign of modernization and economic development. Hospitals were built, doctors trained and immunization campaigns carried out. The inadequate mission-run school system was taken over and improved, with primary enrollment greatly increasing to be near-universal by 1970. There was greater oversight of the plantations, with worker exploitation being clamped down on and Ni-Vanuatu paid higher wages.

New industries, such as cattle ranching, commercial fishing and manganese mining were established. Ni-Vanuatu began gradually to take over more positions of power and influence within the economy and the church. Despite this the British and French still dominated the politics of the colony, with an Advisory Council set up in 1957 containing some Ni-Vanuatu representation having little power.

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