Vanuatu has been inhabited since at least 1000 B.C.; remains of the Lapita culture from that time have been excavated. Legends dating to the 15th cent. describe a huge explosion in the South Pacific; in 1993 a scientist suggested that the Vanuatan islands of Tongoa and Epi (since separated by the island of Kuwae) were created in 1453 when a larger island was split in two by an enormous volcanic explosion. The archipelago was visited in 1606 by the Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernandez de Queiros, and in 1774 Capt. James Cook made the first systematic exploration of the islands, which became known as the New Hebrides.
English missionaries began arriving in the early 19th cent. With them came the "sandalwooders," who, once the local sources of sandalwood ran out, began kidnapping natives for the sugar and cotton plantations in Queensland, Australia. British attempts to halt the decimation of the native population met success in 1887, when the islands were placed under an Anglo-French naval commission. The commission was replaced by a condominium in 1906. During World War II the islands served as bases for Allied forces in the Pacific theater.
In 1980 the New Hebrides became independent as Vanuatu, and a secession movement on Espiritu Santo was put down with aid from Papua New Guinea and Britain. A coalition government led by Prime Minister Maxime Carlot took office in 1991. Jean-Marie Léyé was elected president in 1994. Carlot's government lost power after the 1995 general elections, but the new coalition foundered, and Corlot again was prime minister from April to September in 1996, when Serge Vohor took office. After new elections in 1998, Donald Kalpokas became prime minister, but a no-confidence motion in 1999, led to his resignation, and Barak Sopé succeeded him. Also in 1999, John Bernard Bani was elected president. Edward Natapei replaced Sopé as prime minister in 2001.
Alfred Maseng became the country's fifth president in Apr., 2004, but he was removed from office the following month. After parliamentary elections in July, Serge Vohor became prime minister for a second time, and in August, Kalkot Mataskelekele was elected president. Vohor's government fell in Dec., 2004, after government ministers resigned over actions he had taken without consulting with them; Ham Lini succeeded him.
Elections in 2008 brought a new governing coalition, with Natapei again as prime minister, into office. Natapei revamped his coalition extensively in 2009 to remain in power but was ousted in no-confidence vote in Dec., 2010. Sato Kilman succeeded him. Kilman was ousted four months later and Vohor replaced him, but in May, 2011, the no-confidence vote was declared unconstitutional and Kilman restored to office. In June, Kilman's election also was voided. Natapei became prime minister pending a new vote, in which Kilman was reelected. Kilman remained prime minister after the Oct., 2012, elections. Meanwhile, Iolu Johnson Abil was elected president in Sept., 2009.
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