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archipelago of 80 islands (12 of them large, including Espiritu Santo, Ambrim, and Efate) in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, in Melanesia. It is a joint possession (condominium) of Great Britain and France. The archipelago covers an area of 14,800 sq km. The population in 1972 was 90,000, of whom about 93 percent were indigenous peoples speaking various Austronesian languages. Most of the native people are Melanesians, and the rest are Polynesians. Later settlers include French, English, Australians, Tahitians, Uveans, and Futunans. Most of the inhabitants are Christians, chiefly Presbyterians. The administrative center and chief port is Vila on Efate.
The islands are mountainous, with a maximum elevation of 1,810m. They are composed of volcanic rock and have about 60 volcanoes, ten of which are active, as well as many solfatara, fumaroles, and hot springs. Natural resources include deposits of sulfur and manganese (the latter is being worked). The climate is tropical and humid. Mean monthly temperatures range from 20° to 27°C, and the annual precipitation may reach 1,000 mm. Tropical rain forests cover the windward eastern slopes, and the western slopes support sparse woodlands. The economy is based on the plantation cultivation of coconut palms and cacao trees. Other crops include sugarcane, coffee, and cotton. Animal husbandry is also important. The forests yield valuable timber, including species of the genus Agathis.
The islands were discovered in 1606 by the Portuguese navigator P. Quirós. In 1774, J. Cook explored the islands and named them the New Hebrides because of their mountainous coast, which reminded him of the Hebrides Islands in Europe. The condominium was established in 1906. The islands are governed by a joint administration in which the British and French high commissioners participate on an equal basis. In 1957 the Advisory Council of 30 members (12 Melanesians and the rest English and French) was formed as the local governing body.