Bislama a language from early Vanuatu-China trade relations: Natuman

Daily PostBy Jonas Cullwick Nov 15, 2016

Vanuatu’s national language, Bislama, is derived from Beche-de-Mer or sea cucumber, the trade of which commodity in the late 1800s signaled the start of trade relations between Vanuatu and China

, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Tourism and Trade Joe Natuman told a recent Seminar on Cooperation and Exchange between China (Guangdong) and Vanuatu.

He was speaking at the seminar hosted by the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in Guangzhou two days after the DPM and his delegation of 13 MPs attended the opening of the Guangdong 21st Century Marine Silk Road International Expo in Dongguan, Guangdong Province’s second largest city.

“Vanuatu and China have had a long fruitful relation dating back a number of years”, he said adding: “It is important that we are holding this forum at the time when you are holding the International Expo on the Maritime Silk Road initiative that will aim to increase trade relations between our two countries.”

“The Chinese people and the people of Vanuatu have had a long relationship with each other,” Natuman added saying: “At the time when the Europeans were coming to the Pacific to trade in the late 1800s, the Chinese were also involved in the trade in the Pacific.”

“In fact when the British imported Chinese tea, the Chinese would not accept the British Pound or British money. So, the British had to look for something to trade with for the tea, and they looked for sandalwood and Vanuatu had lots of sandalwood.

“In fact one of our Members of Parliament in this delegation (UMP MP Tomker Netvunei) comes from Erromango and his island has lots of sandalwood. The British got the sandalwood from Vanuatu, came to China, exchanged the sandalwood and took the tea to England. That was our first trade contact,” the Deputy Prime Minister, a history/politics graduate told the seminar.

“Later on we had lots of Chinese investors and traders in the marine sector. They came to trade in beche-de-mer or sea cucumber. In Vanuatu we don’t eat sea cucumber but in China I believe you like sea cucumber and the Chinese came to our islands because we have lots of sea cucumber.

“That’s how we started trading. And in fact our national language, the lingua franca of Vanuatu, which in Papua New Guinea is called Tok Pisin – a broken English, in the Solomon Islands is called Pidgin English, and in Vanuatu the name was changed. It’s called Bishlamer or Bislama,” Natuman continued.

“The language is derived from beche-de-mer trading. The local people could not speak Chinese, they could not speak English and they could not speak the many ni-Vanuatu languages, so they came up with this language to communicate, they call Bishlamer or Bislama. Today it is our national language.”

“That is the history of our first trading experiences that have linked Vanuatu and China to this day.

“In the early 1900s we were colonized by two colonial powers – Britain and France, and Britain because of their interests in China through Hong Kong, when they colonized us, they brought Chinese from Hong Kong and South China to work in housekeeping, in the kitchen to cook their food and other such tasks.

“In Vanuatu we call them as people from Canton or Cantonese.

“The British allowed them to set up their own businesses and they set up a China town part of Port Vila which remains to this day. Many generations of these Chinese have become very successful and are doing businesses in Vanuatu today and they invest overseas.”

In 1982, after our independence, Vanuatu and China established diplomatic ties and Vanuatu is keen to look at ways to tap into China’s latest international trade initiative, the Maritime Silk Road.

Jonas Cullwick, a former General Manager of VBTC is now a Senior Journalist with the Daily Post. Contact: Cell # 678 5460922

Bislama a language from early Vanuatu-China trade relations: Natuman was originally published on


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