The area occupied by Port Vila has been inhabited by Melanesian people for thousands of years. In 1606, the first Europeans arrived at the island, led by Pedro Fernández de Quirós and Luis Váez de Torres. In the 19th century, French settlers established the municipality of Franceville, which declared independence in 1889 and became the first self-governing nation to practice universal suffrage without distinction of sex or race. Although the population at the time consisted of about 500 native islanders and less than 50 whites, only the latter were permitted to hold office. One of the elected presidents was a U.S. citizen by birth, R.D. Polk.
After 1887, the territory was jointly administered by the French and the British. This was formalized in 1906 as an Anglo-French Condominium. During World War II, Port Vila was an American and Australian airbase. In 1987, a cyclone severely damaged the city. Another powerful earthquake in January 2002 caused extensive damage in the capital and surrounding areas.