It is separated from the islands of Espiritu Santo and Malo by the Bougainville Strait. Lakatoro, capital of Malampa Province, is situated on its northeastern shore and is the largest settlement in the island. On the northeastern side of the island there is a group of islands called Small Islands, amongst them (from N to S) Vao, Atchin, Wala (island), Rano (island), Norsup, Uripiv and Uri (island). Off the southwestern coast is Tomman Island, in the south Akhamb Island and at the southeastern point the Maskelynes Islands are found, among them Sakao Island and Uliveo.
It has a maximum elevation of 879 m. It is called Mt. Liambele. In 1768, Louis Antoine de Bougainville gave his name to the straits which separate Malakula from Santo.
Discovered by the Spanish expedition of Pedro Fernández de Quirós in 1606.
During 1914 and 1915 the British anthropologist John Layard lived on the island taking anthropological notes as well as phonographic and photographic records during his fieldwork. On his return to Britain he donated copies of the more than 400 photographs on plates to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.
According to the latest census information, from 2009, Malakula has a population of around 23,000 inhabitants..
There are nearly thirty different languages spoken on the island. The two tribes living are Big Nambas in the North and the Small Nambas in the central part of the southern area, whose names stem from the size of the penis sheath they wear, made out of banana or pandanus leaves.
It was, until recently, the culture to bind infants' skulls to alter the shape of their heads. Cone-shaped skulls were said to be a sign of higher social status.
Malakula's economy is largely based on agriculture with extensive copra plantations on the eastern coastal plains around Norsup and Lakatoro. In 1939, a copra cooperative was set up at Matanvat in northern Malakula. In no time, it took on some of the cargo cult traits, up until 1950, after which it returned to its original purpose, copra production. Today, the largest copra-producing plantation in Vanuatu is located at Norsup.
Lakatoro has more stores, a market house, a National Bank of Vanuatu branch, an Air Vanuatu office, the main wharf and it is the administrative centre for Malampa province (Malekula, Ambrym and Paama). Norsup has the provincial hospital. Both Norsup and Lakatoro have telephones and 24-hour electricity.
The interior of Malekula is mountainous, rugged and forest-covered with good walking and bird watching. There are old cannibal sites hidden in the bush on north Malekula, but at many the bones and skulls have been removed or buried. The Maskelynes and the small offshore islands along the east coast of Malekula have sand beaches and coral reefs with good snorkeling and diving.
There are airports on Malekula at Norsup in the north, Lamap in the southeast and Southwest Bay. Norsup has a tarmac surface. Air Vanuatu operates daily to Malekula.
Lakatoro is Malekula's road transport hub. The best place to find trucks is at the Lakatoro Trading Centre. There are several trucks along the northeast coast as far as Vao.