Words by: Bryson
Latitude: 19 deg 30.47′ S
Longitude: 169 deg 27.70 E
Vanuatu or Ripablik Blong Vanuatu (Republic belonging to Vanuatu) features about 83 islands running approximately 1300 km in a north-south line. Vanuatu means the ” Land Eternal” has a rich, dark and very very interesting history. These lush green islands sit on the the western edge of the Pacific Plate, right next to the 8000 ft deep New Hebrides Trench. The trench marks the boundary between the Indo-Australian plate and the pacific plate. As a result of this subduction zone, Vanuatu has some of the most accessible active volcanoes on the planet. Sitting in the anchorages, one can watch the smoke and sulphurous eruptions light up the night sky.
Vanuatu may have been populated as far back as 3000 BC, though any evidence of this would almost certainly be sitting beneath the tropical waters and lost forever. The inhabitants of each island life in autonomy and as a result, the islands have a huge variety of languages and customs. Relations between tribes generally where formed by trading wives (a form of property) or pigs. In order to climb the proverbial ladder in society one needed to purchase a sufficient number of pigs to prove your rank. Rival clans often raided each other and ate their victims bodies in order to capture the power of their spirits. These raids were always reciprocal, and a counter attack was a forgone conclusion to any attack. The last recorded event of cannibalism was only in 1969. Not very long ago if you ask me…
The islands were first visited by the Hispanic explorer, Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, in 1606. He believed he had found the long lost southern continent and claimed possession of all lands from that point south until the South Pole. It wasn’t until Captain Cook arrived in 1774, that the islands were fully mapped and explored. He named the islands New Hebrides after their the scottish islands. I personally do not see the connection between those cold northern hemisphere islands and these tropical southern hemisphere islands !
Sandalwood traders were some of the first Europeans to actually live on the islands and they created a great uncertainty towards white men. As a result, when the London Missionary Society first landed on the shores of Erromango in 1839, they were promptly clubbed and eaten. A similar fate was held in store for the Samoan Missionaries, who were the next send to the islands.
During WWII, approx 1000 men from the islands of Tanna worked on the military base on Efate, where huge quantities of food, war supplies and black soldiers were consistently coming in on cargo ships. These cargo ships held all the supplies and material goods that the islanders needed or desired. Whenever supplies were getting low, another cargo ship would appear on the horizon and bring everything they needed. As a result a cultural hero emerged, Jon “from” America ! The peoples of Tanna began to believe that Jon Frum was a reincarnation of an ancient deity, who would return to Tanna at some point bringing ships laden with cargo. “Messengers” or “Prophets” of this cargo cults began to fore tell when Jon Frum would arrive. The messages of these movements are to throw all money away, kill your pigs, do not bother clearing your garden, since all will be provided when Jon Frum returns. The John Frum Movement is just one of these cults and each has it’s own deity and messages.
While Christianity was brought to the islands many times over, the islanders did not agree with all its tenants and have taken some of the principals of Christianity and mixed it with their ancient kustom. Most of the islanders are devoted Christians but most also fear and follow their kustom. The interaction of religions in this area is incredibly interesting and the book “The Last Heathen” will spread a little more light on the situation. Try and find a copy.
The history, politics, social structure and place of women in Vanuatu is incredibly interesting. I could type away for hours but the sun is shining and we have been invited to a traditional kava ceremony tonight, so things must be done. Take a trip to the library or google it. Real south seas island culture… incredible…