Vanuatu

Our ship headed northeast from New Caledonia Sunday and we started the week by venturing ashore on two of the islands of Vanuatu, a South Pacific archipelago of a few more than eighty islands, around sixty of which are inhabited. (Here’s how the locals pronounce it: van WAH too.) Most of the islands are volcanic, but a few of them are coral. Our first stop was on Mystery Island. Our reason for stopping there was a mystery to us because we immediately jumped into boats with locals and sped across the water to the island of Aneityum for a tour that was billed as a Modern Village Tour. Don’t know what was modern about it, but it was certainly fascinating. It looks to me like these villagers are living much the same way their nineteenth century ancestors lived. They have no electricity. They did have running water from a faucet on a pole, but we didn’t find out where it comes from. Could be a cistern or could be a well, I suppose. The village and tribe is known as Anelcauhat and I don’t know what language they speak. There are about one hundred fifteen indigenous languages on the islands of Vanuatu but Bislama is the lingua franca. Since only a few of the villagers speak English and it’s broken at best, we often had trouble understanding what we were told. But the people were warm and friendly and I am sure they love the income brought in by groups such as ours.

We had several different guides while on the island. I think they were all part of the same family. Mrs. Grace explained a lot about their everyday life. The diet of the villagers consists mostly of vegetables and fruits. Lots of coconut, sweet potato, spinach: just what you would expect on a Pacific island. There are chickens running around all over the place but they aren’t like the ones we have that have been injected with who-knows-what. These chickens are very small by comparison. The villagers also eat a lot of seafood and occasionally have goat, beef, or pork.

We asked about health care and our guide said that they use a lot of herbal remedies and they have a nurse on the island. The qualifications this nurse has, if any, were not revealed. Mrs. Grace was proud to let us know that they had no cases of Covid-19 as the island was completely locked down.

Their homes are rather rudimentary but each family has a shelter much like the one pictured below. Mrs. Grace says that when a cyclone comes (and they do come every year), the entire family retreats to the hut because it is safer there. Also, when a woman is having her period, she must stay in that hut. To sleep with her husband might give him a stomach ache. (Bless his heart. Just imagine if the poor dear had to deliver a baby.) She did admit that it was rather nice because her husband has to cook, clean, and take care of the children while she is away for that week each month. I guess you could call it an island woman’s “She-shed.”

 

Another guide showed us weapons for hunting and we got a little insight into the archipelago’s history of cannibalism. Up until the 1840s, the natives had a bad reputation for cannibalism. The first missionaries were present at dinner but not as guests. The next few were also quickly devoured. Finally, around 1840, the natives were converted to Christianity by a missionary who brought a printing press and actually translated the Bible into their language, obviously no small task. Below is one of the original Bibles in their native language. Thankfully, now that the natives are Christian, cannibalism is frowned upon. The last known incidence occurred in 1969 on another Vanuatu island. They have also stopped the practice of killing widows. It seems that way back when, it was believed that if a man died, he needed his wife to join him to take care of him, so widows were given a swift send-off with a broken neck by the tribe. The women are happy that those days are in the past.

 

The translated Bible.

 

But there is another sad chapter in the history of Vanuatu and other South Pacific island nations. In 1847, an Australian whaling merchant brought 65 men from Vanuatu and New Caledonia to Eden in New South Wales and this ushered in Australia’s dark history of “blackbirding.” Ironically, at about the same time the US and Britain were closing down their despicable slave trade, Australians were kidnapping, coercing, and tricking men from as many as 80 South Pacific Islands and transporting them to Australia. There they were used as free labor in several industries in New South Wales but mainly in Queensland to work on the sugar cane plantations. Women and children were sometimes kidnapped, but mostly boys and working age men were coerced onto ships bound for Australia. On some islands, the entire male population was taken. Sometimes they were indentured, but more often than not, their removal from their island homes was against their will. None of them understood where they were going and why. Over time, 4,000 were taken just from the Vanuatu island of Tanna as well as thousands more from all over the South Pacific. Often, a lot of these men died in route or in Australia from diseases never encountered on their islands. The practice of blackbirding was finally abolished in 1901. Another law was passed the same year that began the process of deporting those Pacific Islanders. Of course by then, many of them and their descendants had made lives for themselves in Australia and did not want to leave. About 2,500 managed to escape deportation. Now there are tens of thousands of descendants of these people living in Australia and there is a day dedicated to them. August 25 is South Sea Islander Recognition Day and serves to recognize the distinct South Sea Island community within Australia. Today, Vanuatu’s beautiful island vistas and warm, laid-back residents belie the turbulent history of the distant little South Pacific island nation.

4 Comments

  1. Judy on January 17, 2024 at 3:07 pm

    The best part of this story was the week off for wives!😊

  2. Melinda Young on January 17, 2024 at 4:08 pm

    Glad your not on the menu!

  3. Sarah Guida on January 17, 2024 at 4:47 pm

    What a simple life…. I bet the islands are beautiful. Not sure I would like sleeping in those huts though.!

  4. Pam Morgan on January 20, 2024 at 10:34 am

    Amazing story about the bible.

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