Our Islands Beginnings - Introduction


Plate tectonics, subduction zones, the ring of fire; these are technical terms and concepts that scientists have explored and researched in modern times. With precise instruments and measurements, researchers are able to explain the geological history of the islands of Vanuatu from a scientific perspective. There are still many unanswered questions, like why some species are found only on certain islands and nowhere else.

But, the answers to some questions are becoming clearer.

Hundreds and thousands of years ago, how did our ancestors explain the beginnings of their islands? Where did they think that the islands came from? How did they account for the powerful mountains that sent burning red molten lava shooting into the air? How did they explain the tremors that shook their islands, sometimes breaking them apart?

Who was responsible for the creation of the moon and how did it find its place in the night sky?

Vanuatu has a rich culture of origin stories and oral histories that have been told and retold from generation to generation. Our ancestors used origin stories to explain how and why things happened the way that they did. Often these stories link physical occurrences, such as volcanoes, to spiritual beliefs. We are very fortunate to have these oral histories, as there are many places in the world that have lost this rich component of their cultures.

The following accounts come from a variety of sources. Some have been collected by the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and are recorded either on cassettes or on paper.

Others are explanations that have been included in studies of our various islands.



The Tree And The Canoe

'Our Island Beginnings' combines both scientific explanations and origin stories to paint a picture of our islands’ beginnings.

This first excerpt is from Joël Bonnemaison’s The Tree and the Canoe (1994). Here, Bonnemaison describes the creation of Tanna, as well as some other islands.


The spirit Wuhngin (or Wuhngen) created land. It is neither a man nor a hero; Wuhngin is a genuine spirit and no one has ever seen it. Wuhngin was here at the beginning of the world. To create the islands, it created the land and then stones to shape the land. Since then, Wuhngin’s spirit has inhabited Mount Melen, whose summit in the south of the island is visible from all of Tanna. This mountain is regarded as a huge raised stone – the mother of all other stones and the first among the island’s sacred sites. Its summit is a tabu place, out of bounds to most Tannese and certainly to strangers.

The land started its journey at the northeast tip of Tanna, moved westward and southward and finally went back to its point of departure through the east.

In the course of the land’s travel, the island emerged, taking on the outline and dimensions that it has today. This land which gave birth to lands is called numapten, ‘the land’s house,’ Tanna’s name according to the west coast tradition. When the land arrived back at its point of departure, it prepared kava, drank it and took a rest. Then the land dived into the sea and disappeared, re-emerging in the north, where it gave birth to the island of Erromango in the same fashion. It kept on travelling in that direction, creating new islands on the way.

All such lands are seen as Tanna’s daughters, since they appeared later, in the numapten’s wake: the island’s traditional society thereby accounts for Erromango (called Illmanga in northern Tanna), Aniwa, Futuna and farther away, Emae, Makura and Mataso (or Masaka), which represent the boundary of the known world. Conversely, Aneityum Island, to the south, was born earlier than Tanna.

Because the land was bare, lifeless and devoid of form, Wuhngin sent a hard substance: stones or kapiel. According to most oral traditions, such stones came from the sea. In others, they rose directly from the earth’s core or occasionally, for instance in the eastern part of the island, from the volcano. But in all cases Wuhngin’s breath made them appear.

On the island’s soft matrix, the stones created geographical shapes: mountains, capes and headlands, ridges and crests, rocks and solitary stones. The kapiel liked to travel and make noise. When they arrived on the island, they generated a great commotion and went on a fantastic circuit, spreading out in separate groups making war with and constantly opposing, one another.

Because of this magical tumult and anarchical wandering, there was neither rest nor refuge in the land. The fighting and talking stones wore themselves out in unceasing competition. But in so doing, they made the world and scenery of the island (Bonnemaison 1994: 115-6).


Kapiel Stones, West Tanna (Bonnemaison 1994: 120)



Hao nao Tagaro I Mekem Ambae


The following story, ‘Hao Nao Tagaro I Mekem Ambae’ was told by Cultural Centre fieldworker James Ngwero, from the Ndui Ndui area of West Ambae. This is just one segment of a long story that explains the formation of Ambae.


Ambae aelan long fastaem hem i ston nomo. Nao Tagaro i sanem tufala man i kam daon i talem long tufala se, “Yutufala i go daon. Yu lukluk long ples daon.” Tufala man ia nem blong tufala i Vavarai Aho wetem Ngwera Kandiri. Taem tufala i kam daon i luk, be olgeta ples i ston nomo.

Nao Vavarai Aho i sanem Ngwera Kandiri i go antap bakegen long Tagaro hem i se, “Yu go antap, mo yu talem long Tagaro se yumi luk ples daon be hem i olgeta ston nomo. Yu talem long Tagaro blong hem i givim sam samting i kam blong blokem ol ston ia long hem.”

Nao Tagaro i givim graon, mo graon ia i kavremap olgeta ston ia. Taem graon i kavremap olgeta ston finis, Ngwera Kandiri i go antap bakegen. Tagaro i givim ol gras i kam daon. Ol gras ia i gro mo i kavremap gud ol graon ia. Taem Tagaro i putum ol gras finis, hem i putum ol wud. Ol fas wud we Tagaro i putum hem i ol wud we mifala i kolem naoia ‘vui venue’. Mining blong nem blong wud ia, ‘stamba blong ples’.


The Birth Of Pentecost Island


This describes the birth of the island of Pentecost. Robert Bule Ala told the story to Joël Bonnemaison, who then recorded it.

This version is found in the French textbook, Le Vanuatu Par Les Textes (1997). It has been translated into English.


Maewo was the first of the islands to rise out of the ocean. After this island had emerged, steam continued to escape from the sea. These submarine eruptions lasted three days. On the third day a new, immense stone mass appeared, rising vertically above the waves. The land mass was so high that the wind could batter its sides, shaping it into a long and low form. The island that had emerged was still soft and pliable, without a fixed form. Steam continued to escape from this land, radiating heat. This was Raga [Pentecost].

The wind continued to shape and re-shape the island. Peaks and headlands were created, as were the bays between the headlands. In the centre and to the south of the island could be found the highest mountains, which created a barrier against the winds for the western coast of Raga, which subsequently was less hollowed out by the wind than the north of the island.

Little by little this land began to cool and harden. Trees began to push through the soil. Pentecost began to take on its final form, with a series of peaks that hardened the contours of the northern fringe.

Rising out of the waves, the land that had emerged brought with it seashells. One, the clam, was a woman, the other, a white trochus shell, was a man. Finally, the last was a species of oyster. Elevated to open air due to the rising of the land, these shells secreted tears and saliva to recreate the humid environment they had previously inhabited in the ocean. It was not enough to recreate a sea on land; but out of the mixture of tears, saliva and land were born the first human beings (Bonnemaison 1997: 9-11).


1.2 Origin Stories

How The Sea Began


This story comes from North Ambrym and is entitled ‘How the Sea Began’. It was told by Harry Fona to Jean Guiart in 1951 and can be found in Society, Rituals and Myths of North Ambrym, New Hebrides (1951). Although an Ambrymese custom story, it is placed on Pentecost.


Fonwolwol is the name of the place where Barkolkol began to make the sea. There was a hole full of water there, where the sea was then, covered in limalwiwi grass which grew above the water.

Barkolkol said to Punyam: ‘Come tomorrow, I will make a laplap of yams for you.’ Another day, Punyam came to see Barkolkol, who had made a laplap of yams for him and got it ready for them to eat. Barkolkol took some of the sea and poured it on the laplap. They ate it and Punyam found it good. He said to Barkolkol, ‘Come tomorrow and I will give you laplap at my place.’ Punyam did not know the sea. He went to a breadfruit tree and made a hole in it and the white sap ran out. He collected it and poured it on the laplap of yams.

They ate the laplap, but Barkolkol did not find it good and asked him what he had put on the laplap. Punyam replied, ‘It is the water I use for seasoning (taka).’ Barkolkol spoke again, ‘Tomorrow you will come to my place again.’ He made another laplap, preparing it with seawater. This time, Punyam had seen Barlkolkol take some of the sea. Now that he knew, he wanted to take it from him. They ate. Punyam said, ‘All right, you come back to see me tomorrow.’ Punyam made a laplap and when Barkolkol arrived, he went around to the other side to steal from him. He took some of the sea to put on the laplap.

They ate and Barkolkol spoke: ‘This is not your water, it is mine.’ Punyam said, ‘It is not your water, but it is mine.’ Barkolkol said, ‘Come and show me where you took this water.’ Punyam replied, ‘All right, I will show you.’ Punyam showed the hole to Barkolkol. Barkolkol said to him, ‘This water is not yours, it is mine.’ The two quarrelled about the water: ‘You came to steal it.’ Punyam said, ‘I did not steal it, it is mine.’ Both spoke very loudly because of that water. ‘All right,’ said Barkolkol, ‘if it is your water, you can keep it from running out. If it is mine, I will let it run.’ Barkolkol set aside the stone that holds it back and the sea ran out of the village. Punyam picked up a rock as big as a house to stop the sea, but he did not succeed and the sea ran on. He added more large stones, but the water ran through them. Barkolkol spoke again, ‘If it is your water, you should be able to stop it. If it is mine, I will make it run over.’ Punyam could not stop the sea and the water spread everywhere. The stone still exists at Pentecost, rising up like a ship in the middle of the sea. The place where the sea was before is Enbarite (Guiart 1951: 75-78).


1.2 Origin Stories

The Birth Of Futuna


In the following story, ‘The Birth of Futuna’, we learn about the formation of the island of Futuna.

This legend was given in Bislama by Willy Lekai of Futuna, who is the monitor of the Yaohnanen Custom School on Tanna.

It was originally published in issues 108 and 109 of Nabanga in 1979. Nabanga was a Bislama and French-language newspaper published during the time of the New Hebrides Condominium. It often printed custom stories. As you are reading this story, keep in mind the recurring themes and consider how it is related to the story about Tanna that was recounted by Bonnemaison.


The Polynesian god Maori Tiki, Mauitikitiki of Emao, also called Mwatiktik, lived in Tanna on Mount Melen. He owned an under-water residence. This happened a long time ago while Kuhngen (or Wuhngen) was creating the earth which was still naked and without bush.

Mwatiktik lived the rest of the time at Enarupan in the south of the island of Tanna with his wife Perepnap. They didn’t have any children and were beginning to worry about this when Perepnap became pregnant.

One night when Perepnap went to lay down on her mat, a woman came to her and said, “Perepnap, the night is very calm. Don’t you want to go fishing with coconut palm torches to light our way?”

Under the spell of the engaging voice, Perepnap recognised the devil.

“But I don’t know you,” she responded, “and I would like to sleep.”

The devil insisted and Perepnap, hypnotised, finally gave in. She followed her fully aware of the fact that the only desire of this devilish woman was to kill her. Despite her stupor, she tried to regain consciousness and to stay alert. When they had arrived at the rocks just before leaving the deep bush, Perepnap turned to pick up a fistful of her ancestral land.

“If I die,” she said, “I will die with the memory of what I love.”

The devil pressed her, “Come on, what are you doing? Here. Take these coconut fronds! Light them and let’s go fishing quickly!”

They started their hike through the rocks. As they were walking, shells were pushing against the rocks and loosening small avalanches of stone when suddenly the devil went behind Perepnap and pushed her. She slipped on the stones and fell into the water screaming.

Perepnap tried to swim but the night closed in around her and made it impossible for her to find her way. The coast fell further and further away as the current swept her out to sea, then threw her violently back against the rocks. She tried to hold on, but in vain. Each time that she was able to grab a hold of a rock, the devil crushed her fingers.

“No! You cannot hold on to the rocks, wife of the god that I love! Die! Disappear forever!

You don’t have any chance to save yourself, you are lost! Die quickly so that I never see you ever again! Disappear in the waves!” screamed the devil as her laugh pierced the night.

Once again, Perepnap swam, grabbed hold of the rocks but was taken away by the current. And again, she was thrown back against the reef by the waves. Her hands were bloody and she was losing her breath. Her last try failed as the waves threw her against the stones and her right hand was crushed with even more brutality.

The current pulled an exhausted Perepnap towards the deep. She let herself be taken a little and then tried again to swim with what little of her strength remained.

Seeing her being taken further out, the devil yelled, “I hope the sharks eat you and that you suffer terribly! I am now the wife of the fisher of islands, the wife of Mwatiktik!”

Remembering that Perepnap was pregnant, she chose a round stone near the edge of the coast, the Tapuga, and swallowed it. Her stomach thus became enormous and she took on the traits of Perepnap.

“I am Perepnap! I am pretty, aren’t I? I am the wife of a god!” she yelled dementedly.

“You find my belly too big? Maybe, but don’t forget that I’m pregnant, pregnant by a god, by Mwatiktik!” Her crazy laugh rang out again.

She then went to her ‘husband.’ During this time, Perepnap was swimming towards the deep. The child that she was carrying made her tired. She was on the edge of total exhaustion, ready to give up but she still struggled with all of her might. Her bloodied, crushed fingers hurt her horribly. The saltwater burned her raw flesh. Finally, she couldn’t go on.

In a last effort, she cried, “I am truly the wife of the fisher of islands, the wife of the strongest god. I command a reef to break through these waters at this instant so that I may rest myself!”

Perepnap had barely said the words when a reef surged through the waves and lifted her above the water.

Little by little she regained her breath and added, “You, reef, grow a little higher. I want to see an ironwood tree that is over there on Enarupan!”

The reef grew a little higher. And higher still.

“I think that I can see it. Grow just a little higher. Yes, that’s it. I can see it now; you have grown enough. And because I still have a bit of courage left, let’s create!”

Perepnap, who was still holding a bit of the ground from Tanna in her left hand, patted it against the newly formed island creating, thus, the ground of the new islet. Then, she laid back and took a deep breath. She stayed this way, alone, on her new island until the day when she gave birth to twins, Namakia and Nakia.


1.2 Origin Stories

The Story Of The Creation Of The World


Some origin stories tell how features of our living world came to be.


The next story was collected by the Oral Arts Project at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and comes from Hiu Island in the Torres Islands. It is called ‘The Story of the Creation of the World’. Sedrak Likwule told this story about the creation of night and day.


A man named Marati lived in a village called Daplingling. In this village, the people only lived with light and there was no night. Marati heard that there was an island in the Torres that had something called night. He paddled in his canoe through the sea to Toga Island. In his canoe he brought a pig, whose custom name was narawe. Marati gave this pig to the chief of Toga as payment for the night. In addition to buying the night, he also bought a rooster. He went back to his island and talked to the people in his village.

“Everyone, go make yourself a bed on which to lie down,” said Marati.

“Why should we do this?” they asked.

“Soon we are going to have night,” he said, “and you will be able to sleep.”

They waited and when the sun began to go down, they asked, “What do we do now, is the night coming?”

The sun disappeared and the sky became dark.

They waited and their eyes became heavy with sleep. They felt very tired and the feeling was something that they did not recognise. Then they asked Marati, “What is wrong with us?

Are we sick? Are we going to die?”

“No, you will sleep now,” said Marati. “You will just wake up again in the morning.”

As they slept, Marati waited. When he decided that they had slept long enough, he decided that it was time to make daylight reappear. He took something sharp and he cut the night until it broke and light began to shine again. It was daylight and this is why we use the phrase, “morning has broken,” because Marati broke the night with the piece of obsidian. At the same time that Marati broke the night, the chicken began to call out. This was the chicken that Marati had bought from the chief of Toga at the same time as he had bought the night. The call of the chicken signalled the beginning of morning and it was daylight.”



1.2 Origin Stories

The Legend Of The New Moon


This Origin story, ‘The Legend of the New Moon’, comes from the island of Malo. It was published in the 13 September 1975 issue of Nabanga.


There once lived wild men on Malo. They lived in the middle of the bush and knew how to organise their lives simply. Truthfully, their existence would not have been at all interesting if they had not had a habit at each full moon of coming out of the bush and going down towards the ocean. At the mouth of a little river, a very little river, there was a place called Nangarai. The men would carry taro and yams to roast over an open fire. They would make their fire on the bank of the river and while the taro and yams were roasting they liked to discuss their adventures. And during these evenings, they always waited for a visit– that of the moon!

At this time, the moon was not wild. At the phase of the new moon, it progressively descended from the sky and approached the island. When the moon arrived at the mouth of the little river, it dipped itself in the cold, fresh water. It was believed that it came to wash and refresh itself. It stayed for many long minutes and then it would gently start to rise. Before returning to the sky, the moon would linger for several seconds a couple of metres above the ground shining only on the little river of Nangarai, as a form of farewell until the next new moon.

Each time, the same thing would happen at Nangarai. And always, on those evenings, the men looked at the moon with a sort of veneration. One amongst them, however, had only one desire: to catch the moon! It was the wish closest to his heart. He had never spoken about it, preferring to jealously guard his secret. But one day, he opened his heart to some friends in whom he had absolute confidence. They were shocked by his wish and vowed to stop at nothing to divert their friend from his plan.

The man let himself be convinced not to catch the moon, at least that is what he let his friends believe! Because in reality, the protests of his friends did nothing but strengthen his desire and he swore that he would catch the moon the next time it came to Nangarai.

The man waited impatiently. The big night finally arrived! With the other men from the village, he came out of the bush and went down towards the ocean. He affected a very natural attitude, speaking and acting like the others, carrying his taro and yams to be roasted. Once they arrived at Nangarai, everyone went in search of dead wood and twigs to light the traditional fire. The flames quickly lit up their faces and each man sat down around the fire and started to roast his food. Everyone was there and everyone was happy. Everyone? No! No one had seen one man leave the group and furtively hide himself behind a rock to the right of the river. Well-situated in his hiding place, he waited for the moon.

Finally, the moon appeared. It started to descend slowly. The man was ready. As usual, the moon arrived at the mouth of the river and dipped itself in the cold, fresh water. The right moment arrived! The man jumped out from behind the rock, threw himself at the moon and was able to grab it with one hand. But the moon was much quicker than the man and slipped out from between his fingers. Immediately, it went high into the sky and took its normal place.

But the moon was no longer the same as before. The man had carried yams and taro. He had gathered wood and helped to light the fire. His hands were dirty! When he had seized the moon, he stained it.

Since this memorable day, the moon has never again come to light up Nangarai. Now you also understand why the moon is wild. And if you look at it very closely, you will see that the moon has black stains on it. They are the handprints of a man who lived a very long time ago on Malo.



1.2 Origin Stories

The Moons Location In The Sky


On the west coast of Maewo near the village of Nasawa is a place that is called ‘the cave of the hole of the moon’. Willie Kona from Nasawa tells this story, which explains the moon’s location in the night sky. A version of this story was published in Issue 20 of Island Spirit, Air Vanuatu’s in-flight magazine.

A long time ago the moon lived in a cave on the coast of Maewo and its light did not shine beyond the walls of the cave. Tagaro saw that this was not good and he took the moon from the cave and threw it out to the south.

However, when the moon was in the south only the people in the south saw the light. Those in the north still had darkness during the night. Tagaro took the moon back and threw it to the north. But this was not good either, because when it was in the north it did not give light to the people in the south.

Tagaro took the moon back into the cave and he threw it one more time, this time to the west. When it was in the west its light shone on everyone and Tagaro saw that it was right.

He has left the moon there to this day. The three canals of water that run into the cave are the places where the moon passed when it was being thrown out of the cave. The path of the moon broke through rock and the sea and that is why these deepwater paths into the cave are here.

1.2 Origin Stories

How Mystery Island Was Formed


The next story, ‘How Mystery Island was Formed’, explains the formation of Inyeug, the small island on the coast of Aneityum that is now often referred to as “Mystery Island.”

This story is found in a collection of custom stories and oral histories collected by Magdalena Livingstone, entitled Kastom Stories of Vanuatu. Kenneth Sandy from Aneityum told the story to Livingstone in 2002.

A long time ago there was a spider and a white crab on the beach. In those days there were two reefs on the island of Aneityum where they lived. One was called Inmal [now known as Three Mile Reef] and the other was Inyeug. One day the crab said to the spider, “Very early in the morning, before the sun rises, you are going to throw your fishing line into the Inyeug Reef and I will throw my line to Inmal so we can pull them out from the sea as islands.”

They said goodnight to each other and went to sleep. Very early in the morning the spider got his fishing line and went down to the beach. Standing on the beach he threw his line to the Inyeug Reef. He pulled the reef up to the water surface until it was no longer a reef but an island. After that the spider went back and saw the crab. The crab was still sleeping on the beach so the spider called the crab and said, “It is now day break and the sun is rising.” And the crab came out of the sand and saw that the Inyeug Reef was no longer a reef but an island.

So the crab could not do anything; he did not pull out the other island and he was afraid so he remained under the sand. If you pass along the beach and you find a hole in the sand, you can bend down and listen to the crab snoring, sleeping all day and night. And what was the Inyeug Reef before is now Mystery Island and the Inmal reef is still only a reef because of the sleepy crab (Livingstone 2002: 63).

1.2 Origin Stories

The Creation Of Erromango

The following story about the creation of the island of Erromango is adapted from the research of a Vanuatu Cultural Centre fieldworker on the island, Jerry Taki. It is a shortened version of the original, as told to the Oral Arts Project.

Stori hem i abaot sotleg [dove]. Sotleg hem i stap long wan ples long Ifo. I gat tabu ples hem i stap. Sotleg hem i wan woman pijin. Hem i putum longfala dres blong hem, hem i flas gud. Pasis blong Ifo hem i Telavoa, we mining blong hem i talem se ‘ples we yu stap ripitim oltaem nomo’. Long Telavoa ia nao, woman sotleg ia i stap brum i go, i kam, i go, i kam.

Ol narafala pijin i stap luk sotleg ia mo oli laekem hem we oli laekem. I no longtaem fulap ol defren kaen pijin i stap trae had blong switim sotleg ia. Fas pijin hem i nawimba. Nawimba i dresap gud, hem i putum blak kot blong hem mo waet sot insaed. After i singsing, “Napumtanwatete evemete marogrog, netivariou vorule eve elog” we mining blong hem long lanwis blong mifala i ‘sotleg yu gud tumas, be yu stap go kam blong wanem ia?’ Be sotleg i no wantem hem from kot blong hem i dak tumas.

Nambatu pijin i kam. Hem i nakarua wetem red maot. Hem i singsing, “Napumtanwatete evemete marogrog, netivariou vorule eve elog.” Be sotleg i no laekem red maot blong hem. Afta grin pijin i kam, i mekem semfala singsing. Be sotleg i laf long hem from se hem i grin tumas i stap haed long ol tri. Gogo ol pijin i stap sem. Oli flae i go.

Afta flaenfoks i traem switim sotleg. Hem i putum wan lif long hem, nem blong lif ia hem i ulese. Lif ia i smel gud we i gud. Hem tu i mekem singsing long sotleg. Sotleg i laekem hem afta tufala i mared. Gogo, i no longtaem sotleg i bin bonem wan pikinini, we hem i wan flaenfoks olsem papa. Pikinini ia i stap kolkol long naet be from se feta blong sotleg i smol nomo, hem i no save holem pikinini blong hem. Pikinini i stap krae gogo mama sotleg i kros long hem, i talem se, “Yu finis krae ia. Papa blong yu i save holem yu be long naet hem i stap ronwe long yumi blong stil long ol garen blong ol man. Afta long dei hem i stap hang nomo. Tut blong hem i blak olsem tut blong yu. Yu silip!”

Long moning taem papa flaenfoks i stap hang, pikinini i talem long hem ol samting we mama sotleg i bin talem. Papa flaenfoks i kros we i kros, i talem se, “Yu hang long bak blong mi pikinini.” Afta tufala i flae oli lego ples blong sotleg. Oli flae kasem wan gudfala aelan, oli stap. Long pikja [map] blong Erromango tedei, bambae yu save luk se wing blong flaenfoks hem i go long saot, narafala win i go long not. Afta leg i stap long Unpongkor [Dillon’s Bay]. Hed blong hem nao i stap long Rantop. Hem ia nao i gat fulap flaenfoks long Erromango.

1.2 Origin Stories

Stories Through Art


In 1926 and 1927, English anthropologist Bernard Deacon collected information on different customs and ways of life throughout the islands.

He came across complex designs drawn in the sand and in the dust of the volcanic ash plains. He decided to record the drawings and their meanings as he travelled through Malakula, Ambrym and Ambae (There are also sand drawings from Paama, Pentecost, Maewo, Epi and the Banks Islands. In addition there is evidence that people on Santo used to create sand drawings).

He considered these geometrical figures one of his most significant cultural ‘findings.’ In a letter to a fellow anthropologist he wrote, “I’ve certainly never seen or heard of anything like it.”

All of these curves, circles, lines and loops link to form a design that tells a story. It is important to complete the design fluidly and continuously; to stop in the middle is considered an imperfection in the drawing. Often a grid is drawn in the sand and then a design is created with the grid as a framework. Sometimes the grid is comprised of straight lines and other times it is created from a pattern of dots. Many of the designs are completed in a continuous line that ends where it begins. Others are composed of a group of symmetrically arranged lines.

Some of these drawings describe the strength and personalities of mythic heroes. Others tell of the world of spirits. There are some sand drawings that are images of plants or animals. Others are used for purposes of communication and take the place of numbers or phrases. In other sand drawings an important theme is the natural world that surrounds us.


Ilin bwaga : the rail or nambilak feather (Apma language, Central Pentecost) (Mescam 1987: 33)

1.3 Stories Through Art

A Land Born From The Sea


Volcanoes, rivers, waterfalls and hot springs are often mentioned in custom stories and legends throughout our islands.

Our ancestors were in awe of the power of natural phenomena such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. They respected and recognised the strength and energy of nature. We can see this in the large number of custom stories that explain events such as the creation of the sea, the placement of the moon in the night sky and the eruption of volcanoes. In addition to custom stories, the influence of the natural world is also seen through some of the themes and meanings of sand drawings.

Our custom stories combine both spiritual and physical explanations for occurrences in our island environment. In addition to the origin stories and oral histories of our islands, we can study the geological explanations of the beginnings of the islands. Scientific explanations for island origins enhance custom stories by empirically showing that events in some stories actually occurred. Science therefore also shows the value of retaining knowledge of custom stories, which offer a way to explain our fascinating world using the knowledge of our ancestors.

The following text has been adapted from Martin Horrocks’ Our Island Environment (1988), a secondary school science textbook. Vanuatu is comprised of islands that have been born from the sea. The land is young, still growing and fast changing. Most lands on earth are ancient, born from the break-up of huge, drifting continental plates. But this is not the story of Vanuatu.

Due to plate tectonics, two forces are operating to create new land from the sea. These two forces are land uplift and volcanic action.


Evidence we see and feel around us

Land Uplift

  • Earth Tremors
  • Coral/Limestone Cliffs and scarps
  • Raised reefs



  • Visible Eruptions
  • Lava Flows
  • Volcanic Ash
  • Pumice on Land and Sea


Vanuatu is a chain of volcanic islands positioned along a plate margin. Friction between the Pacific and the Indo-Australian plate forces the Indo-Australian plate down, an action called subduction. The Indo-Australian plate moves down under the Pacific plate because it is made of denser material. This tectonic activity creates land in two ways, uplift and volcanic action.

As the Pacific plate moves down, pieces break off and melt, creating extra magma. With no space for the extra magma, it is forced upwards and forms new volcanoes. When the magma reaches the surface of our living world (underwater or in open air) it cools, creating land. A large volcanic eruption might build an island immediately. Other islands form more slowly from repeated eruptions. The downward movement of the Australian plate also causes earthquakes. At the same time, the Pacific plate is uplifted, causing land to rise out of the sea.







A volcanic island forms

Most of the islands in Vanuatu are volcanic. They rise steeply out of the ocean with narrow coastal plains and fringing reefs. Coral rocks are found on the land of many islands. They can even be found at the tops of high mountains. On other islands no coral rocks can be found at all. If coral grows along the side of a volcano, under the sea and then the land uplifts to form an island, the island will be covered with coral. If a coral island rises out of the sea and then another volcanic eruption takes place, the coral will become covered with lava. Some volcanoes erupted so fast to form islands that coral had no chance to grow at all.


1.4 A Land Born From The Sea

Submarine Volcanoes


In 1997, the French research organisation, IRD (Institut des Recherches de Développement, formerly known as ORSTOM), recorded four under-sea, or submarine, volcanoes located in the Vanuatu archipelago.


Name Latitude Longitude Activities Characteristics Observations


Epi (East) 16/45°, S   169/15°, E   Yellow waters   3 undersea mounts   Strong colouration of B mount near the surface (in 1997)

Karua 16/50°, S   168/32°, E   Bubbles   Belongs to the Kuwae caldera   Colouration of water near the surface, ash island (1971 eruption)

Erromango 18/45°, S   170/10°, E   Yellow waters   One undersea volcano   Strong colouration of water near the surface (1994)

Gemini 21/00°, S   170/16°, E   Explosions   2 undersea mounts   East undersea mount, explosion in Feb. 1996 and Oct. 1997

1.4 A Land Born From The Sea

Ti Tongoa Liseiriki


Another custom story, collected by the French anthropologist Jean Guiart, tells the story of Asingmet, a boy from the village of Mangarisu.


He escaped the explosion because he had been hunting birds on the land bridge that used to link Tongoa and Tongariki. He fled to Tongariki along the coast of Kuwae and hid inside a slit drum, where he was later discovered by a young woman named Tarifegit, who had also escaped the disaster.

Both of them were given a home by people of Makira Island. Asingmet’s name was changed to Matanauretong and then later to Ti Tongoa Liseiriki.

One version of the story says that he married Tarifegit, while another says that he married Nawa, who was Tarifegit’s daughter. Six years later he returned to the island of Tongoa. The name Tongoa comes from the plant worotongoa, which was one of the first plants that grew on the island after the explosion.

Ti Tongoa Liseiriki planted a tree and placed a stone in memory of the former place of the old nakamal. Later, some chiefs who had escaped to Efate at the beginning of the eruption gradually came back to settle on Tongoa (Garanger, Arts of Vanuatu 1996: 66-67).

In the 1960s, archaeologist José Garanger excavated the area where oral history said that Ti Tongoa Liseiriki was buried.

He went to the village of Panita on the island of Tongoa.

The story said that Ti Tongoa Liseiriki was buried at a spot marked by upright stones and that there was a circle of stones around the grave. It also said that he was buried with Nawa and Tarifegit and some of his male followers and that he was buried with two pig tusk bracelets on his left arm and one on his right.

When Garanger and his team excavated the site, they found a man with his head pointing to the south. He had two bracelets on his left arm and one on his right. The skeleton of a woman was at his feet and another woman’s skeleton was also found at the burial site. There were also male skeletons, just as the story had stated.

A radio-carbon date of the bones gave an age of approximately 500 years BP (Before Present).

This date corresponds with the story of Ti Tongoa Liseiriki and his escape from death after the eruption of Kuwae.

1.41 Ti Tongoa Liseiriki



Hundreds of years ago, our islands did not look the way that we see them today. Volcanic eruptions and seismic activity are constantly changing the landmasses of the islands.

One specific example of this is the Shepherds group of islands.

Before 1452, the islands of Epi, Tongoa, Tongariki, Ewose, Buninga and Valea did not exist as separate islands. They were all part of one single land mass called Kuwae. It was about 75 km long and 15 km wide. Twin-jets of highly pressurised magma blew off the mantle of rock and earth from a site east of the centre of Kuwae, forcing the island to break into pieces.

This was one of the world’s eight greatest volcanic events over the last 10,000 years!

Kuwae Island, Central Vanuatu in 1450 AD. Reconstruction based on Robin Monzier and Eissen, 1994.



1.42 Kuwae : The Scientific Evidence

Kuwae: the Scientific Evidence


As we have already learnt, the island of Kuwae broke into many separate landmasses after the volcanic eruption in 1452. Scientists have established that the crater of the volcano was located between present-day Tongoa and Epi. During the eruption, portions of Kuwae subsided, leaving only what we now call the Shepherd Islands. When the eruption was over, the island of Kuwae became a submarine crater with a diameter of twelve kilometres.

Today, the submarine volcano Karua exists within the caldera underneath the sea. Sometimes it appears above sea level, the waves of the ocean lapping at its cone.

The custom story explains to us why the volcano erupted. In addition to this, scientific studies are able to prove the date of the eruption. Michel Monzier, a scientist who has researched the effects of the eruption, says that the land surrounding the volcano would have been burned at about 300 degrees Celsius. Much of the ash would have been washed off in the heavy rains that followed the eruption. Plants and trees grew back slowly. The sea around the eruption site would have been surrounded by floating pumice and ash. He also says that people in Australia could have heard the blast. The dust would have turned the sky a reddish colour. The ocean would have also looked red because of the reflection from the sky.

Other scientific research has also pointed to the worldwide effects of Kuwae’s blast. The ice layers at the South Pole that correspond with the years following the eruption of Kuwae point to a significant volcanic eruption, as volcanic dust has been trapped in the ice for hundreds of years!

The growth rings of trees have also been used to study the climatic effects of Kuwae’s eruption. When a tree grows, we can see “rings” of growth, which usually appear for each year of growth. When the rings are thin this is an indication of stress, which might be caused by cold weather or drought. Wood samples from the 1450s exhibit significant differences in their growth rings.

The eruption of Kuwae had far-reaching effects in our archipelago. It physically shaped the Shepherd Islands in the centre of the country. It was the subject of different stories and legends that are an important part of the history of the country. It also caused a mass exodus of the people from the area, which then affected the customs and traditions of these people.

Through oral tradition and scientific research, we are able to understand the significance and importance of the eruption of Kuwae.

1.42 Kuwae : The Scientific Evidence

The Time Factor


Compared to some of our neighbouring landmasses, such as Australia, our islands are young.

Santo, one of the oldest islands, is only about 20 million years old. In contrast, the age of the land making up Australia is thought to be over 4000 million years old.

When our islands were forced up out of the sea, other countries were already occupied by many different kinds of plants and animals. Many of those plants and animals were carried here by winds and ocean currents (Horrocks 1988: 7).



Age map of the islands of Vanuatu (Horrocks 1988: 7)

1.5 The Time Factor

Our Neighbours


About 250 million years ago, all the continents in the southern part of the earth were joined into one land mass called Gondwanaland.

Now they have separated. Some continents have sections that have broken off; Papua New Guinea has broken away from Australia and New Caledonia is a breakaway fragment from Gondwanaland. New Zealand is also a breakaway fragment, with land added by later volcanic action.

However, most Pacific islands like Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and others have emerged independently out of the sea. They are called oceanic islands (Horrocks 1988: 8).

Over time, sea levels have changed as the earth warmed and cooled, altering the size of the polar ice caps. In the ice age periods, more water from the ocean was trapped in the polar ice caps. The most recent ice age started about 2 million years ago and ended 18,000 years ago (Horrocks 1988: 9).

1.6 Our Neighbours

Plant Colonisation Of Vanuatu's Islands


When the first islands of Vanuatu rose out of the sea they had no land plants. The islands had to be colonised from plants in older countries far away. Plants produce seeds or spores that are dispersed by wind, water, birds and other methods. Uprooted plants may survive an ocean voyage. Animals explore to find food and new land but a lucky accident is needed to help them cross an ocean (Horrocks 1998: 9).

Once plants were established, some land animals made the dangerous journey across the ocean to reach the islands. Colonisation by animals over such a distance was difficult. Comparatively few made it and they were all fairly small. So we have insects and worms, lizards and snakes, bats and birds, but no large animals like kangaroos or even a monkey. No land animal could swim such a distance and, even for small animals, accidental transport was needed.

Our land reptiles originally came from Australia and Southeast Asia where there are many kinds of skinks, geckos, boas and worm snakes. Most of our species probably arrived first in the northern islands, from the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. However, the iguana does not fit this pattern. Iguanas are found in South and Central America but not Australia and South East Asia. The Crested Iguana, found in Vanuatu on Efate, came from Fiji. It was brought here in the 1960s for exhibition in a zoo. The iguanas escaped and are spreading on Efate. Fiji has two iguana species (crested and banded). How did they cross the Pacific from America? Nobody can be sure, but the egg incubation time can be very long, for example nine months. The eggs could float a long way on a log in that time.

The Pacific Boa and the worm snake are the only two kinds of land snakes known in Vanuatu. We have twelve skinks and seven kinds of geckos. Some of these are common all over the Pacific, for example the blue tailed skink and the house gecko. However, a few of our lizards are only found in Vanuatu and nowhere else in the whole world. We say they are endemic and that makes them special.

Over thousands and thousands of years, plants and animals began to populate the islands of Vanuatu. But it was thousands and thousands of years after this when people finally arrived on the shores of Vanuatu.

1.7 Plant Colonisation Of Vanuatu's First Islands

Contemporary Geography Issues


Our location in the world affects the way in which we live. Over thousands of years people who live in deserts have adapted to the dry weather and blowing sand. The snow and cold weather in the extreme northern and southern areas of the world is part of everyday life for its people. We come to accept certain aspects of our physical environment as a way of life and as something that we must learn to live with and adapt to.

Cyclones can rip apart a village in minutes. Ash from volcanoes blows over the land, falls on gardens and damages food crops. Tsunamis suddenly submerge villages and wash away houses, animals, gardens and people. Droughts cause the soil to become dry and flaky and the leaves of island cabbage shrivel and die in the burning sun. Earthquakes shake the ground beneath our feet and houses collapse. Landslides send soil and stones cascading down the sides of hills, ruining gardens and causing danger to those living below. Rivers flood unpredictably and become life-threatening to those people living downstream.


In Vanuatu, these are some of the potential disasters that we face. Due to the locations of our islands, we are more prone to cyclones than most other island nations. Our location on the Pacific Ring of Fire (a group of volcanoes that encircles the Pacific Ocean) also means that we have active volcanoes that occasionally erupt. And because of the movement of plates directly under the ocean that surrounds us, we experience earthquakes. Since our islands were born from the sea, we face many disasters that other areas of the world do not.

In Vanuatu, these are some of the potential disasters that we face. Due to the locations of our islands, we are more prone to cyclones than most other island nations. Our location on the Pacific Ring of Fire (a group of volcanoes that encircles the Pacific Ocean) also means that we have active volcanoes that occasionally erupt. And because of the movement of plates directly under the ocean that surrounds us, we experience earthquakes. Since our islands were born from the sea, we face many disasters that other areas of the world do not.


Lopevi erupts in 2003. Paama Island is in the foreground.


1.8 Contemporary Geographical Issues

Midst Volcanic Fires (1922)

The following  sections focus on natural disasters that people have faced in the past and ways in which they have dealt with them. Natural disasters have always been a fact of life for people living in the islands. Sometimes there are warning signs that tell of impending danger; in other instances there are not.


In December 1913, on the island of Ambrym, Mount Benbow erupted with tremendous force. This eruption completely altered life on Ambrym as well as the surrounding islands. Twenty-one people died in massive lava flows that covered much of the island. The newly built hospital at Dip Point was completely destroyed, as well as many villages and gardens.


In the following excerpt from Midst Volcanic Fires (1922), Presbyterian missionary Maurice Frater describes what he saw from the neighbouring island of Paama, where he was living at the time of the eruption of Mount Benbow.


“For untold centuries, Mount Benbow had been at work, puffing out steam which at night glowed with a bright, intermittent light. As in the days of Captain Cook, the eruptions were still taking place. There was the pillar of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night. So accustomed had the natives become to its presence that the frequent outbursts occasioned no fear. They cultivated their gardens up to the edge of the ash plain near the base of the volcano and some natives who had climbed to the mouth of the crater with bunches of coconuts – the usual peace-offering to the spirit of the volcano – had reported that all was well. But all unknown to the natives and to the British and French settlers who had their homes in Ambrym, there stretched from east to west a belt of volcanic fracture, which was studded with a series of extinct craters, occasional puffs of steam being the only indication of the pent-up fire beneath.


In December 1913, the age-long sleep of these extinct craters was broken and the imprisoned giants awoke to life. From numerous thunder-throated vents the island was rent and torn by convulsive explosions. The outburst was heralded by a series of earthquake shocks which increased in frequency and severity until the solid earth reeled and tottered. The hospital buildings rocked like a ship at sea; the natives, in their picturesque mode of speech, say that Ambrym danced. Then, from the newly-formed vents, was seen to rise, dark as the blackest London fog, a dense cloud which shot up like a pillar and spread out in all directions like a gigantic mushroom. In a short time ash and cinders began to fall, making a noise like hailstones and smothering Ambrym and the adjacent islands in a thick layer of volcanic ash.


From the mission house on the neighbouring island of Paama – 20 miles distant from the scene – we obtained an unobstructed view of the outbreak. During the day dense volumes of smoke could be seen hanging over the island of Ambrym, but the natives of Paama thought that a bush fire was raging; and as the islands had been parched by a drought of several months’ duration, the explanation was quite a likely one. But towards evening the atmosphere cleared and the approach of darkness removed all doubts, revealing one of the most awful and one of the most magnificent sights that it is possible for the eye of man to behold. Over the pinjaman area of ten miles the earth seemed to have opened up and out of this huge fissure tongues of living flame were shooting up into the sky. In one place, which seemed to be the centre of the disturbance, six volcanoes had burst out within a short distance of each other and out of these six furnaces pillars of fire were leaping.


The entire district was illuminated and the inhabitants of Paama and the surrounding isles beheld a spectacle such as had never been seen before in the memory of living men. Rivers of molten lava were flowing from the newly-formed craters and so great was the flood of this liquid fire that no single channel could carry it. High up on the mountainside the lava rivers divided and in separate channels flowed in their destructive courses to the sea. From the mission house on Paama the whole course of the Port Vato flow, from the crater to the sea, could be clearly defined fifteen miles away. In the darkness, winding among the hills, the track of the red-hot lava was like the trail of a serpent. One can imagine, better than describe, the kind of cauldron that was formed when the enormous mass of red-hot lava mingled with the waters of the ocean.


A heavy sea on the beach of Paama prevented an immediate departure; but as soon as our motorboats could be launched we set off to the rescue. Long before the coast of Ambrym was reached, we could see crowds of natives assembled on the long stretch of sand near the Pansileo GST boat-landing waving branches of trees as a signal for us to approach. The people were all terror-stricken. They had come from the fire zone around Port Vato and were waiting a chance of escape by boats from Paama or Malekula. Their place of refuge was clear of the fire zone and was comparatively safe; but we could see to what straits the poor people had been put. Their houses and belongings had been buried deep in ash and scoria. Every green leaf was stripped or scorched from the trees and the Ambrym bush resembled a winter scene on a dark November day in England. The land was a very desolation to behold. The place at which they were congregated seemed in no immediate danger; and with the promise that we would return and rescue them later, we set off with all possible speed for the hospital district, where the people were in the greatest danger (Frater 1922: 11-15).


1.8 Contemporary Geographical Issues

Dip Point on the northwest coast of Ambrym (1913)


In addition to the recollection of Maurice Frater, there are also the memories of the people from Ambrym.


Chief Willie Bongmatur tells the story of when the volcano erupted in 1913, as told to him by his father and grandfather who were residing at Dip Point on the northwest coast of Ambrym.

The cause of the volcanic eruption of 7 December 1913 is believed to have been the action of humans.

Chief Bongmatur’s grandfather was the chief of Lonwolwol village, the family’s traditional home at Dip Point. The village had a hospital staffed by two doctors from New Zealand, one of whom also worked as a Presbyterian missionary (Robert Lamb). There was also a school, attended by students from throughout the islands, coming from places such as Malo, Tongoa, Efate and even the southern islands.


Dip Point Hospital, West Ambrym, c.1910 (National Archives, VKS)


Chief Bongmatur tells the following story:

Long Ambrym, wan man o wan jif we oli kakae tabu faea, kokonas blong hem tabu, we evri man i no save dring mo ol woman i no save dring, be hem i blong hem wan nomo. So i mekem se long wan Sande, ol studen we oli stap long hospital, oli go long ol defren vilij antap long bus. Oli stap go skul long ol defren vilij, be yu save, kastom blong yumi, taem ol man i kam olsem oli mas kakae fastaem bifo oli go bak. Taem oli kakae finis, oli putum haf kakae long basket oli karem. Oli karem i go, ale, taem oli stap kambak ia oli lukum long rod wan kokonas, blong hae man ia, we nem blong hem Malmur. Hem i blong Hawo. Ale, sam long olgeta ia i talem:

“Kokonas ia i tabu olsem wanem? Yumi traem dring.”

Ale, oli mekem nao. Wan long olgeta ia i go antap long kokonas ia. Hem i katem i kam daon. Sapos i tekem wan nomo, inaf blong olgeta ia nomo, be i katem bandel i kam daon. Oli no finisim kokonas ia. Oli putum wud long bandel kokonas. Nao, oli karem i kam daon long solwota. Taem we oli karem i kam daon long solwota, evri man tu oli dring kokonas ia. Hem i wan fasin we oli daonem hae jif ia, from we oli daonem tabu blong hem. From long Ambrym, taem yu dring wan kokonas olsem, yu mas pem faen blong wan pig. Mo jif bae i tekem pig i go long nasara blong mekem tabu blong hem i stanap strong bakegen. Be olgeta i no mekem samting ia. Ale, i stap gogo nao, oli tokbaot se ol abu blong mifala bae oli finis long tabu faea.

[The villagers then decided to have a custom ceremony.]

Nao oli rere long vilij, oli sendem toktok i go long Not. Olgeta long Not tu i kam long seremoni ia. Wan seremoni blong ol abu ia we i finis long tabu faea. Oli mekem kakae. Long Lonwolwol, oli talem se long level ples ia. Oli putum kakae narawan saed rod mo nara saed rod. Taem we oli go stap, papa blong mi i talem se, oli go nao. Ol pikinini i go kakae long tabu faea ia long abu, we nem blong hem Wungimar. Hem i stret pikinini long hae jif blong ples ia.

Abu blong mi, from se hem i hae jif blong ples ia, i tekem tufala brata blong hem wetem wan smol papa, mo oli go long haos blong dokta. Ale dokta i tekemaot nambas blong tufala mo bigfala strap blong tufala. Ale i givim traoses long tufala, i shevem tufala, putum ol klos long tufala. Ale i brekem bred, i givim long tufala olfala ia. Hem i wan saen blong tufala i finis long tabu faea. Taem we oli finis long haos blong dokta, oli folem rod. Ale, Wungimar i go pusum han long ol laplap we oli mekem i stap. Ale hem i tekem wan pis kakae long han blong hem, i putum antap, ale i toktok:

“Ol fren, ol bigman, ol woman, mo ol pikinini. Olsem we mi stamba blong kastom, nao mi singaot Skul tu i kam. Tedei yumi kam wan. Ol samting i fri.”

Ale, i pusum han long kakae ia i folem rod i go krosem rod, i mekem sem fasin. Taem we hem i mekem aksen ia, ol hae man long defren vilij oli kam daon. Oli lukluk, oli krae. Oli krae from we ol hae man blong kastom oli finis mo oli kam daon.

Taem we ol seremoni i finis, oli go bak, be i gat wan narafala olfala blong Nakul, nem blong hem Ling Mal. Hem, hem i no kam. Be taem ol man oli go bak nao hem i askem:

“Yufala i go be tufala hae man blong Lonwolwol oli talem wanem?”

Oli talem se:

“Oli talem se naoia evri samting i fri mo ol man i kam wan.”

Taem ia nao, Ling Mal i talem se:

“Oraet, bae yufala i go talem long tufala hae man ia se bambae long tu wik bae mi kam visitem ples blong tufala.”

Be taem i talem tu wik ia, hem i putum taem blong volkeno i ronem Dip Point. Hem ia nao, tu wik ia, oli luk saen blong volkeno. I gat wan klaod we mifala i kolem Worwor. Taem i pusum olsem, i poenem wan ples. Hem i minim se volkeno, taem hem i jam long hol, bae i go olsem mo bambae i folem rod ia. Hem ia nao, taem we volkeno hem i bloap, hem i kamaot long hol blong hem long midel blong aelan. Hem i long wei ia. Mi no save hamas kilometa. Nao i kam from. Taem i kam aot long hol, hem i flae olsem pijin. Gogo, i kam sidaon long Dip Point, long hospital. Taem i kam daon long hospital i no gat taem. Ol man oli kam long solwota. Oli tekem olgeta olfala mo putum olgeta long bot. Sip i sakem olgeta long Malakula, long Lamap, mo long Weso, mo long Bui, long ol ples ia, from hem i klosap.

Chief Bongmatur then relates the story of what happened to the evacuees. Boats from other islands also came to rescue villagers. Some went to live on other islands and some went to stay with relatives in other villages on Ambrym, such as Chief Bongmatur’s family when they returned from Malakula. But the people of Dip Point remember the cause of the 1913 volcanic explosion.

Tedei, mifala i save tu se naoia problem i no save hapen from we ol olfala oli draonem basket blong kastom ia. Taem we oli bin ronwe i go long Malakula, olfala ia, Ling Mal, i bin ron tu ia. Taem oli go long Malakula nao sam long ol olfala ia i wantem sakem olfala [Ling Mal] long solwota, wetem masket blong hem. Be wan narafala olfala i bin blokem. Be oli sakem basket blong hem nomo aot long sip, we hem i bin fulumap wetem hed blong devel, we volkeno i stap long hem. Hem ia nao, taem we oli sakem basket ia, wetem masket blong hem, oli luk se hed blong devel ia i faerap. Hem ia i min se paoa ia oli sakem long solwota. Hem ia nao i mekem se problem blong volkeno i stop.


The photo opposite was taken by anthropologist Felix Speiser during his work in Vanuatu from 1910-1912. It is entitled, ‘Drum, Ambrym, height 350 centimetres.’ Speiser took this photo before Mt. Benbow erupted in 1913, destroying this drum and many other aspects of the culture of the Dip Point area. This drum is the famous Etingting Gelan, which belonged to the Mweleun Namal of Dip Point.

1.8 Contemporary Geographical Issues

The Re-Settlement Of Maat Village


In November 1951, the Condominium Government evacuated most of the population of Southeast, South and West Ambrym.


Heavy volcanic ash falls and lava flows from Mount Benbow ruined gardens and coconuts, causing some house roofs to collapse. Visibility was reduced so much that it was difficult to tell night from day. An estimated 1300 people from Ambrym were evacuated. Of these, 750 went from Southeast Ambrym to East Epi; 350 went from the Craig Cove-Port Vato area to Tisman and Aulua on Malakula; and another 200 from Craig Cove-Port Vato went to Lamap, Malakula. Prior to the evacuation, nearly 400 people from Southeast Ambrym had already left independently, most of whom were recruited to work on various plantations on Epi.


Some people did not agree with the evacuation and wished to stay on Ambrym. District Agents (British and French government officials) and policemen forced the people to stay on the beach and wait for the boats that were sent to transport them to Epi. The evacuation was very difficult because of rough seas and the people had to wait days just for the boats to arrive. The people from Ambrym were expected to start anew by building houses and planting gardens on the land that they were allotted by the Government. The Government’s plan for the people of Southeast Ambrym was to have them recreate their communities in the area of Big Bay, East Epi. They thought that this was a good idea because it was close to Paama and Lopevi, where the language is similar to that of the people of Southeast Ambrym. Upon their arrival, there was nothing prepared for the people. They were expected to create their new communities with few supplies. They did not even have adequate cuttings to use for planting their new gardens. Also, they were very sad to leave their home island. The morale of the people of Southeast Ambrym was very low upon their arrival at Big Bay.


The resettlement, which was already riddled with problems and difficulties, became a complete disaster when a cyclone passed through the New Hebrides and hit Emae, Epi and south-central Malakula on 24-25 December 1951. The cyclone killed an estimated 114 people and left 4000 people homeless. The cyclone killed nearly 50 people from the Southeast Ambrym settlement in Big Bay and ruined what progress they had made on their shelters and gardens. The creek near the settlement flooded and overflowed, drowning some people and washing others away. A huge landslide also engulfed one of the houses.


A French planter based on the island of Efate, André Houdié, went to Big Bay and persuaded the people who had come from Maat Village on Southeast Ambrym to come and work for him on Efate. He gave them use of land at Mele on which to resettle and in return they provided labour for his plantation. The rest of the people from Southeast Ambrym gradually drifted back to their original village sites on Ambrym and rebuilt their villages, but the people who moved to Efate stayed in their new village. Today many people from Mele Maat travel back to their original village in Southeast Ambrym to see family and spend holidays. Their families on Ambrym also come to visit them on Efate insurance.


1.8 Contemporary Geographical Issues

On 7 February 1987, Vanuatu faced the wrath of Cyclone Uma


The destruction was colossal, affecting especially the Southern Islands and Vila. Many people lost their lives and many houses and buildings were damaged or completely destroyed. Numerous ships were damaged as well and some crews and passengers died or were lost at sea.



Tropical Cyclone Uma 5-9 February 1987 tracking map















The newspaper articles are from the Vanuatu Weekly Hebdomadaire







































The next excerpt is from the ‘Final Report on Tropical Cyclone Uma’, published by the Vanuatu Meteorological Service on 3 March 1987.

It is the text from a message that was read on Radio Vanuatu on 7 February 1987.

Warning No. 26 Hurricane warning issued by the Vanuatu Meteorological Office at 1500 hours on Saturday 7 February 1987.

At midday today tropical cyclone UMA lay some 74 miles northwest of Efate moving in a southeast direction at about ten knots.

At its present rate of progress it is expected to be close to Port Vila at about 6 o’clock this evening.

The strong winds affecting all areas will increase steadily and are likely to be of hurricane force – that is of 75 knots with some gusts stronger than this.

The heavy rain will continue for some time and is still liable to cause considerable flooding in many areas.

UMA’s path is still expected to pass close to all southern islands.

People living in those areas should take all precautions now – before the cyclone reaches them.

It is estimated that tropical cyclone UMA will be close to Erromango by midnight, to Tanna by 3 o’clock and to Aneityum by 6 o’clock tomorrow morning.

Warning number 27 will be issued around 1900 hours this evening.



1.8 Contemporary Geographical Issues

Natural Disasters & Food Preservation


We live in an area of the world that is especially prone to natural disasters.


Analyse the following table.

Estimated Level of Vulnerability to Specific Natural Hazards - L = Low,  M = Medium,  H = High


Country - Cyclones - Coastal Flooding - River Flooding - Tsunami - Earth quake - Landslide - Drought - Volcanic Eruption

Cook Is. M M L M L L H -


Fiji H H H H M H M -

Kiribati L H - H L L H -

Marshall Is. M H - H L L H -

Niue M L - M L L M -

Palau M M - M L L M -


Solomon Is. H H H H H H L H

Tokelau M H - H L L H -

Tonga H H M H H L M H

Tuvalu L H - H L L M -

Vanuatu H - H - H - H - H - H - L - H

Samoa M H H H M H L L


Cyclones, floods, tidal waves, earthquakes, landslides and volcanic eruptions are a part of life in Vanuatu. These disasters are not new; they have been happening since the beginning of time. Just as we have to be ready for potential disasters today, our grandparents and great-grandparents and our families from many generations before also had methods that they used to prepare for disasters. We must think about ways in which we can use the knowledge of our ancestors to help us during difficult times.


Preserving food is one way in which we can use the practices of our ancestors to assist us in our lives today. Historically, communities survived disasters by their detailed knowledge of wild foods available in the sea and land. While some foods were cultivated or regularly harvested, others that perhaps involved more work or were not considered as tasty were eaten when there was no alternative.


In 1999, the Women Fieldworkers Workshop at the Cultural Centre focused their work and research on Kastom Kakae.

Thirty-two women came together from different islands to discuss many different aspects of custom food preparation. One specific topic was ‘Ol kakae long taem blong hariken’. In the following excerpts, fieldworkers tell of the preparation of food during disaster times. You can read more about food preparation in Kastom Kakae: Ripot Blong Woksop Blong Ol Woman Filwoka. 11-22 Oktoba 1999.



Dora Remo – Paama Fastaem bae mi tokbaot ol kastom kakae blong hariken. Olsem mi askem wan olfala man. Olfala jif ia hem i stap tokbaot ol kastom kakae blong hariken. Taem hariken i kilim Paama bifo oli stap yusum bredfrut olsem we sam mama oli talem finis. Oli digim hol i go daon. Taem man i go daon oli no save luk hem. Afta oli putum ol lif daon oli putum ol bredfrut ia wetem skin nomo. Evri samting i go long hem kasem faev dei blong hem. Long faev dei oli go digimaot. Oli tekemaot ol sit blong hem mo skin blong hem, afta oli putum narafala lif daon. Man we i wantem go daon long hol ia oli mas wasem gud leg blong hem from bae doti i no go long bredfrut ia. Oli putum gogo i finis ale oli kavremap olsem olgeta blong Tongoa. Oli talem se oli putum ston antap long hem. Oli mekem se bae wota i no save go insaed long hem, afta oli berem. Oli berem i stap. Sapos we hariken i kam mo i nogat kakae oli save go digim, oli karem smol nomo i kam, oli putum long lif. Oli bekem long ston bakegen, afta oli kakae. Samtaem oli stap kakae olsem nomo wetem kokonas be olsem kakae blong hariken i gat fulap. Long lanwis blong mifala, nem blong bredfrut ia ame.



Leisara Kalotiti – West Efate Long taem blong hangri we bigfala san i stap, i nogat kakae. I gat wan rop we ating plante long yumi kakae rop ia. Rop ia mifala i talem se neka. Yu go long bus yu digim rop. Afta ol olfala abu woman oli mekem faea mo oli kukum rop ia long ston. Taem we yu karemaot long ston olsem ia yu save kakae. Nao yu juim olsem yu juim sugaken. So rop ia mifala i singaotem neka.



Sophie Nemban – Erromango Olsem bifo long taem blong bigfala hariken, ol olfala blong mifala oli yusum kakae ia blong hariken. Hem i yam, ol raon wan ia. Bifo oli stap yusum ol wael yam, lif kokonas, bambu, faeawud, bigfala riva kabis. Bifo taem hariken i kam oli go wokbaot long bus. Oli fulumap ol wael yam afta oli kam be bifo oli yusum ol bambu blong skinimaot ol kakae. Oli katemaot ol skin blong wael yam afta oli putum insaed long basket mo oli go draonem long wan wota. Afta i stap faev dei. Taem faev dei i pas oli go karemaot. Oli wasem gud. Oli mekem faea long ston afta oli bekem long ston. Oli bekem wetem wan kabis we i no aelan kabis be wan lif we bifo ol olfala blong mifala oli stap kakae. Lif ia i stap gro long solwota. Ating sam long yumi ol woman aelan filwoka i faenem se wanwan long aelan blong yumi oli stap yusum kaen lif ia worvauo, hem i yelo wan ia i stap konkon. Bifo oli yusum olsem blong mekem i kam gud blong oli kakae wetem lif we i stap long solwota.



Diana May – Loh, Torres Mifala i gat wan spesel kakae we mifala i stap priperem blong taem we hariken i spolem ol kakae blong mifala. Kakae ia hem i natanggura laplap. Long lanwis blong mifala i kolem se nou. Taem hariken i finis mo i spolem ol kakae blong garen, bae mifala i save go long ples we mifala i planem natanggura.


Mifala i luk ol natanggura we hariken i mekem olgeta i foldaon. Mifala i karem naef, afta mifala i katem.

Mifala i splitim stamba blong natanggura long tri o fo pis, mifala i katem wan bambu we i sotfala nomo, afta mifala i katem wan smol hol long ring blong bambu ia.

Mifala i putum wan wud i go insaed long ring blong bambu ia afta bae mifala i stap katemaot ol gat blong natanggura.

Mifala i putum lif laplap long graon blong taem mifala i katem gat blong natanggura bae ol gat blong natanggura ia i folfoldaon i go long lif laplap ia.

Taem mifala i katem finis mifala i fulumap insaed long wan basket we oli wivim long lif kokonas.

Lif i go insaed long basket ia, afta mifala i kapsaetem ol gat blong natanggura ia i go insaed.

Afta mifala i karem.

Naoia yumi yusum ol dis be fastaem mifala i yusum wan smol basket.

Putum lif i go insaed afta wota blong ren mifala i kapsaetem i go insaed, afta mifala i kapsaetem gat blong natanggura i go insaed.

Afta mifala i stap skwisim.

Taem mifala i skwisim bae yu luk wota blong hem i red. Ol makas blong hem mifala i sakem.

Mifala i putum long basket ia blong fiftin minit.

Staj blong hem i stat blong stak long lif blong laplap ia.

Taem yu luk se staj blong hem i bigwan, yu kapsaedemaot wota blong hem, mo bae yu luk se staj blong natanggura ia i red.

Wota blong hem i mas kamaot evriwan afta yu putum long san bae yu luk i olsem flaoa.

I stap long san tri o fo wik olsem blong i drae gud.

Afta bae mifala i karem, putum long grin lif blong ambrela we i bin drae long san, afta fasem wetem rop blong lif mat.

Finis, mifala i putum antap long ples we mifala i stap kuk long hem, blong faea i stap smokem oltaem.

Taem mifala i putum olsem bae mifala i save kakae tri o fo yia olsem.

Taem mifala i wantem kakae, mifala i go tekemaot pasel blong natanggura ia, tekemaot smolsmol afta go bekem wetem kabis insaed long hol blong laplap.

Bifo mifala i stap mekem wetem wan kaen kabis ia i stap gro taem burao i gat frut blong hem.

Bambae frut blong hem i folfoldaon be bae yu luk se frut ia we bae i gro i kam antap, kabis.

Afta bae yu luk se frut blong kabis ia bae i olsem frut blong burao, flaoa hem i yelo.

Kaen kabis ia nao mifala i stap mekem wetem staj blong natanggura mo mifala i save mekem wetem wan kaen red lif.

1.8 Contemporary Geographical Issues

Disaster Plans


Natural disasters are a part of our lives. We know that some come upon us unexpectedly, such as earthquakes. We have warnings for other disasters, such as cyclones. Being prepared for disasters, whether or not we know about them ahead of time, can help to decrease the potential damage they bring to our communities. Read the following excerpt from Vulnerability Reduction: A Community Training Guide for Pacific Island Countries, published by FSPI Island Consulting in December 2000.


Disaster preparedness at a community level is not primarily about learning facts. It is about taking responsibility for our own families and possessions in practical ways. It is about skills and attitudes that we apply throughout our daily lives and that enable us to better respond to a range of immediate and long-term situations. We also need personal loan from international community during disaster.


These include: · Leadership · Planning · Responsibility · Cooperation · Commitment


These skills are neither specific nor unique to disasters. They are general skills that can be useful in many aspects of our lives.


Our islands were born from fire within the earth. Both the origin stories and scientific explanation agree on this fact. Our islands’ powerful beginnings are still a reality for us today, which is why we need to know how to look after ourselves in times of natural disasters. We have learned how the young islands were colonised by plant and animal life. In the next unit, ‘The Peopling of Our Islands’, we will learn how our human ancestors colonised our archipelago.

1.8 Contemporary Geographical Issues