A Pacific approach to conservation: Chief Roi Mata’s Domain, Vanuatu

Elizabeth Kenworthy Teather[1]

By all means take this day out to enjoy the boat trip, the local delicacies at lunchtime, and the snorkelling. But if that’s all you get out of it you’ll have missed the point. As the day progresses, you will begin to grasp a worldview very different from the one that we have acquired through our western, science-based education.

This alternative worldview perceives the natural world as one that is indivisible from the worlds of spirits, ancestors, and the powerful forces of good and evil. Rather than categorising the environment as separate from the spiritual or emotional world, this is a world view that, as one Ni-Vanuatu put it, is ‘horizontal rather than vertical’, i.e. ‘… the world of the spirit is actually part of the physical world, and there is no notion of a spirit world distinct from the material world’.[2] If we can grasp this idea, the concept of protecting the natural environment takes on new dimensions. I will return to this point at the end of this article.

Havannah Harbour is a wide ocean inlet off the east coast of Efate Island, sheltered by Lelepa Island to its west. Smoke from cooking fires sends up isolated plumes into the fringing secondary forest, coconut palms and mountainside vegetable gardens. Vessels of the US fleet, anchored here during the Second World War, are remembered only by older villagers today, but the pale green, well-weathered ‘beach glass’ is testament to the countless Coca Cola bottles that the sailors dumped in the Harbour.

What is much more alive and significant in the minds of villagers from the Lelepa and Mangaliliu communities is the legacy of Chief Roi Mata, despite the fact that he lived and died several centuries ago. Thanks to him, the peoples of East Efate, violent and cannibalistic, were brought to a state of peaceful coexistence. Descendants of those who brought offerings to the great gatherings that he summoned every five years, identify today with those offerings. Our tour leader, Topie, identifies with the octopus; his boat driver, with the coconut.

Today, a roughly oblong-shaped segment of Havannah Harbour, together with the fringing coastal strip behind Lelepa and Mangaliliu villages, comprise a World Heritage Area designated in 2008: the Chief Roi Mata Domain. The account that follows describes my family’s experience of this day tour, a tour that has been carefully developed by the local communities and is under their management.[3]

Oral culture in the islands that comprise Vanuatu, as in other Pacific Islands, has preserved the past in stories told from generation to generation. But storytelling is a fading tradition. Where Chief Roi Mata is concerned, many elements of stories about him have been confirmed by archaeological investigations. But, in contrast to inert artefacts revealed by excavation, memory is still vibrant in the minds of these communities. It is the memory that binds them to each other and to this locality. This is one reason why the site merited World Heritage nomination. It is this vivid consciousness of the past, generously shared with those from elsewhere, that makes this tour a rare and distinctive experience.

Our tour lasted seven hours. Our first stop at 9 am was at the National Museum and Cultural Centre in Vila, where Topie used a recently completed display to explain the background to the Chief Roi Mata Domain. In the 1960s the French archaeologist Jose Garanger excavated the Chief’s burial site on Artok Island. The display in the Museum showed clearly what his excavations revealed. There were two layers of burials, the deepest being that of the Chief and his closest associates. The upper level contains fifty or so bodies, with signs of others beyond the excavated site. Carbon dating takes the burial back to roughly 1600 AD.

We were to visit the burial site later, but first we were driven thirty minutes out of Vila to the west coast of Efate Island, where we boarded one of the local fibreglass motor boats known as ‘banana boats’. According to the local legend, when the Chief died, his village, Mangaas, was abandoned and declared tapu, and that was where we were headed. For ten minutes we sped south along the coast through crystal clear waters, then slowed to nose cautiously between banks of coral up a narrow channel. At the back of a narrow white beach was a dark opening between huge trees. Beyond was the site of the old village, abandoned five hundred years ago.

Clearly, from Topie’s narration and behaviour on the site, it is a powerful location for him. With great reverence he introduced us to several significant stones. Two, perhaps half a metre high, marked the entrance to the village, and off to the side was a small rounded boulder where visitors had traditionally left offerings to the Chief.

Piles of chunky coral marked the old village walls. The village site as a whole, overshadowed by the forest, only takes a few minutes to traverse, but is imbued with legend. Another small rounded boulder is an ‘ordination stone’ on which the Chief sat while anointing the heads of others.

Special stones, the homes of certain potent spirits, were a common medium … Spirits do not change over time, individual ones living as long as people’s memories, so it is not surprising that they reside in stones. In the middle of everything in the bush, which grows and dies, only stone does not change under the eye of man. (MacClancy 2002, p. 26).[4]

A huge, ancient banyan tree, Topie told us, is the very same tree that had formed the sheltered meeting place of the community in the Chief’s time. Clearly, this abandoned village site had an immanence that is very real to Topie, and we became cautious while moving around, avoiding touching the stones that held such memories and retained such presence. Aware by now of the vivid presence of the past around us, we emerged onto the beach, climbed back into the boat and set out across sparkling blue water – accompanied by the occasional silvery flying fish – to the Chief’s burial site on Artok Island.

A few days earlier, as our aircraft had made its approach from the west to Bauerfield Airport outside Vila, we had noticed Artok Island off the coast to our left. Known colloquially as ‘Hat Island’, it is unmistakeable because of its wide ‘brim’ just above sea level, and, in the middle, its steep-sided, flat-topped crown. The burial site is small, only a few metres from the beach, marked only by a few low, irregular headstones, that of the Chief being singled out by a pile of large shells.

It was hard to imagine the grief-stricken, ritual events that took place at the burial. The men who lie in the upper layer are believed to have drunk themselves into a stupor – possibly aided by one of the archipelago’s many local poisons – and to have been voluntarily buried alive, together with some of their wives, whose demise may have been less than willing.

Somewhat subdued, we climbed back into our boat and headed for a small column of smoke back on the opposite shore at the village of Mangaliliu, where village women had been preparing our delicious lunch. We had passed a couple of fishermen earlier in tiny dugouts with slender outriggers, and one had grinned at us as he held up his morning’s catch.

Two kinds of fish were on the menu, caught that morning, together with the local version of dolmades (taro paste wrapped in island cabbage), steamed purple yams, and a bowl of grated pawpaw mixed with fresh coconut, washed down with fresh lime juice.

Our spirits restored, we changed into swimmers in a little toilet, donned our snorkels and masks and for an hour or so enjoyed exploring the varied colourful corals and fish just off the beach. The villagers have been re-establishing a colony of huge clams. Fortunately they were deep enough not to threaten our toes! Some were dappled brown and cream, but others glowed in psychedelic shades of purple, blue or emerald green.

The last site on our tour was undoubtedly the most striking. Chief Roi Mata died in Fels Cave on Lelepa Island opposite our lunch spot. Ferried across the Harbour, we clambered up a narrow path between outcrops of uplifted coral to reach breath-taking, vertical outcrops of creamy rock. Tens of metres high, and horizontally banded, the rock had been sculpted by the elements into wave-like forms that every few metres jutted out in vertical, knobby buttresses.

Embedded in the rock face were crumbs of black, sparkling cinder. This outcrop consists of tuff, a lithified form of volcanic ash. The cave entrance is partly blocked by a rock fall dating from a major earthquake in 2002.

Entering, we found a huge cave with a floor that sloped down to the back of a vast, cathedral-like space. Swiftlets darted in and out, and we spotted a small colony of bats, but there were no droppings on the floor, and the air was sweet. It felt utterly different from the limestone caves that we had visited elsewhere.

Many past occupants and visitors had left their marks, including one of the first missionaries to the then New Hebrides; an American general; and, three thousand years before them according to carbon dating, someone who had stencilled a hand. There were other marks; mysterious rows of chiselled spots in pairs; half moons and what Topie felt might have been a representation of the sun; small outlines of such creatures as a whale, a chicken, a head with a stylised pointed headdress, and a small outline of a person. From this magnificent cave, according to legend, the body of Chief Roi Mata was taken to Mangaas and then to Artok Island for burial.

As we sped across Havannah Harbour back to our waiting minibus, we took our last look at the extensive stretches of steep, forested coasts. Tourism is a vital part of Vanuatu’s economy, and a few kilometres further up the coast from this World Heritage site we recognised a couple of enterprises that we had visited a few days earlier: a little waterside bar, and a locally owned set of simple overnight cabins. A few days after this tour, we set off for a day’s sail in a trimaran from a small, newly excavated private harbour some kilometres north of the World Heritage designated area. This coast is ripe for the sort of exploitation that will alter its pristine nature, especially after featuring in the American, French and Australian versions of the Survivor reality TV series. World Heritage designation of this site, primarily for its cultural significance, has the potential to continue to protect the biosphere associated with it.

For the site to continue to be recognised as a World Heritage site, any development will need to be compatible with its cultural values. It is intriguing to consider the tapu declared 500 years ago as a precursor to today’s international heritage designation. And it is good to realise that the biological and geological environments have benefited from the contemporary initiative taken by the two local communities, determined to maintain the values and places that had been precious to them for centuries. For example, the tapu on resettlement or use of Artok Island after the Chief’s burial there has protected species endemic to the island, including rare lizard and cycad species for the last 500 years! And, through their commentary throughout the tour, the guides are sharing a worldview that is second nature to them, but that gives pause for thought to tourists from non-Pacific cultures.

However, the Vanuatu government still has to devise, enact and enforce the legal codes that could facilitate such protection. The twin pressures for development (to benefit local landowners, although this is a complex and contested issue) and tourist dollars (contributing significantly to the national budget) will pose a continual challenge and opportunity. In the case of the Chief Roi Mata Domain, Topie emphasised that the community has a strong desire to participate in preparing the necessary legislation rather than having it imposed upon them, i.e. in his words, they want the procedure to be driven from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Income from the Chief Roi Mata tour is managed by the two communities involved, Lelepa and Mangaliliu. It consists entirely of ticket takings. There is no government subsidy. In addition to the boat driver and the women who provide lunch, it supports eight guides, four from each of the two villages, two men and two women from each. The tour runs, when there are bookings, every day except Sunday. Access to these heritage sites is strictly controlled. For up to date telephone numbers to arrange a tour, contact the Vanuatu Tourism Office in Port Vila. And hope for as calm and sparkling a day on the water as we had!

[1]Since graduating from University College London, Elizabeth Teather has researched and taught in universities in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. She visited Vanuatu in 2006 and 2011. Now retired, she lives in Canberra.

[2]P 128 in A. G. Singo, ‘Vernacular Educational Ideas from Pentecost, Vanuatu’, pp. 128-130, in Konai Helu Thaman (ed.) Educational Ideas from Oceania, 2nd edition, Institute of Education, University of the South Pacific, 2009.

[3]For a detailed academic account of the establishment of Chief Roi Mata’s Domain, see M. Wilson, C. Ballard and D. Kalotiti, ‘Chief Roi Mata’s Domain. Challenges for a World Heritage property in Vanuatu’, Historic Environment 23(2), 2011. See also http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1280

[4]J. MacClancy, A Short History of Vanuatu, Vanuatu Cultural Centre, Port Vila, 2002 (first published 1980), p. 26.