Tanna is an island located in the South Pacific. Archeologically, it is relatively young. It was formed about one million years ago and is the youngest of the 83 islands of the Vanuatu archipelago. It was populated about 3000 years ago by Melanesian people from neighboring islands. The history of the island of Tanna is replete with the interaction of foreign rulers, missionaries, Christianity and tribal customs melded into the society it is today.
Being far away from Western civilization, it lay isolated for thousands of years, till Captain Cook discovered it in August 1774. The bay in which he took shelter is named Port Resolution, which was the name of his ship. The hitherto undiscovered island was named Tanna by Captain Cook.
A couple of decades after Port Resolution was founded; trading in Sandalwood, tobacco, guns and axes was started. Ironically, it was the deep hatred of their neighbors, the Erromangans from the neighboring island of Erromango, which started the Sandalwood trade. The Tannese upped the ante in the Sandalwood trade, by throwing in a sweetener of three pigs for every Erromangan captive delivered, along with the Sandalwood. Considering the prevailing Bride price was ten pigs, it was a major incentive.
The guns and axes contributed to the internecine battles with their bête-noirs the Erromangans. However, though the Europeans were not considered enemies as such, a few were killed over the years. British retribution for such acts was swift and merciless. They considered the deterrence value of punitive raids the best way to keep the natives in line.
The next group of who played an important part in the social evolution of the islands was the Missionaries. The first Missionaries arrived in 1842. Unfortunately for them, their proselytizing of the natives, started when there was an epidemic of dysentery. The natives turned on the Missionaries believing them to have cast evil spells, which caused the epidemic. They were forced to flee. Missionary work on Tanna seemed to be star crossed, since further groups of missionaries too had to beat a hasty retreat due to coincidental epidemics.
The most notorious of the Missionaries was John Paton, who arrived in 1858. He was a fundamentalist and viewed all native customs with contempt. Multiple wives, penis sheaths etc. were banished from those who converted. To the freewheeling Tannese, such dictates were hard to bear. They turned against John Paton and he too had to flee.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, Presbyterian Missionaries dominated Tanna. However, due to their high handed behavior, the Condominium officials had to step in at times and restrict the excesses. The Presbyterians prospered and the local Kastom worshipers dwindled to about a quarter of the population. As a resistance to the imposition of Christianity, a homegrown religion called Jon Frum gained ground. It was a hybrid form of Christianity and tribal worship.
By the early seventies, a highly politicized population, called for independence. Various resistance groups such as Nagriamel and the Moderes were formed. In 1980, the coconut rebellion’ led to two British Government staff being held hostage by the rebels. The Government had to use force to free them. A rebel group consisting of 300 attacked the town of Isangel, where Modere prisoners were being held. In the attack the Modere leader was killed and the rebellion collapsed.
Eventually, the Island of Tanna was merged with Vanuatu. Vanuatu gained independence from the British and French in 1980. On gaining independence, it changed its name from New Hebrides to Vanuatu.
Learn more about:
- Indigenous Culture
- The John Frum Movement