Tanna Island, Vanuatu

Tanna was first settled about 400 BC by Melanesians from the surrounding islands. The glowing light of Mount Yasur attracted James Cook, the first European to visit the island, in 1774, where he landed in an inlet on the southeastern tip of the island that he named Port Resolution after his ship HMS Resolution. He gave the island the name of Tanna, probably from the local name for earth, tana in the Kwamera language.

In the 19th century, traders and missionaries (chiefly Presbyterian) arrived. The Tannese stuck to their traditions more strongly than other islands; there remain fewer Christians in comparison with the other islands of Vanuatu.

Tanna was not a principal site of World War II, but about 1,000 people from Tanna were recruited to work on the American military base on Éfaté. Exposure to First World living standards may have led to the development of cargo cults. Many have died out, but the John Frum cult remains strong on Tanna today, especially at Sulphur Bay in the south east and Green Point in the South West of the Island.

A secessionist movement began in the 1970s, and the Nation of Tanna was proclaimed on March 24, 1974. While the British were more open to allowing its holdings in Vanuatu to achieve independence, it was opposed by the French colonists and finally suppressed by the Anglo-French Condominium authorities on June 29, 1974.

In 1980, there was another attempt to secede, declaring the Tafea Nation on January 1, 1980, its name coming from the initials of the five islands that were to be part of the nation (Tanna, Aniwa, Futuna, Erromango and Aneityum). British forces intervened on May 26, 1980, and hence the island become part of the newly independent nation of Vanuatu on July 30, 1980.

Tanna is populated almost entirely by Melanesians and they follow a more traditional lifestyle than many other islands. Some of the higher altitude villages are known as kastom villages, where modern inventions are restricted, the inhabitants wear penis sheaths (Bislama: nambas) and grass skirts, and the children do not go to public schools. According to anthropologist Joël Bonnemaison, author of "The Tree and the Canoe: history and ethnography of Tanna," their resistance to change is due to their traditional worldview and how they "perceive, internalise, and account for the dual concepts of space and time."

The island is the centre of the John Frum religious movement, which is a cargo cult. The first wave of the John Frum movement was a means to escape from what was known as Tanna Law, imposed by the Presbyterian mission at Lenakel from early in the twentieth century until World War II. Many Tanna Islanders had moved from their traditional villages to the mission villages on the coast, only to be subject to highly repressive church practices designed to change their cultural norms.The first John appeared at night as a spirit at a place called Green Point and told the people to return to their traditional way of life (custom). From that time until the present day custom on Tanna has been seen as an alternative to modernity encouraged by many missionary denominations. Yaohnanen is the centre of the Prince Philip movement, which reveres Prince Philip of the United Kingdom.

John Frum told the islanders to throw down the Bible and keep kastom - Bislama pidgin for preserving their traditional ways. Those who heeded his words would be rewarded with wealth. The movement snowballed after the Second World War when the Tannese returned to their villages after working for American forces. They were stunned by American wealth. They decided that John Frum was American - perhaps John frum America. To encourage his return, they engaged in rituals, and twice daily hoist the American and US navy flags. The red cross - first seen on American first aid tents - became a powerful symbol for the group, with dozens erected across the island. But the missionaries stayed and John Frum cult leaders are seeing their influence wane as Presbyterians, Catholics and Seventh Day Adventists make gains.

We were received with a flower and the music of a string band and souvenirs were on display for sale. The cultural presentation featured four different dances: while the first one was about the volcano, the second told the story of the arrival of the white men. The third dance was very funny and especially the local spectators burst into laughter when the women performed a dance about a disobedient horse. The last dance was a men’s dance. We then climbed into embark the jeeps, which would bring us to the volcano Yasur. Chris found the open seats on the back of the truck somewhat uncomfortable, and bagged a seat in the cab on the way back.

On the way we stopped at the school and listened to the performance of the school choir. During our visit of the little village the local people showed us how they cook on the open fire, how they produce mats of pandanus leaves and how they feed their pigs. Interestingly there was the red cross for the John Frum cult in the centre of the village (it is in the photo below with the village soccer pitch)

The jeeps again to take a bumpy road through the bush to the volcano for about 45 minutes. When we arrived at the parking area, we had to walk up the last bit to reach the crater. One could hear the noise made by the steam erupting off the volcano. It was quite windy and from time to time we got to smell the sulphur coming out of Mt. Yasur. As it got dark, the glow from the volcano got more pronounced, and the explosion of glowing red chunks of rock every ten minutes or so became more dramatic. Sidey's time lapse photos of the volcano after dark are very dramatic, though what we actually saw was more in the line of my photos. The whole experience was memorable and dramatic. It is certainly unusual to get so close to an active volcano.

The drive back through the dark forest was bumpy and uncomfortable, and we got to the beach, lit by jeep headlights to enable the boarding of the zodiacs. A night departure from a beach in a zodiac is certainly also an unusual and memorable event

Click on any of the small photos to get a larger version of that photo


On to Lifou, New Caledonia

South Seas Holiday