Contemporary Histories Blog – Associate Professor Helen Gardner: ‘The Other Tanna’

The Contemporary Histories Research Group is pleased to share our new series; a blog dedicated to exploring contemporary histories and history-making. Today’s blog is written by Associate Professor Helen Gardner:


The Other Tanna

12 April 2017

In the week Tanna was nominated for an Oscar, posters of the film lined the Paris metro enticing winter worn Parisians to an island paradise of grass skirts and elemental forces seemingly inoculated against the Western world. Yet there is another Tanna of imperial and Christian dreams that pre-dates the doomed lovers of Tanna.

Tanna, 2015 film – Image Source

The movie opens with an overhead shot of an awakening Pacific village.  To those familiar with such places the morning sounds trigger deep memories: the minor finish to the rooster’s crow, the murmured voices of those in adjoining houses and the rhythmic sweeping of the packed earth that marks the beginning of a day studded by long empty stretches and the realisation you are in a world you barely understand. 

For the last seventy years Tanna has been Vanuatu’s iconic island of custom – or kastom in the Pidgin or Bislama of Vanuatu. It is tempting to translate kastom as tradition, those practices that remain despite European influences. But it is better translated literally as custom, the day to day practices of island life. Many ni-Vanuatu view Christianity as kastom because it is now central to their communities. The island dress or meri-blouse, introduced by missionaries and worn by women throughout Melanesia, is also kastom.  

But for some people on Tanna, the concept of kastom IS perhaps closer to the European expectation of tradition.  The film is set in the village of Yakel, listed on Trip Advisor as an authentic pre-Christian, pre-colonial experience. These villagers have consciously turned their backs on Western influences and position themselves as kastom people against their fellow Christian, educated citizens. They don’t go to church, they don’t allow the children to attend school and they jealously guard their traditions. They have become a magnet to film and documentary makers. Tanna,is another in a long list of films on these villages for kastom Tanna fills a yearning in western hearts.

Yam Planting, West Tanna Island – Source

But there is another Tanna and another history.  From the 1840s to the 1960s it was a stronghold of Christian mission and a site for Australian imperial ambitions.  Samoan missionaries established a foothold for Christianity on the island of Aneityum to the south of Tanna in the 1840s.  Presbyterians John and Mary Paton joined the mission from Scotland in their hunt for Tannese souls.

There were early failures.  Mary and her newborn baby were dead within three months of their arrival. Successive missionaries on Erromango, to the north of Tanna, were killed by locals who blamed the Christian god for the epidemics that felled families and emptied villages. Terrifying sicknesses swept the islands; sixty percent of the people in Erromango perished in just two mid-century epidemics.  Cosmological debate swirled through the horror as Islanders lay where they died. Fed by grief, Presbyterianism grew in the southern islands of the group then called the New Hebrides. Preached from the pulpit and sermonised through church literature, the islands of Tanna, Aneityum and Erromanga became the embodiment of missionary martyrdom then Christian success.   

Other Europeans were circling with dreams of empire. In the 1880s the island groups of Melanesia were picked off by the European empires. Germany vied with France and Britain for Pacific colonies.  Influential Presbyterians in Victoria pressured Premier Graham Berry to annex the New Hebrides and thwart French ambitions to extend their influence beyond New Caledonia. John Paton sailed from Tanna to Melbourne to barnstorm the colony. In meetings from Portland to Echuca he trumpeted missionary achievements on Tanna and demanded protection for his seedling Islander Protestants from Catholic France.

Presbyterians were aided in their vision by imperialist politicians such as Alfred Deakin. The New Hebrides was a central plank in his bid for an imagined empire well beyond the Australian continent that included New Zealand, Fiji, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides. The Colonial Office in Britain buckled to the pressure of their upstart colonists to keep France at bay and a 20 year stand-off ensured. Finally, in 1906 a Condominium was declared, jointly run by the British and the French. Quickly dubbed the Pandemonium it became a byword for colonial mismanagement. Australian Presbyterians maintained both their scorn for the administration and their influence over this ill-governed colonial outpost. They pressured Presbyterian politicians, in particular longstanding Prime Minister Robert Menzies, to take over the administration of the island group they believed to be their own.

Walter Lini – Source

Amidst these international manoeuvrings Tanna made its own history.  In the mid-twentieth century some villages rebelled against their Presbyterian missionaries and defiantly returned to their pre-Christian lives.  It is the descendants of these villagers who are the stars of the Tanna.   In some ways these Tannese rebels were the precursors to the modern nation of Vanuatu.  In the 1960s Christians of the Pacific made their own conscious peace with their cultures.  Indigenous church leaders of the Pacific were trained in new theologies that celebrated custom and Christian nationalists decried former missionary efforts to destroy Pacific cultures.  Ni-Vanuatu Christians insist that custom was made by God and must be recognised as a pillar of their nation and a central tenet of their identity.  The first government of Vanuatu was led by Anglican priest Walter Lini and included at least five Presbyterian pastors. The preamble to the Vanuatu constitution acknowledges their country is ‘founded on traditional Melanesian values, faith in God and Christian principles, God or other deities’.

So the people of Vanuatu, apart from the few people in the kastom villages of Tanna, combine Christianity with culture, attend school and read their Bibles while maintaining their kinship systems, their social structures and the dances and mask making.  Yet they are largely ignored by film makers who flock to Tanna to fulfil the Western dream of an untouched pre-Christian pre-colonial Pacific. The earlier Tanna of Christian success is wiped from the record. 

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