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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Phoenix rising from the ashes: Kuwae, the story in na-Makir (Central Vanuatu)

I don't usually clog up my blog with lengthy academic articles but this one is different in that it is my first ever academic article that was 'rejected' by an editor (Farzana Gounder) of a volume on Pacific narratives. The anonymous peer reviewers savaged my article demanding that I delete any and all references to 'politics' even though I have quite legitimately, I think, framed part of the article in a Marxist context. I also offered some anti-religious (anti-Christian) observations from my time spent in Vanuatu and the peer reviewers flatly denied that any such sentiments existed in Vanuatu, hence I must also delete any such references to bring up my article to publishing standards! Needless to say I refused to give in to their pathetic demands. In my view this is one of the worst cases of academic right-wing censorship I have ever come across. In any case, you can decide for yourself by reading it.

Phoenix rising from the ashes: Kuwae, the story in na-Makir (Central Vanuatu)

Wolfgang B. Sperlich1


[1]            I want to tell a little story about the Kuwae volcanic eruption.

[2]            Once there was a man named Semet. He was feeding his fowl at his place
            called Tanamalal. It was on the island of Kuwae.

[3]             At the time Semet was feeding his fowl at Tanamalal, he heard the
            volcano starting to erupt.

[4]            Semet looked towards the volcano erupting and saw the lava coming
            towards him.

[5]            Semet saw how the volcano buried the whole place and set it on fire, and so
            he got very scared.

[6]            Semet was scared of the fire and started running away until he came to the
            village of Lakalia which nowadays is on the island of Tongariki.

[7]             Before the volcanic eruption, the islands of Tongariki, Ewose and
            Vale were all part of the island of Kuwae.

[8]            In the village of Lakalia there was a tamtam by the nakamal. The tamtam
            is a drum used for kastom dances.

[9]            Semet was so afraid of the fire that he went inside the upright tamtam.

[10]             The lava buried the tamtam with Semet inside.

[11]             Then there was a woman named Tariviket who had taken her stick to go
            fishing along the seashore.

[12]             Tariviket also saw the lava coming her way and she was scared and ran
            into a cave by the shore. This cave today is called Tariviket's Cave.

[13]             Tariviket stayed inside the cave until the fires burned out and the place
            cooled down, and then she came out.

[14]             The woman wandered about and she came to the village of Lakalia and the
            nakamal. She looked around until she found the tamtam still standing up.

[15]             Tariviket took her fishing stick and beat the tamtam.

[16]             As Tariviket was beating the drum she heard a man talking inside of it.

[17]             Tariviket made a big hole in the tamtam and Semet came out and talked
            to Tariviket.

[18]             Semet asked Tariviket where she had been. Tariviket told Semet that she had been fishing at the seashore, and when she saw the fire approaching, she became very frightened and ran inside a cave. And when the fire had finished, she had wandered about and came up here to the village.

[19]             Tariviket asked Semet: "What about you?" Semet told Tariviket that he was feeding his fowl at Tanamalal, and when the volcano erupted he ran to the place here and he went inside the tamtam, and the tamtam was buried with him inside.

[20]             As they were now on only half the island that used to be Kuwae, Tariviket said to Semet: "I know that around here, the old men used to bury the fermented breadfruit."

[21]             TARVIKET took her fishing stick and probed the ground until she found the
            stone that was placed over the hole where the breadfruit was buried.

[22]             They cleared the ground and took out the stone and then retrieved the
            fermented breadfruit.

[23]             They picked up some of the half-burned wood and they made a fire and they
            cooked the fermented breadfruit, and that was all the food they ate.

[24]             Tarimas on Makira saw the fire on the half of the island left over from
Kuwae. He told his people that he thought there were some survivors on that half of the island of Kuwae, and that they should go and have a look.

[25]             Tarimas took out his canoe, named Natololo, and he and his men went to the half island to look for survivors.

[26]             The place where they went onshore was called Tapurar before, but as they went on shore they called out Kaho-ov, and that's what the landing is still called today.

[27]             Having met the survivors, Tarimas went back to Makira to cut wood and wild cane, and transported it back the island where they built a house for the survivors.

[28]             Tarimas kept visiting them to bring them food and drinking water on the island.

[29]             Tarimas went back and forth and eventually told them that they should come to Makira where there is a good supply of food and drinking water.

[30]             When the two of them started to live in Makira, Semet and Tariviket got married and they had a daughter they called Nawa.

[3 1]             As time went on she grew to be a big young woman.

[32]             Then Semet prepared a feast and invited all the chiefs of Makira. He told the chiefs they should sleep with Nawa so she could have some children.

[33]             The chiefs of Makira proceeded accordingly and Nawa became pregnant and she gave birth to a boy that Semet named Ti Tongoa Leiserik.

[34]             Nawa became pregnant again and gave birth to twin boys; one was called Ti Tongoamata and the other one Ti Tongoaroto.

[35]             They all stayed on Makira until the children grew up, and then Tarimas and Ti Tongoa Leiserik went in a canoe to the half island, the biggest one left over from Kuwae.

[36]             When they went onshore at the biggest island left over from Kuwae, they saw the island full of egg plants that are called Woro Tongo. That's why Tarimas named the island Tongoa, and the smaller one, also once part of Kuwae, he named AWOH, and a still smaller one he named Vale after the big cave there, and the mid-size island he called Tongoa RIKI.

[37]             After he had named all the islands, they went back to Makira.

[38]             When they got back to Makira, the three boys, Ti Tongoa Leiserik, Ti Tongoamata and Ti Tongoaroto left Makira and went back to live on Tongoa.

[39]             At the time they went back to Tongoa, the men of Makira told Semet that since he was the first man to go back to his island, he should also be the one to take the children back to his island, and they named him Matan Na-ur Ni Tongoa which means 'the first man of Tongoa'.

[40]             All the chiefs of Makira thus named Semet as Matan Na-ur Ni Tongoa, and thereafter he took his children and grandchildren back to Tongoa, where they all multiplied.

[41]             So now you heard about Matan Na-ur Ni Tongoa and all his children who returned to the island of Tongoa, taking with them the language of Makira which you can still hear spoken there today.

1.     Introduction

The above version of the story is based on a recording the present author did on Makira Island in 1985, with then Paramount Chief Masoeripu who had one of his residences on Makira – himself being a native of Makira. A team of local Makirans helped to transcribe it (and other custom stories recorded in a similar manner), and back at Auckland University the stories were published in 1986 as ‘na-Makir Texts of Central Vanuatu’ - in the series of Working Papers in Anthropology, Archaeology, Linguistics and Maori Studies. When returning to Vanuatu (2002 – 04) as a UNESCO consultant, and the good fortune of the sixth Conference of Oceanic Linguistics (COOL-6) being held in Port-Vila, presented itself, a paper proposal to present the Kuwae story was accepted. I asked Chief Masoeripu (then an ex-Member of Parliament and resident in Port-Vila, together with a large section of the Makira community) if he'd be interested to tell the story to the conference participants - with me doing a follow-up discourse - he offered to recite the story in both na-Makir and in Bislama. Since the original transcript had no Bislama translation, we agreed to give the original text to Roslyn Daniel, a Makiran who happened to work as a secretary where I did, at the Ministry of Finance, and ask her to translate it into Bislama (in a sort of interlinear fashion). Roslyn and Chief Maseoripu worked together and they came back with a newly expanded version in Bislama and na-Makir, with the explanation that Chief Masoeripu had found quite a few mistakes and omissions in the old version. Hence, when 'reading' his own story told many years ago and converted into text, he found room for improvement, a process presumably familiar to all of us who write, and on reading what we write, we make changes if we are not satisfied, which in itself is a curious process when compared to the oral mode of communication and cultural transmission. However some of the new additions seem pitched at the 'tourist' audience inasmuch as he explained things like a tamtam, which most locals would know and understand without any explanation. I pointed out that the conference participants would be seasoned linguists and anthropologists who were likely to know more about ni-Vanuatu kastom than many a ni-Vanuatu. Chief Maesoripu made some changes accordingly but remained suspicious about the various anthropologists he had met in his life, i.e. foreign academics who want to know everything but never listening to anything they didn’t want to know.

In any case, above, the 'new' and improved version is presented. As we shall see, the reason for this detailed account of the story’s origins is that there are quite a number of other versions with which we can compare it. In the first place, however, we will do a close reading of the story in its own right.

2.     Interpretative frameworks

Three perspectives are employed to ‘explain’ the story inasmuch as it needs explaining. The anthropological/ethnographic angle – including the linguistic features – provides much of the background as the story has received quite a lot of published attention in these contexts already. As a sub-category of the above I attempt a Marxist interpretation which allows for considerable latitude if not controversial statements. In terms of the narrative structure we employ Labov’s (1972) scheme. The various perspectives come into play when discussing certain elements of the story.

2.1. Anthropological and Marxist points of view

If we consider the narrative to be in the genre of anthropological descent and identity we might also proclaim, generally speaking, that identity is manufactured from the stories and legends of the past. To disambiguate, and to indicate our subsequent frame of inquiry:

(1)  descent  and ancestry are key to establishing identity (Harris, 1983)
(2)  in a post-modernist, virtual world, identity is the cause of violence (Derrida, 1992)

Our preference is however for the Marxist angle which might encapsulate the Kuwae story as follows:

Identity politics is the political terrain in which various social groups engage in a “struggle for recognition” within bourgeois society, each seeking recognition for the special interests of a specific social group.

Even so, Marxist identity analysis can also be ambivalent, albeit on a different plane: the working classes/the proletariat have no personal histories, hence identity is a bourgeois concept; on the other hand the working classes/proletariat have always been the salt of this earth, and as inheritors of this world will always have an immutable identity.

Marxist anthropologists like Webster (1982) have pointed out that ‘story telling’ involving common people is one of the key resources of ethnography, hence we will proceed accordingly, at least inasmuch as the present narrative deals with ‘commoners’. One may also point to a recent example of this genre, namely Gounder’s (2011) investigation of indentured labour in Fiji which is based on narrative recounts of Indian labourers.

As anthropological linguists we cannot disregard yet another important angle, namely Labov’s (1972) model of structural analysis of narratives in general. We will adopt his scheme in the first instance, followed by other features relevant to the story, as told in the original language, na-Makir.

2.2  Analysis according to Labov’s scheme

This structural analysis will incorporate some of the anthropological and Marxist angles alluded to above. Labov’s scheme proceeds according to five stages: abstract, orientation, complicating action, result or resolution and coda.

(1)  Abstract

In line [1] we get the classical ‘abstract’ as “I want to tell a little story about the Kuwae volcanic eruption”, giving away only the barest information, thus creating suspense even if tempered with the customary modesty label of “little story”. Note also the ‘authorial’ ‘I’ which is of great importance in the context of chiefly authority to be discussed below.

(2)  Orientation

The main protagonist is introduced, namely the man Semet, living on the big island of Kuwae. Since this is the central character, we note here that there are other versions of the story which identify him as a chief (Luders, 2001, 2010 and pers. comm..) but there is no mention if his status in this story (but we can make certain inferences later in the narrative).

(3)  Complicating action

In line [3] we are launched into the action of a volcano erupting. Vanuatu and her many islands are part of the ‘Pacific ring of fire’ and as such many a ni-Vanuatu (the term used to indicate indigenous citizens) is familiar with the sights and sounds, if not with the immense destruction such natural forces can engender. Given however that there is now no island called Kuwae – nor has there been in any living memory – one may be inclined to believe that the narrative will be one of legend and myth. Indeed this was the case for contemporary observers until French anthropologists/archeologists/geologists Guiart, Garanger and Espirat, conducting fieldwork in the area in the 1950 and 1960s, found evidence for a volcanic cataclysm that destroyed the ‘mythical’ island of Kuwae, leaving behind only a ring of scattered small islands (now part of the Shepherd Islands, see Appendix 1: Map) that are well known today by various names to be yet encountered in the story. Garanger and Espirat published their findings in a series of books and articles 1972 and 1973, dating the eruption to about 1450 AD. More up-to-date studies by Monzier (1994) and Spriggs et al. (2005) confirm the Kuwae eruption of around 1452 eruption as a layer of ash in all of his digs around Mangaliliu and Mangaasi in North Efate.

Map showing the bathymetry and location of the Kuwae caldera (Figure 2 from Monzier et al., 1994)

The eruption may have had global consequences, as some studies maintain that it triggered the Little Ice Age (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuwae). Luders (2001) describes it thus:

This was a colossal eruption. It was one of the eight greatest volcanic events in the past ten thousand years. At least thirty million cubic metres of rock, earth and magma were hurled into the atmosphere at an initial velocity of about 300 kilometres per hour and another vast volume slid into the sea. The dust-pall circled the globe, initially in the southern hemisphere and later in the northern hemisphere. The polar ice cores record that it persisted for at least three years (Delmas et al. 1992). The resultant blotting-out of the sun reduced temperatures so as to produce a minor ice-age with the result of widespread famine, evidently on a global scale.

Be this as it may, in lines [6] and [7] we learn the names of all the islands that exist today and were once part of Kuwae.

In terms of the continuing narrative one might expect a grand description of the cataclysm but of course this is not the purpose of the story. Instead we are taken along with Semet who flees the eruption only to be buried alive inside an up-right slit-drum (called tamtam). This seems to be a fanciful development in the light of an almighty natural catastrophe and yet this is the whole point of fact turning into fiction (i.e. legend and myth): a man called Semet is the only male survivor! In line [11] we are then flashed back to the beginning and introduced to a woman called Tariviket who from a different direction on the island also escapes the eruption – with the more likely scenario of hiding in a seaside cave. Note that the status of Tarviket is not mentioned (again as opposed to other versions of the story whereby she is also of chiefly descent and/or may be related to Semet, perhaps as cousins).

The narrative again becomes extremely fanciful in that Tariviket, after the eruption, wanders around the remains of the island and finds Semet trapped inside the drum, well and alive (up to line [17]). One may ask if these two survived, who else did? Other versions (cf. Luders, 2001, 2010 and pers. comm.) note that there may have been signs of a volcanic eruption over quite some time so many inhabitants may have fled to safer areas, even as far as Efate (for the contention that many Shepherd Islanders have land rights on Efate, see Wilson 2011) even though a natural instinct would have been to run for life to the north on the existing big island that is now Epi (see Hoffman, 2007). Again this is not the point. The point is to establish a Phoenix-like re-creation myth - out of a natural catastrophe.

Re-creation myths and legends are not exactly commonplace but feature prominently in various societies. While the Phoenix that rises from the ashes is a powerful symbol of personal regeneration if not reincarnation – with analogies in various regions of the world – there are far fewer re-creation stories that arise from natural disasters of epic proportions. In Western societies the probably best known is the Noah’s Ark story which may have a historical foundation in large scale flooding events in the Mesopotamian regions, what with bits and pieces of the ark supposedly scattered somewhere on Mount Ararat. The single survivor (or male and female, for procreation purposes) idea is of course contrary to common sense and all scientific reasoning but is a great vehicle to establish a totally exclusive claim to land, ancestry and identity. The main aim is always located in the present, namely to justify and solidify the current socio-political paradigm. The myth becomes the reality that shall be un-contestable in the future. That the Maori god Maui fished the North Island of New Zealand out of the water is as ridiculous as the Christian god creating the world in seven days. There is simply no archaeological evidence. However when re-creation stories such as the Kuwae narrative revolve around human beings who display no supernatural powers, we should be more circumspect.

Of course there is no evidence for Semet and/or Tariviket having ever existed but the fact is undeniable that today these remaining islands are inhabited (at least in part) by people speaking the na-Makir language. The language of na-Makir is claimed by the inhabitants of the eponymous  Makira Island (see Map, Appendix 1) which is quite a distance away from Kuwae and the islands that remain today. How did the na-Makir language establish itself on these islands? Did the people there speak the na-Makir language before the eruption? Well, again this is not the point.

The point is that this story is told by a chief from Makira Island, naturally claiming his na-Makir language to originate from Makira (hence the eponymous name), thereby explaining how the na-Makir language came to be spoken on these other islands. We will discuss this matter in more detail under the section ‘Linguistic consequences of the Kuwae eruption’.

Indeed the narrative as such has no subsequent part that Labov calls ‘evaluation’ (as step (4)) which would shed light on these speculations. Instead, and in line with myth-making, we are taken straight-away to what Labov calls the ‘result or resolution’:

(4)  Result or resolution

As soon as Semet and Tariviket make a fire (line [23]) we can see the proverbial solution: the smoke is seen on the distant island of Makira, and of course it is seen by a chief of Makira, named Tarimas (line [24]). Initially (up to line [30]) the rescue operation consists of visiting the survivors and assisting them in their daily life – again a fanciful scenario, given that there had just been a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. A potential motivation for this interlude is to show off chief Tarimas’ prowess as the captain of the canoe going back and forth between Makira and Tongariki – a distance of about 11 km as the crow flies – which is no mean feat, especially as the seas in that area can be very rough and unpredictable. In any case, in line [29] we are told that Semet AND Tariviket are taken to Makira, immediately followed by the revelation that the two got married on Makira and had a daughter called Nawa.

From line [32] onwards the narrative turns into the genealogy of the future inhabitants of Tongariki, Buninga, Ewose and Tongoa islands in as far as they are all speakers of na-Makir. It all begins with the feudal practice of the chiefs of Makira siring various children with Nawa who in turn become the first chiefs of the islands mentioned. Technically the narrative says that they all went back to live in Tongoa (the now largest island left over from Kuwae) but it can be implied that they also populated the other smaller islands where na-Makir is spoken today. Note that in the other versions to be discussed below, these events have a different flavour – not surprisingly perhaps if one is at pains to establish a different chiefly lineage.

(5)  Coda

The coda in line [41], asserts the claim over these islands by the virtue of the language of Makira being spoken there to this very day. Of course the chiefly lines via Makira have also been clearly established by way of an oral tradition that has been re-told again in the current narrative.

3.     Anthropological contexts

The story of Kuwae exists in various forms in the Shepherd Islands, with three main variants presently recorded: the Tongariki and Makira versions first recorded by Guiart (in Espirat et al. 1973), and the Tongoa version recorded by Luders (pers. comm., 2001, 2010). As a genre they belong to what Facey (1988) calls ‘locality and descent’ as a key to social organisation in Vanuatu. As a traditional way to record, maintain and establish claims to land, there are always bound to be conflicting versions, and indeed the disclosure of such lore to outsiders is only a consequence of modernity, often fraught with a mix of deception and leg pulling so as to confuse the inquisition from afar. As this newly imposed modernity insists on land titles within the prevailing capitalist mode of the metropolitan masters, such matters have become of intense interest to those who engage in real estate, and the existing Land Tribunals that are meant to sort out legal title begin to engage in oral and written history as means of disentangling conflicting claims. Wilson (2011) gives a vivid description of the Shepherd Islanders claiming land on Efate, based on a long history of migration between these islands. In New Zealand there is a similarity to the Treaty of Waitangi land claims, with their associated searches of historical lines of descent - quite apart from retrieving land that was alienated by the colonists – and which end up more often than not as contemporary legal wrangles rather than historical ones.

As such oral history assumes a new importance, even if for all the wrong reasons. Works like that by Espirat et al (1973) with their amazing detail on chiefly descent lines are sometimes cited as to support one claim against the other, even though it is well known amongst ni-Vanuatu that such records often suffer from the above mentioned leg pulling or other inaccuracies due to recording in linguistic contexts not well understood by the Western researcher.

So what are the differences in the versions that might be of interest to both ni-Vanuatu (in terms of land claims, for example) and ethnologists? First consider the original text by Guiart (1973), followed by a summary of the story as recorded by Luders (2001) – note that Luders also fictionalized the whole story in his (2010) novella Cataclysm.

Un homme appelé Sëmet était à nourrir ses poules a Tanamalal (Mangarisu de Tongoa). Devant l'éruption il parvient à s'enfuir jusqu'à Tongariki où il se cache à l'intérieur d'un tambour dressé a Lakilia. Une femme, Tarifegit, qui cherchait des coquillages au bord de mer, s'était cachée dans une grotte. Quand tout est fini, elle sort, va et vient et finit par rencontrer l'homme issu de son tambour. Ils trouvent à manger en recherchant une fosse à fruit à pain fermenté (na-maäay). Ayant fait du feu avec des débris, une fumée s'élève que voit TarimasU à Makura. Il pense qu'il reste là-bas un homme vivant et décide d'aller voir. Il ramène ainsi à Makura l'homme et la femme rescapés, et c'est à ce moment qu'il change le nom de Tapurar, celui de la passe de Tongariki, en Kahaov. Sëmet et Tarifegit se marient a Makura et vivent là. Une fille leur naît, appelée Nawa. Sëmet avait en effet tué un cochon, organisé une fête, et dit aux chefs de Makura de venir coucher avec Tarifegit, afin qu'elle puisse avoir un enfant. On procédera de même avec Nawa qui mettra au monde deux jumeaux : Ti Tongoa Mata et Ti Tongoa Roto. Voyant depuis Makura que l'herbe repousse à Tongoa, TarimasU y va en éclaireur et y trouve la plante broussailleuse dite worotongoa, d'où le nom de Tongoa donné à ce fragment de Kuwae, et d'où aussi les titres attribués aux jumeaux. On prend alors le nasumwaur de Makura: Samwan - avant l'arrivée de Mwasoe Rangi et de la déesse Leymangola - et on l'emmène à Mweriu sur Tongoa. Les deux fils de Nawa épousent deux femmes de Makura et repartent avec leurs parents à Tongoa, y introduisant la langue Namakura qui serait ainsi la langue la plus anciennement parlée a Tongoa. (p. 57-58)

Gujart adds a footnote (not reproduced here) where he explains why Sëmet might have called on the Makira chiefs to sleep with his wife and daughter, suggesting that Semet may in the meantime have suffered from impotence and that this was the traditional remedy (but see the interesting story to the contrary contained in the Tongoa (Luders, 2001) version below).

Earthquakes began six years before the eruption and, on southeast Kuwae at least, chiefs began to evacuate their people to Efate (with its offshore islands), calling on their long-standing associations there. They established food gardens, built houses and ferried people to Efate.
The youth who was to become the first Ti Tongoa, and whose eldest son became the first Ti Tongoa Liseiriki, was heir to an older title, one of the four referred to above. His personal name was Simeti, Simet or Asingmet, depending on the version. With other young men, who formed the rearguard of the evacuation, he was awaiting the canoes that would take them off, when the eruption occurred. He fled the eruption and survived by taking shelter in a slit-gong that became covered in the falling ash. A woman named Tarivekit or Terevikit also survived by hiding in a cave. These two were rescued by men from Makura Island under a chief named Tarimasu. After some five years on Makura, Simeti commenced re-colonization of Tongoa, the part of Kuwae that had been his home, and went to Efate to tell his father and other chiefs that they could return. A number of histories give the sojourn on Efate as being six years.
In the oral record it is unsaid, but very probable, that many evacuees did not return but remained on Efate. Simeti took a new title, suggesting that his father elected to remain on Efate with the old title and its claims to land based on the migration of some 25-30 generations earlier. In the nature of chiefly histories, Simeti's descendants inherit all the detail of the old title up to the point where Simeti takes the new title and thereafter their history records the new title. The fate of the old title is apparently lost. Simeti's father may have passed it to another son on Efate but it seems to exist no longer.

 While it is not recorded by Guiart as to who told him this story on Makira, there is a clear similarity with the story as here told by Chief Masoeripu. In the na-Makir language the name Sëmet tends to shorten to Smet and as such has always intrigued me as to its unusual pronunciation. Lueders (pers. comm.) however assures me that amongst the more ancient names (he has recorded Tongoa lineage down to 50 generations) there are similar sounding names, and indeed in the Tongoa version of Kuwae, the man in question is named as Semeti or Ti Semeti. The name of the woman is now commonly given as Tariviket - close enough to the French version. The localities of Tanamalal and Lakiilia match in both versions. The reference by Guiart to fermented breadfruit as na-maäay is a bit problematic as the na-Makir word is commonly given as na-mada. That Chief Tarimas (minus the ‘u’) of Makira brought the couple back to Makira is also in agreement, as is the change of place name from Tapurar to kaho-ov.

While both versions agree that Sëmet marries Tariviket on Makira, there is a significant difference in the Tongoa (Luders, pers. comm.) version where Sëmet and Tarifiket are cousins and as such should not marry, but when they are caught having sex with each other, they do so nevertheless. In the Tongoa version Sëmet marries again though, namely to a Makira woman named Nawa. In the Makira version, however, Sëmet and Tariviket have a daughter named Nawa, who eventually, when she grows up to be a young woman, is given over to the chiefs of Makira to produce three boys, Ti Tongoa Leiserik, Ti Tongoa Mata and Ti Tongoa Roto. Note that the Guiart version does not mention Ti Tongoa Leiserik.

All versions agree on the naming of Tongoa after the plant Woro Tongo(a). The Guiart version then tells of a nasumwaur (na-sumaur in my word list is glossed as 'god/spirit who created the world’) or Samwan being taken to Mweriu on Tongoa, together with the repatriation of the twins and their wives from Makira. It is also mentioned by Guiart that the nasumwaur or Samwan arrived on Makira before the chief Mwasoe Rangi and the goddess Leymangola. None of this is mentioned in the versions given by Chief Masoeripu.

Both Guiart and Masoeripu versions agree on the na-Makir language thus being introduced to Tongoa. Luders (ibid.) however in his Tongoa version points out that the na-Makir language had been in use all over Kuwae for many generations before the Kuwae eruption, hence the repatriation was only a re-introduction of na-Makir to what was left of Kuwae (but see Clark, 1996) who disagrees). This however begs the question as to what language Sëmet and Tariviket were speaking in the Makira/Guiart versions.

What is however most important in the Guiart/Masoeripu versions is that the chiefly bloodlines for the resettlement of Tongoa and the other islands of old Kuwae are descended from the Makira chiefs. However in the Tongoa version, according to Lueders (ibid.) - which by the way claims to be told by the descendants of Ti Tongoa Leiserik and Ti Tongoa Roto – we start off with a Tongoa chief, namely Semet who is to become Ti Tongoa Leiserik. And there are other re-settlement claims to be considered, i.e. many of the chiefs before the imminent eruption of Kuwae had sent their people to safety on Efate and Epi, and these people and their descendants returned to what was left of Kuwae all-the same. Lueders also claims that the Nakanamanga language of Efate reached Tongoa (and parts of Emae) only some time after the Kuwae eruption, especially as the Nakanamanga speakers seem to be resident on the much less desirable western coastlines, thus indicating lesser time depth (on this point Clark, 1996, agrees). What is also interesting regarding Guiart's version, is that the chiefly line of Mwasoe Rangi was not yet on Makira at the time of the repatriation of the chiefly twins to Tongoa. As our current author, Chief Masoeripu is a descendent of the chiefly line of M(w)asoe Rangi it might have been convenient for him not to mention it, lest it interferes with any claims to land and title.

In the present version, the pre-occupation with naming people and places actually comes after the telling of the main events, and as such reinforces the message that it's all in a name that bestows identity (cf. lines [36] and [37]). This echoes the universal practice of giving personal names to heroic figures who become progenitors of ancestral lines of descent. Here heroic status is conferred by surviving a cataclysm, having adopted somewhat unusual means in case of Semet who had hidden in an upright drum. Equally heroic is chief Tarimas of Makira Island who rescues Semet and Tariviket from their predicament, i.e. having survived but having no food or water to carry on. Indeed it is chief Tarimas who then calls all the shots and names all the new islands that formed as remnants of the former Kuwae. Furthermore to really claim the whole bloodline, there is the explicit line [33] which explains that various chiefs of Makira fathered three children with Nawa, the daughter of Semet and Tariviket. Importantly – when compared to the Tongoa version -  Semet is not mentioned to have chiefly descent (nor Tariviket) and thus it would have been common practice to marry off Nawa to a commoner of Makira. We now need a Deus ex Machina, i.e. a plot device to solve a tricky problem, namely to ‘invite’ the chiefs to impregnate a woman of presumably common origins, just so as to establish a new chiefly line that lays claim to all the islands newly emerged from the cataclysm. Guiart’s contrary explanation that Semet may have been impotent and thus invited the chiefs to have a go with his wife and daughter sounds more far-fetched but not impossible in view of feudal practices.

In terms of post-structural anthropology à la Derrida (1992) we contend, controversially perhaps, that such sexual violation as part of a feudal practice – note, it is the father that invites the chiefs to ‘sleep’ with his daughter - is mirrored in the establishment of nationalist identity that in Europe unleashed ‘the worst violences … the crimes of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, religious or nationalist fanaticism’ (Derrida, 1992). While French and English colonialism in Vanuatu didn’t unleash such extreme violence, one must note that the unique establishment of a condominium (the first elected PM of Vanuatu, Walter Lini (1980) called it ‘pandemonium’) – i.e. Vanuatu was governed by France and the UK simultaneously – was very much based on supporting an extreme version of an indigenous patriarchal chiefly system which hitherto was a marginal force in Vanuatu tribal societies. To this day violence against women in Vanuatu is a major problem (an AUSAID 2011 survey reported that 60% of ni-Vanuatu women had experienced physical/sexual violence). Other may disagree and claim that the patriarchal chiefly system in Vanuatu persisted long before, e.g. Luders (2001):

the social structure in this region seems to have been fairly uniform and conformed to the essentially feudal pattern extant in the Shepherds. The chiefly structure is hierarchical and land is held by dominant chiefs who once had absolute rights over all on it, including people.

Guiart (2004) challenged Luders (2001) article, noting amongst other things, that the patriarchal system alluded to by Luders was an imposition by the Christian missionaries that were very active in the Shepherd Island groups.

My contention is that Melanesian societies in general, and the Shepherd Islands in particular, are historically described as ‘big men’ (I would add ‘big women’ as matriarchy in Vanuatu has been and still is quite pronounced in some areas) societies that lack authoritarian chiefly systems of power, as described by historian Brij Lal (quoted in Wilson, 2011):

chiefly systems have never been a prominent feature of the cultural landscape. Instead, small- scale, loosely organized, and shifting systems of leadership clustered around competitive "big-men" were more typical. These institutions have to a large extent endured in the face of relatively unsuccessful attempts to impose the paraphernalia of a western-style nation-state. Not only do elected leaders struggle to implement "development" and other policies among peoples whom they cannot control or coerce, but they often have to conform to traditional big-man norms and expectations in order to stay in power. Sofar as ordinary people remain very much in control of their daily lives, these systems may operate far more democratically than most "advanced" western political systems.

Vanuatu’s first ‘leader’ Fa. Walter Lini (1980) coined the concept of Melanesian Socialism precisely because progressive and egalitarian political movements could be instituted in a diverse society like Vanuatu’s.

4.     The linguistic consequences of the Kuwae eruption

This title is taken from Cark’s (1996) article where he argues that the linguistic evidence supports the archaeological facts surrounding the Kuwae eruption. The two languages (North Efate/Nakanamang and na-Makir) that persist in the islands formed from the eruption show all the signs (e.g. high cognition rates) of being of lesser time depth than the many other languages that tend to be geographically isolated. Clark refutes the possibility (as claimed by Luders, ibid.) that either language would have been extant on Kuwae before the eruption. Apart from the above argument, there is no evidence for the Epi languages of any substrate influences.

Clark (ibid.) gives credence to my suggestion that the Makirans played a major role in resettling the area by saying that this ‘assigns Makura people a pioneering role’ (p. 282). As such the narrative presented quite possibly reinforces a historical truth – and should have left it at that. That languages spread is more a historical accident rather than an imperial pursuit (although one might disagree with reference to the English language, cf. Phillipson’s (1992) evocative book title of Linguistic imperialism). Indeed the post-Kuwae spread of the na-Makir language to the island of Emwae is attributed to an epidemic on Emwae decimating the women in particular, hence women from Makira emigrated to Emwae and established their proverbial mother-tongue.

Clark’s assertion that with the Kuwae eruption all traces of the Kuwae languages disappeared also, is challenged by Hoffmann (2007) in his aptly titled article ‘Looking to Epi: Further Consequences of the Kuwae Eruption’. He makes the case that since Epi was to the largest extent part of Kuwae, there must be reason to believe that extant cultural and linguistic constructs on Epi must be related to Kuwae of old. Clark did not actually deny the possibility other than to assert that the current languages of the Shepherds (i.e. Nakanamanga and na-Makir) have nothing to do with any putative Kuwae languages(s). As Hoffmann suggests, further research of the Epi landscape may indeed find traces of the Kuwae languages buried in the extant Epi cultures and languages.

5. The politics of the narrative

To finally view the story’s preoccupation with chiefly aristocracy with Marxist eyes (see the introductory quote of ‘identity politics is the political terrain in which various social groups engage in a “struggle for recognition” within bourgeois society’), let us assume, with Marxist polemic, that the ‘commoners’ of Makira couldn’t care less about who is descended from whom and which island was named by whom and why. They just toil away in their bush gardens to put food on the table for their families. They go to church on Sunday because they have to, and they listen to the chiefs because the consequences for not paying attention can be dire. The priests and the chiefs have all the spiritual and political power – and they have none. They have heard about the newfangled ideas of democracy in Port-Vila and their supposed rights to vote for whom they want. In reality they have to vote for the single candidate who is their chief. For some time it was chief Masoeripu who held the seat in parliament for the Shepherd Islands electorate. Parliamentarians get to travel the world and can attend many parties thrown by the Port-Vila establishment, namely the high commissions and embassies of the donor countries. The occasional hand-out reaches back to Makira, like a second-hand outboard motor for the fishing canoe. When it malfunctions, no one can fix it. There are murmurings amongst the commoners that this is a scam and things should change. The priest reminds everyone that such murmurings are the devil’s work and all kinds of terrible disasters and hellfire will befall Makira if it continues. Those few who align themselves with the priest and the chiefs get a few delectable crumbs thrown at them, with the promise for more. It is a universal story and the only solution seems to be for the ‘workers of the world to unite’.

I attest to the above in as much my family and I lived on Makira Island for four months doing fieldwork (during 1985, cf. Sperlich, 1991), and that as an ardent Marxist I was involved in many discussions with the locals about politics and the proverbial meaning of life. Like everywhere else, the ordinary people of Makira are politically aware and astute but in the face of the oppression decried above, there is little chance to escape or to start a revolution or even institute Melanesian socialism. Even with the advent of independence and Fa. Walter Lini’s vision of a Melanesian Socialism (as quoted above) – and a visit of Lini to Makira while I was there, affording me the rare chance to talk with him – there was still in place a pernicious colonial system of oppression, exercised by the chiefs and others holding political power. When I recorded chief Masoeripu’s kastom stories I heard quite a few comments that I, of all people, was playing into the hands of those who tell tall stories to enhance their own reputation above all else. In retrospect I plead guilty.

On the other hand neither Marxist nor neo-liberal academic can deny that the Kuwae story has historical significance, and regardless of the ‘cultural’ baggage it carries with it, it must remind all and sundry of the deeper implications, namely that life is subject to nature’s whims but is also characterised by human resilience: we may be chastised for interpreting Semet and Tariviket as an ordinary man and an ordinary woman who rise from the ashes - Phoenix-like, and thereby re-establish a human identity on a desolate earth. That the story then launches into chiefly descent is another matter, one of critical regret espoused here. That we start of with ordinary human beings in this story is perhaps a sign of unintended hope that in future all narratives will start, continue and end with them (Wolf 1982, Fanon 1961).

Note 1:             thanks to Paul Burgess for proofreading and making valuable comments; all remaining errors are mine alone.


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Fanon, F. 1961.The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Weidenfeld.

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in plantation-era Fiji.  The Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Guiart, J. 2004. Retoka revisited and Roymata revised: a retort. JPS Volume 113,
No. 4.

Harris, M. 1983. Cultural Anthropology. Harper & Row.

Hoffmann, A. 2006. Looking to Epi: further consequences of the Kuwae eruption,
Central Vanuatu, AD 1452. Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association Bulletin 26, 2006.

Labov, W. 1972. Sociolinguistic Patterns. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lini, W. 1980. Beyond pandemonium: From the New Hebrides to Vanuatu. Asia
            Pacific Books.

Luders, D. 2001. Retoka revisited and Roimata revised. JPS Volume 110,
No. 3: p. 247-288.

Luders, D. 2010. Cataclysm. RealTime Publishing.

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Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 59, pp 207-218.

Phillipson, R. 1992. Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford University Press.

Sperlich, W.B. 1986. Na-Makir Texts of Central Vanuatu. Working Papers in
            Anthropology, University of Auckland.

Sperlich, W.B. 1991. Na-Makir, a Description of a Central Vanuatu Language. PhD
            thesis, University of Auckland.

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APPENDIX 1: MAP: Language Map of Central Vanuatu (after Tryon, 1976)

Thursday, March 13, 2014



not really dedicated to T.S. Eliot

When I opened with my own eyes the box, not Pandora jumped out but Sibyl of Cumae

And when I asked her what the time is, she replied in modern Greek Zeit zum Sterben!

Sooner in foolish April rather than later

One has to read it, feel it


For the erudite hell of it

And come to the belated realisation that

Yes, I studied Tristan and Isolde but, no, not

On the Starnberger See

Having read the after-notes with extreme shame as to

What I should have known from my

Classical education

Hence I said, turn the table, I said with

A bit of sarcasm

And announce my notes before the poem just in case

You are wasted already

On funny Nietzsche and bloody stupid Wagner but wait

There is more, as they say on TV, to sell the vacuum cleaner

With allusions hidden in the dusty blood of ages

Dragged from the pages of a blood-stained Bible

Death to you too, die with broken bones Jesus, blood-less Inferno

Proto-Fascists Dante and Virgil (and not Ovid), haha, give me Catullus instead

Read Lao Tse and the I Ching but not the Tarot cards

And then finally come to London

City of fog and old fogeys and anglophiles like me and you

Now she comes in colours (malheur you never heard the beetles sing)

Your wife, your crazy wife, depressed as the Hades

Fatally attracted to Black Holes

Politically and psychologically unacceptable at 31 of age what shall we do?

Sadly nothing ado, nothing, NOTHING

Walk along the bank and see what’s floating past

The juncture where the Ganges turns into the holy river Thames

Where rats talk about winners and losers and the neither-nors

Enough to drive you mad with gibberish only to emerge as

Tiresias ever so liminal

What’s this obsession with mythology? Is it really illuminating?

Tiresias, beyond man and woman, jenseits von Gut und Böse …

One cannot best a classicist rife with allusions in Latin and Greek

But a hundred years ago everyone did

So now we have to add Sanskrit and modern French/Italian/German/Mandarin

To be truly educated in English and compose mixed metaphors

Like nymphs in the sweet Thames? Come on!

The stanza about what the thunder said is very Zarathustra-like

Quite brilliant really

I don’t mean to parody

To be a poet ain’t easy, especially if you’re American in exile

And London Bridge is falling down around your ears

And life is your literature, life imitating art

I’m just a jealous guy

Alakh! Bam Bam Bholanath! Bom Shiva!