This is the 4th post in a series fosussing on research in the Pacific around Vanuatu collections, acquired by Scottish missionaries who lived on the islands from the 1850s-1940s.
Following my time working in Port Vila, I travelled to Aneityum the southernmost island of Vanuatu. It is located closer to the Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia than it is to many of the northern islands of the country. With a population of around 1000 people, it is relatively small with a close-knit community. The island is very green with no road network. The tourism industry there mainly comes from cruise ships who anchor in the bay on the south west coast, with the tourists travelling on small boats to Inyeug, or Mystery Island, a smaller island in the coral reef off Aneityum. It is on Mystery Island that our 12 seater plane landed before getting small boats over to the main village of Anelcauhaut.
Anelcauhaut is the location of the first Presbyterian church in Vanuatu, established in 1852. As I have detailed in previous posts, it was this connection with the history of Presbyterian missionaries that has led to Vanuatu material in Scottish museums. Both National Museums Scotland and Glasgowlife have material from Aneityum. These items came through Reverend James Hay Lawrie who was based on the island from 1879-96. Lawrie was at the mission station at Aname on the north of the island. I had taken photographs with me of the artefacts in Scotland and some copies of historical photos taken by Reverend Lawrie in the 1890s, most of which are in the Mitchell library in Sydney.
During my visit, I accompanied researchers from Australian National University who were running an archaeological fieldschool on the island. The team was led by Professor Matthew Spriggs and Dr Stuart Bedford who were working closely with Richard Shing an archaeologist from Aneityum. Fieldwork has been taking place on the island for several years. This year, the research sites included the old church and mission house at Anelcauhaut built by Reverend John Geddie. This Scottish born man was brought up in Nova Scotia, Canada, and he was responsible for setting up the first Presbyterian church. The excavations also centred around the area in which Geddie’s printing house was located, a burial site occupied by local and European 19th century graves, an area in which missionaries had buried old sacred or tabu stones, and an area of swamp.
Following our arrival, my first task was to meet Nelly Nepea Tamalea who is the female field worker on the island. The Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta have an excellent system whereby volunteers from each of the islands in the country work as fieldworkers doing their own research with the community and also assisting visiting researchers. The two fieldworkers for Aneityum are Frank and his sister Nelly. I met Nelly in Anelcauhaut village where she and two of her sisters were rolling pandanus leaves in preparation for making baskets. Unsurprisingly, my attempts to roll pandanus took a lot longer! Meanwhile, the women were tending to an earth oven where food was being prepared for a welcoming ceremony we were all shortly to attend with the council of chiefs. After receiving garlands of inpa leaves, a kastom leaf in Aneityum, we were introduced and talk turned to the work we would be doing this year. All research is carried out in conjunction with the community and no research is carried out that is not supported by them. This was my first opportunity to share some of the photographs I had brought with me. Everyone was really excited and interested to see what I had been able to bring. It was decided that I should do a presentation one evening that week using a projector to display the images on the outer wall of the local primary school. This was an opportunity for anyone to see the photos that could make it there. In the end, around 100 people were able to attend. The historical photos show scenes from around the island but also feature some named individuals including Numrang who was an ancestor of the local teacher who helped me with the projector. National Museums Scotland also care for a beautiful neck ornament of seaweed which incorporates human hair from Numrang’s beard which I was able to show the community.
As there are no roads on Aneityum, everyone either travels by foot or by boat. I took a boat one day to the north of the island near Port Patrick. I wanted to go there not just to share the images with more people but also to see the mission station at Aname where Reverend John Inglis (from the Scottish borders) and subsequently Lawrie, had been based. As well as the missionary house there had been a church and teachers training college at Aname. Reverend Inglis arrived on Aneityum in 1852 representing the Scottish Presbyterian mission and he worked with Geddie. I found out that Inglis had originally built his house on top of the sacred meeting place, or nakamal , at Aname. This was a common practice for 19th century missionaries in Vanuatu as part of an infringement on local belief systems and their desire to exert influence over the local population. Still in situ where the entrance to the teachers training building would have been is a sacred stone which Inglis placed as a door step after it was given to him by some islanders who had converted to the new religion of Christianity. The stone is named Rangitafu and was apparently used to influence the sea and shipwrecks.
I found that the 19th century photographs of the island were most recognisable to younger people on the island whereas because many of the artefacts are no longer made or used, they seemed more familiar to older people. For me, that made it feel even more important for the artefacts to be seen by the community and for them to have a record of some of the material held in museums elsewhere in the world. Jack Ketati who had been the first ni-Vanuatu curator at the cultural centre and who lives on the island was especially excited to see three dance clubs Reverend Lawrie donated to NMS in 1897. This includes one club in the form of a whale’s tail. He explained that the dances are still known and they are trying to revive the practice but that the knowledge of the style of the clubs has been lost. Having the photos of these 19th century clubs Jack told me that he would now be able to commission a carver on the island to work on the historical designs.