Material culture and missionary history on Aneityum island

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.

Inyeug, also known as Mystery Island, off the south west coast of Aneityum

Inyeug, also known as Mystery Island, off the south west coast of Aneityum


Looking across to Anelcauhaut from Mystery island

Looking across to Anelcauhaut from Mystery island


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.
The site of Reverend John Geddie’s house at Anelcauhaut

The site of Reverend John Geddie’s house at Anelcauhaut


Inside the site of Reverend John Geddie's house

Inside the site of Reverend John Geddie’s house


The research team involved in the Australian National University archaeological fieldschool on Aneityum

The research team involved in the Australian National University archaeological fieldschool on Aneityum


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.
Showing images of the collection in Scotland and Reverend JH Lawrie’s historical photos of Aneityum to the council of chiefs on Aneityum

Showing images of the collection in Scotland and Reverend JH Lawrie’s historical photos of Aneityum to the council of chiefs on Aneityum


Delivering a presentation to the community in Anelcauhaut, Aneityum

Delivering a presentation to the community in Anelcauhaut, Aneityum


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.
Rangitafu in situ at what would have been the entrance to the Teachers Training Institute

Rangitafu in situ at what would have been the entrance to the Teachers Training Institute in north Aneityum


Showing some of the artefacts in Scotland and Lawrie's historical photos to Pastor Isaac and his uncle at the site of Lawrie's mission house at Port Patrick (Aname), north Aneityum

Showing some of the artefacts in Scotland and Lawrie’s historical photos to Pastor Isaac and his uncle at the site of Lawrie’s mission house at Port Patrick (Aname), north Aneityum


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.

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A look at Vanuatu collections in National Museums Scotland

Last week I hosted a visit from Christian Kaufmann former Curator of the Oceania Department at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel. We spent two days in store at National Musuems Scotland mainly looking at collections from Vanuatu. The four project partner museums (National Museums Scotland, Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Glasgow Life and University of Aberdeen Museums) all have material culture from Vanuatu which we knew from the beginning of the review had connections to Scottish Presbyterian missionaries who lived on the islands, mainly in Southern Vanuatu, from the 1840s-1940s. During the course of the Pacific Collections Review we have found the missionary connection is much more significant than first believed, with many more artefacts than we originally thought being traced back to missionary collectors once you scratch the surface of the documentation.

Map of Vanuatu

Map of Vanuatu


At National Museums Scotland (NMS) there are around 550 artefacts from Vanuatu and 250 of those were brought to Scotland by Reverend James Hay Lawrie, a missionary who was based on the southernmost island in Vanuatu, Aneityum, from 1879-1896(also known as Anatom and marked as such on the above map). Lawrie brought back material from Aneityum, Aniwa, Futuna, Tanna, Malekula, Epi, Ambrim, Nguna, Efate and Tongoa. The descriptions Lawrie recorded of the artefacts he collected give an insight into the culture on the islands at that time. They show he had a real interest in the culture of the people of Vanuatu, as opposed to some missionary collectors who focussed on using material culture to over emphasise cultural differences and justify what they saw as a need for mission work.

The first Presbyterian church in Vanuatu was established on Aneityum in 1852 by Rev John Geddie. Geddie was born in Aberdeenshire in Scotland and his family emigrated to Nova Scotia in Canada when he was young. Geddie was on Aneityum from 1848 and was joined in 1852 by another missionary, a Reverend John Inglis from Scotland. The Vanuatu collections in Scotland that were collected by missionaries reflect their interests and work on the islands: there are artefacts such as sacred stones and items of dress that reflect the missionary desire to modify people’s behaviour and convert them to Christianity, there are objects that tell the story of local culture and everyday life at that time, and there are artefacts that reflect the cash economy that missionaries were helping to create such as samples of arrowroot (a plant people were encouraged to cultivate and process for trade). There are also some items in Scottish collections that may not automatically be thought of as being associated with Vanuatu including bibles that have been translated into the local language of an island and communion tokens. Tokens are particularly associated with practices of the Scottish Presbyterian church and I gave a paper on them at Pacific Arts Association Europe conference last month in Cologne. Communion tokens offer a starting point to think about the complex relationships that existed between missionaries, local communities and others in Vanuatu in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
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Both sides of a communion token from Aneityum, first used on the island c.1852. One of 2 communion tokens brought to Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie.

Both sides of a communion token from Aneityum, first used on the island c.1852. One of 2 communion tokens brought to Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie.


Rev. JH Lawrie’s collection includes a wide variety of material ranging from body adornments such as combs…
Comb from Erromango (A.1890.170)

Comb from Erromango (A.1890.170)


To clubs including this dance club carved at the end with a shark’s tail…
Club (nelup) of wood from Aneityum which was used in dancing. Donated to National Museums Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie in 1889 (A.1889.514)

Club (nelup) of wood from Aneityum which was used in dancing. Donated to National Museums Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie in 1889 (A.1889.514)


Detail of one end of club (nelup) from Aneityum which was used in dancing. Donated to National Museums Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie in 1889 (A.1889.514)

Detail of one end of club (nelup) from Aneityum which was used in dancing. Donated to National Museums Scotland by Rev JH Lawrie in 1889 (A.1889.514)


To two tree fern grade figures from Malakula which Lawrie sent to the museum in 1896.
two fern grade figures from Malakula collected by Reverend James H Lawrie and donated to National Museums Scotland by him in 1896 (L-R: A.1896.15 & A.1896.14). The suit of armour from the Scottish history collection gives an idea of scale!

two fern grade figures from Malakula collected by Reverend James H Lawrie and donated to National Museums Scotland by him in 1896 (L-R: A.1896.15 & A.1896.14). The suit of armour from the Scottish history collection gives an idea of scale!


These figures relate to grade taking ceremonies where a person rises in status. They are made of a tree with multiple aerial roots. The green pigment is special and is particular to one area of Malakula from which it was traded.
Reverend Lawrie took many photographs during his time in Vanuatu and also brought a photo collection back to Scotland. Sadly the collection has been lost but there are still copies of many of his photographs in the Mitchell Library in Australia. One of these images shows an older man with a caption reading ‘Numrang, sub-chief of N side of Aneityum – Bequeathed his beard when dying to his successor. The beard was intermixed with dried seaweed and worn by the man in the opposite photo. 1890’The photo of the younger man shows him wearing the neck ornament and after studying these photos and the artefacts in Scotland I’ve discovered that the neck ornament is now here in Edinburgh in National Museums Scotland:
Chiefly neck ornament from Aneityum, Vanuatu, made of seaweed and human hair on a twisted plant fibre cord. Pieces of pink coral still remain attached to some parts of the seaweed (A.1895.413.74)

Chiefly neck ornament from Aneityum, Vanuatu, made of seaweed and human hair on a twisted plant fibre cord. Pieces of pink coral still remain attached to some parts of the seaweed (A.1895.413.74)


In addition to Lawrie’s collection, there is other important material from Vanuatu here in NMS. Christian and I were particularly interested in some of the older ceremonial masks such as this one of Malakula. It was brought to Scotland in 1890 by Reverend William Watt of Edinburgh who was a missionary based on Tanna with his wife.
Ceremonial mask of wood overmodelled with clay from Malakula (A.1890.428)

Ceremonial mask of wood overmodelled with clay from Malakula (A.1890.428)


Side view of mask from Malakula

Side view of mask from Malakula


One of the earliest set of artefacts from Vanuatu in National Museums Scotland are three skirts from Ambrim which would’ve been worn in layers. Although we don’t have an exact date, we know the skirts came via the University of Edinburgh collection which dates them as pre-1854.
One of three skirts from Ambrim, Vanuatu (A.UC.579A)

One of three skirts from Ambrim, Vanuatu (A.UC.579A)


I have recently been awarded generous funding from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Strathmartine Trust to travel to Vanuatu to carry out more research relating to the missionary collections in Scotland. I’ll be on Aneityum for 2 weeks in July and am excited about being able to take photographs and information on the collections in Scotland back to Aneityum where there is work on-going on the island to establish a museum and archive. I’ll be there with archaeologists from Australia National University who are carrying out fieldwork on the site of the old church and missionary’s house from the 19th century. In preparation for going to Vanuatu I have been working through the missionary archives at National Library of Scotland and have recently found what is best described as a scrap book compiled by a friend of Rev. JH Lawrie in Edinburgh. It contains some photographs taken by Lawrie as well as letters from him and pressed plant samples. The photographs from the album have been digitised and you can view them here: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/search/field/refere/searchterm/Acc.7548%252FF%252F19

– Eve