Exploring stories of missionaries and material culture in Santo, Vanuatu

I recently returned to the CBAP offices from fieldwork in Vanuatu where I was collecting stories relating to the activities of Presbyterian missionaries on Espiritu Santo island. While there is a large amount of interesting and useful data in international archives relating to Presbyterian mission work in Vanuatu, much of it can be like reading the equivalent of administrative emails in the contemporary workplace. So I was interested in those stories still in the islands, perhaps of ni-Vanuatu people who had worked with, or interacted with missionaries. I also hoped to find out more about the cultural artefacts collected by missionaries for museums, and to share with communities and the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (VKS) some of what I’ve found in the course of my PhD so far. While on Santo I worked closely with Thomas Jimmy, a VKS filwoka and an Elder of the Presbyterian Church in Tasiriki, in the southwest of the island.

Espiritu Santo, 1944
Map of Espiritu Santo, produced by US Navy, 1944
And recent Espiritu Santo map. Source: CartoGIS, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University

Since embarking on my PhD research in 2015, I have been exploring the contribution (or not!) of Anglophone missionaries to the development of Pacific archaeology through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Numerous missionaries gathered data about material culture, customs and linguistics, as well as origin stories and other oral traditions, which they then interpreted and shared. The research and collecting activities of Reverend Frederick Gatherer Bowie, who was based in south and west Santo from 1896 until his death in 1933, forms a case study in my research. Bowie was originally from the Orkney Isles in Scotland. He lived and worked on Santo with his wife Jeannie. He made an artefact collection, and was one of a number of Presbyterian missionaries in the area who took photographs, capturing local cultural life as well as mission activities. The majority of this material is currently in University of Aberdeen Museums, Scotland, and Otago Museum, New Zealand.

Bowie was interested in local material culture, including ceremonial stone structures from northwest Santo, and pottery from the west of the island. He also gathered data on kastom activities, including burials, pig-killing and male initiation. Bowie facilitated research by visiting scholars to the area, notably the anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers. He provided Rivers with information, language expertise and access to informants, contributing to the work of the latter on Melanesian migrations and culture.

Pottery making at Wusi, Vanuatu, c.1910. Photograph by F.G. Bowie, courtesy and copyright University of Aberdeen Museums
Alto, sieving clay for making pots to sell at Luganville market, Wusi, Vanuatu, May 2017. Photo: Eve Haddow

From Bowie’s old diaries and notebooks, I’d been able to identify an informant named Lulu who had been providing historical and cultural data. However, prior to my fieldwork in Vanuatu, I had not been able to find out much about Lulu himself. While in Santo I learned that Lulu Varikiki was an initiated and powerful man who, prior to conversion to Christianity, was actively engaged in ritual life. It was Lulu who enabled Bowie to cultivate interest in the church around the area of Tasiriki.

Lulu Varikiki, c.1905. Photograph by F.G. Bowie, courtesy and copyright University of Aberdeen Museums

One of the artefact types from Santo that interested Bowie most were what he refers to as ‘boomerangs’, or tiok. Bowie’s interests seem to be firmly rooted in his late 19th-century views on the diffusion of culture. Tiok are still made in northwest Santo today, and young men have competitions as to who can throw theirs the furthest.

‘Tiok’ from Venlav, northwest Santo, Vanuatu. Collection of University of Aberdeen Museum. Photo: Louise Wilkie.


-Eve Haddow

Acknowledgements: My greatest thanks to the communities of Tasiriki, Wusi, Kerenavura, Avunatari (Malo), Tangoa, and Aore. Particular thanks go to Thomas Jimmy, Kiki Jimmy, the Chiefs of Tasiriki and Wusi, Kaitip Kami, Chief Takau Muele, Henlyne Mala, Stuart Bedford, Carlos Mondragon, and William Collins. Thank you also to Neil Curtis and Louise Wilkie, University of Aberdeen Museums.


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