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God loves a cannibal; the more bloodthirsty, the more pagan and disgusting the better. To get a cannibal to embrace the Lord was not just a conversion – it was a bloody miracle. Degree of difficulty 10++. Risk: quite high. Penalty for failure: Missionary Soup.

Poor James Williams was the first. He was gobbled up in 1839 beginning a smorgasbord of tasty missionaries to Tanna. They were all singularly unsuccessful – there wasn’t a single convert till 1869 – not that they cared. They were right and everybody else was wrong. Little has changed in Missionary La-La Land.

They arrived full of pious superiority, hearts yearning ‘with compassion over the poor, naked, painted savages… ‘ an attitude that lasted about ten seconds. It didn’t take the ‘savages’ long to sort them out.

We had not been twenty-four hours on shore, until we found that we were among a set of notorious thieves, perfect Spartans in the trade, and, like the ancient code of Lycurgus, the crime seemed to be, not the stealing, but the being found out. ‘

A succession of fools wasted their lives on Tanna. Those that made it out alive had no hesitation in documenting their indignities. Self-publicists all, they are still remembered, memorialised and praised for their idiot martyrdom.

‘The Reverend John Paton is a genuine martyr to duty, so very wicked are the natives toward him. He is to be pitied for he gets nothing, neither  help nor acknowledgment. Once he had to defend himself bodily. . As he talked  about his family problems… the poor missionary could not help crying. He is tolerated in the island but has no authority here whatsoever…’

His solution to the murderous attacks was to sink to his knees and pray.  Survival meant that God was on his side. One can only assume that God was looking the other way once the missionary was on the grill.

The only other white men the locals saw were traders, who treated them abominably, and, in the 1860’s a few interpid settlers. They’d been either eaten or forced out entirely by the mid 1870’s leaving just the pathetic Reverend Paton behind.

‘The Reverend John Paton is a genuine martyr to duty, so very wicked are the natives toward him. He is to be pitied for he gets nothing, neither help nor cknowledgment. Once he had to defend himself bodily. . As he talked about his family problems… the poor missionary could not help crying. He is tolerated in the island but has no authority here whatsoever…’ 1875


The poor sod was sitting right in the middle of ferocious tribals wars that raged across the island. Trapped in an intricate cycle of attack and pay-back, the ‘stolen wars’ could never come to an end. Dispossessed of their land, defeated tribes had no option but to fight back. The battles became increasingly bloody. Why? The white men brought guns to Tanna. If they won, then another group was dispossessed – the situation remained the same. On and on, it went until, by the early 1890’s the situation seemed hopeless. A complete peace appeared the only viable policy, which happened to be the missionaries’ solution. The first European missionaries limited their political power to reaching this aim. This approach may explain why close to two thirds of the island population was converted rapidly after 1890. To become Christian meant to choose the side of peace.

To implement their policy, the new ‘Christian kings’ first created what they called a ‘police,’ which was a local militia made up of zealous, physically strong Christians. Local courts were set up to carry out the Tanna Law order now in effect. Initially, the new men in power aimply aimed at putting an end to traditional warfare and  opposing evil magic.

Initially, this phase was widely accepted because it fulfilled the innermost wishes of an entire people decimated by warfare and haunted by the fear of war- related poison magic.

The missionaries also acknowledged the ownership rights of de facto land occupants, which froze a situation in turmoil: war victors kept the lands they had conquered while the losers had to stay in the areas where they had taken refuge. Wars and rituals being banned, any return to the original territories—as previously was the case after each war—became impossible..

Territorial chaos was perpetuated and made worse, for the benefit of the winners of the SbipirnaHwawa. that is, the Numurkuen phratTy (chapter 10). Ancient taboos on travel were lifted: men and women now had the right to move freely and live wherever they wished. . . in particular in the Christian coastal


Such wise  tactics were not adopted by the second generation of missionaries who  settled on Tanna in the early part of the twentieth century. Upon their  arrival, they found the place conquered—at least for the most part. Peace  prevailed.

Thanks to its  network of teachers, elders, and ‘Christian chiefs,’ the church had control  over the entire space of the island, The newcomers, MacMillan and Nicholson in  particular, were politics-minded above all and endeavored to create a Christian  orders which ushered in the second phase of the Tanna Law era—the best known  and the most lamented.

Not only did Tanna Law assail the pagans ‘dissolute customs,’ but it also struck at the foundations of traditional society.

Polygamy was banned.

So were the festivals of ritual exchanges because they included night dances, which the ministers assumed were obscene and sexually permissive. The magnificent roka ritual, especially, was castigated on account of the napennapn night dances involving men and women together.

The anathema spread to all chants and dances within Tanna’s kasram,

Transporting kava on trails became so difficult that the plant became the vet symbol of die pagans’ resistance. As for the ynwanein, awkwardly translated as ‘sacred prostitutes’ whose role was to sexually initiate young men of high birth from allied groups (and who would lacer get married and start families), their function was prohibited and severely condemned by local courts headed by the
missionaries or their assistants.

The ‘new order revised territory related rules.

1. No one shall feed his pigs on the day of the Sabbath.

2. No one shall henceforth wear his hair straight,’

3. Anyone touching a French lifeboat with his hand shall be jailed for three months,

4. Anyone going aboard a French recruiting ship shall be jailed for six  months,

Ad infinitum ad nausezm. (FRA, translatedfrom the French)

In the White  Sands coastal region. some groups held no real rights over thy lands they lived on; they took advantage of the situation by becoming converts. The Christian
Chief of that area, Kaokare, acted as a lord, distributing land to his Christian subjects and taking it away from those who remained r’cl nan. Whether they intended to or not…

In its November
1910 issue, the settlers’ paper Le o-Hèbridais violently attacked
the Presbyterian mission. As an official survey carried out by the
Condominium government pointed out:

The missionary-doctor has set up a complete administrative system in Tanna. There is a small army; he, Nicholson, sovereignly dispenses justice, handing down lines as well as forced labor or jail sentences. More specifically, the condemned men are sent to a tribe other than their own. There, they have to find their own food and maintain and build roads joining missions or linking these and native villages’ (LNH, no. 14, Dec 1910).

European missionaries systematically favored the status of coastal Christians against that of their Pagan adversaries, who were pushed back inland and lost their customary rights.

‘I do not like Tanna, the coast is inaccessible and  the inhuman natives make up a category of unclean, despicable, and repulsive individuals…’

A distinctive phenomenon associated with Tanna was  already present – namely, that whites staying on the island for too long became somewhat deranged.


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