Vanuatu’s Legendary Chief
A significant event in the history of Vanuatu occurred in July 2008 when the domain of Chief Roi Mata was recognized as a World Heritage site, the first such designation awarded to the island archipelago. The site is located north of Port Vilaâ about 30 minutes by carâand sports many pristine beaches as well as a spectacular harbor. It is a fitting tribute to a chief who, according to legend, unified the warring tribes of Vanuatu and reigned under a banner of peace.
The Legend Of Chief Roi Mata
Oral legends can be found in almost every culture, passed down from generation to generation. Vanuatu is no exception. These oral legends are often disputed owing to the fact that the retelling of them through the centuries sometimes dilutes the truth from which they sprang. Even so, some legends continue to endure and grow over time. The legend of Chief Roi Mata is one of these. The story of the legendary chief is one that is still repeated on the islands today.
Betrayed By A Brother
Following his death at the hands of a jealous sibling, the oral legends say that Chief Roi Mata was carried to a place known as Devilâs Point. Devilâs Point was believed to be the entrance to the underworld. The body of the chief was taken through the underwater caverns of Tukutuku and laid to rest on Retoka Island. In the culture of the day it was common for other men and women to be buried with the chief, and some variations of the legend indicate these people were entombed while still alive. The truth of that may never be discovered, but it is known that the caverns of Tukutuku do in fact exist. Lava and coral combine to form an underwater labyrinth. It is easy to see how an ancient culture could have regarded these tunnels as the entrance to a mythical underworld. Scuba divers have explored the tunnels, however, and found no passage to Retoka Island.
It didn’t take very long for Garranger to locate a grave site just 100 meters from the beach. There, in a natural clearing, were two slabs of rock which resembled modern tombstones on the northwest side of the island. The stones were found at the base of a white tree, which seemed to contradict a part of the legend which said that no bush or tree would ever grow over Chief Roi Mataâs grave.
Digging began in the area and Garranger soon began to uncover numerous skeletal remains. All told, he recovered the remains of 47 individualsâprecisely the number specified in the oral legends. There could be no question that a mass burial had taken place at this spot, and carbon dating established that the remains were interred between 1250 and 1300 A.D.
At long last someone had substantiated the truth of the oral legends. The excavation on Retoka Island provided invaluable insight into the practices of the early tribes of Vanuatu and their burial customs.
A Grand Event
Before the arrival of the Europeans, mass burials for chieftains on the islands were common. It is estimated that hundreds of mourners were present at the funeral of Chief Roi Mata. Of these, 46 were chosen to accompany the chief on his journey through the afterlife. This was a traditional practice. It was mandatory that one of the chiefâs wives be entombed with her husband. Chief Roi Mata was rumored to have had ten of them.
The selection of those who would be buried with the chief was largely a practical matter. The old and infirm, children orphaned at birth, and sick witch doctors were among those chosen to be buried with the chief. The men were often given poison to drink, but women were prohibited from this method of death. They were either buried alive or strangled with cords.
All of the bodies were placed facing the southwest, and those closest to Chief Roi Mata were adorned with bracelets, shells, and carved bones. It would have been considered a great honor to be buried in such close proximity to a chief.
Today, visits to Retoka island are no longer considered taboo. There are many tours offered which allow those interested to explore the island and the final resting place of Chief Roi Mata.