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 Vila— about 30 minutes by car—and 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.

In the middle and southern islands of Vanuatu the story is told of this charismatic leader who eventually assumed the title of King. At the time of Chief Roi Mata’s rise to power, the various tribes of Vanuatu were at war with one another. Chief Roi Mata managed to unite the warring tribes and usher in an era of unprecedented peace. For a time the island archipelago prospered and tensions subsided. This was not an easy task to accomplish given that many of the tribes actively practiced cannibalism. Some of these tribes could be particularly brutal in their treatment of one another. It is almost inconceivable that one man could end the tensions between such violent tribes, but Chief Roi Mata succeeded in his quest to bring peace. The story was ultimately doomed to have a tragic end. Like so many great leaders in history, Chief Roi Mata paid the ultimate price for his vision of a unified Vanuatu. The chief became a marked man, but none would have suspected that the source of his downfall would be a member of his own family.

Betrayed By A Brother

Chief Roi Mata DomainLegend says that Chief Roi Mata’s brother was jealous of the King’s success and attempted to kill him by shooting a poison dart into Roi Mata’s throat. The attack was well-planned and should have killed Roi Mata instantly, but the chief somehow survived and lingered near death for many days. A procession was organized at Chief Roi Mata’s request to bear him around the island of Efate. Chief Roi Mata wished to bid farewell to those he had unified. The procession ended at the Feles Cave on Lelepa Island where the great man of peace drew his final breath.

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 Devil’s Point. Devil’s 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.

Retoka Island

Retoka IslandRetoka Island, also referred to as Hat Island, was largely avoided by the superstitious tribes during Chief Roi Mata’s reign. Although the island was abundant with turtle eggs and offered excellent fishing, the tribesmen regarded it as an island of the dead. It was largely unexplored until an archaeological expedition in 1967. French archaeologist Jose Garranger proposed to search for the remains of Chief Roi Mata to determine once and for all if the legends were real. Garranger was granted permission by the chiefs of Lelepa to search for the grave on the condition that the grave be returned to its original state following any excavations. Garranger agreed and the search began.

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 Mata’s grave.

Digging began in the area and Garranger soon began to uncover numerous skeletal remains. All told, he recovered the remains of 47 individuals—precisely 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 chief’s 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.