Chief Roi Mata’s Domain

Chief Roi Mata’s Domain was declared the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Vanuatu. There are three sites from the early 1600s on three different islands that are connected to the last supreme chief of what is Central Vanuatu today.

Roi Mata was an early 17th century Melanesian chief who was an enlightened leader for the times, and wanted to unite the warring tribes of the area in a tradition of feasts to commemorate peace as well as a new social structure through maternal links.

His reputation for greatness spread far beyond the land he ruled and when he died, an island was abandoned for his burial. More than 50 people who were family members or part of his court sacrificed themselves to travel with him to the next life. The island, Artok, has been forbidden territory for more than 400 years.

The most fascinating part of the Roi Mata legacy is the authenticity of the oral traditions over centuries and their connection to the landscape. The areas are well maintained and the cultural integrity is protected, but visitors still feel the overwhelming power of his life story and its impact on the people of his moral legacy and social reforms.

Roi Mata Cultural tours are one of the ways the people generate revenue to preserve the sites, and they also provide income for the villagers who live near the outer boundaries. Visitors first visit the Vanuatu National Museum and Cultural Centre in Port Vila where they are introduced to Roy Mata and his life story. Visitors are then enthusiastic to see the places where this great drama took place.

After visiting the museum, visitors are taken north of Port Vila to the beautiful tropical landscapes of Chief Roi Mata’s Domain. There are several pristine beaches a large harbour and clear views of the island of Artok. During a feast when he was an old man, Roi Mata collapsed and was taken to Fels Cave where he died. Today, the many drawings on the sides of the cave can still be seen, some of which are considered to be of Roi Mata.

From the cave is a direct view of the island of Artok where he and possibly 300 people were buried. Most of them voluntarily went to their deaths and some were drugged and buried alive with him. His body was taken back to Mangass before it was taken to Artok. One legend says that the sea parted so his funeral procession could be made on foot.

The area has been untouched since, and the reefs, trees and animals have grown unimpeded for centuries. No one dared sleep on the island until the 1960s when an expat built a cottage and found some bones. He guided French archaeologists to the site which they excavated. They found the main burial site with one large old man and over 50 people in a circle around him. There were many more bodies in the surrounding wall.

Eco-cultural tourism is arranged by the community of residents on the islands and, though the area has only basic facilities including local food, beach huts and small open boats, it is well run and gives a fascinating experience of stepping back into time.

Visitors may bring cameras, snorkelling gear, snacks, water and a hat and enjoy some swimming and snorkelling in the crystal clear waters. Vanuatu is a great beach holiday destination, but the fascinating culture and ancient history of the area are worth taking the time to discover. Chief Roi Mata’s Domain includes great natural beauty, a fascinating archaeological site and the history of a man who was truly a great leader.