Early in August 1774, Commander James Cook, seeing a great glow (Yasur volcano) in the sky, went to investigate. He landed in a small bay, which he named Port Resolution after his vessel, the HMS Resolution. He wanted to climb the volcano, but the islanders wouldn’t let him because it was tabu (sacred and forbidden).
When sandalwood traders came to Port Resolution the locals offered them three pigs for every Erromangan brought to them – they didn’t like Erromangans, except as pot fillers. The bride price at the time was 10 pigs.
Polynesian religious teachers and Missionaries were all forced to flee as the islanders believed any disaster was caused by sorcery – their initial impression of Christianity.
John Paton arrived at Port Resolution in 1858. He was a fundamentalist missionary of the fire-and-brimstone type and forced his male converts to have only one wife, stop fighting, take over garden work from the women, and wear European clothes rather than nambas. But what really disrupted village tradition was his ruling against arranged marriages between villages, through the Nekowiar ceremony.
The Tannese revolted against Paton’s bigotry in 1862, and he moved on to ‘civilise’ Aniwa.
By the early 20th century, Presbyterian missionaries dominated Tanna’s religious and political life. They had their own courts and sentenced Christian offenders to perform menial tasks as punishment. Kastom worshippers soon numbered only 25% of the island’s population.
The Jon Frum movement, a hybrid of Christianity and traditional beliefs, emerged as a form of resistance to the missionaries’ teachings. By the end of WWII it was one of Tanna’s three main religious groups, the others being Presbyterians and kastom people.
In the early 1970s, Tanna became highly politicised. In 1979 Jon Frum cultists and a Tannese kastom group called Kapiel allied themselves with the secessionist Nagriamel group in Santo and the Modérés in the rest of Vanuatu. Galvanised into action by the ‘coconut rebellion’ in Santo in May 1980, Tannese Modérés seized two British government staff, who were freed by police action two days later. Many Modérés were taken prisoner, so 300 of their group attacked to try to free them. In the ensuing shoot-out a Modéré leader was killed. Arrests were made and the Tannese insurrection fizzled out.
By 2000 Tanna had developed into a peaceful ecocultural island. It now sports many secondary schools, a strong cultural climate and comfortable coexistence of kastom, Christian and Jon Frum religions.