Vanuatu in detail

Feature: Chief Roi Mata

Much of Vanuatu’s history has been passed down in the form of oral stories, so it’s always reassuring for historians to be able to match the legends with the facts.

A great example of this is the story of Chief Roi Mata, a king of Vanuatu. Legend has it that sometime around AD 1600 this chief of chiefs had the power to calm the warring tribes of Efate, and even put a (temporary) halt to cannibalism. However, sibling rivalry ended Chief Roi Mata’s reign when he was shot in the neck with a poisoned arrow by his brother. Legend had it that he was buried on Hat Island with 47 others who were possibly interred alive. For 400 years few would visit the island, and it was only when a French archaeologist gained permission to dig there in 1967 that the truth was unveiled; yes, there was a mass grave, and yes, it looked like it was a voluntary live burial. There's a fascinating exhibit on this at the National Museum of Vanuatu in Port Vila, and locals offer guided tours of the site on Hat Island.

Chief Roi Mata’s domain is now inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage list, thanks in part to the oral history kept by the local population over the centuries. It is thanks to the resilience of the ni-Vans (the Melanesian inhabitants of Vanuatu) that such stories have survived the many pressures of intervening centuries, including conflict, European contact in the 1840s and epidemics that decimated the population in the late 1800s.