Tanna emerged from the sea only about one million years ago, much later than other islands in the archipelago.
Tanna was first populated approximately 400BC. The inhabitants traded with neighbouring islands including the Kanake of New Caledonia.
Captain Cook sighted the island’s Yasur volcano glow from afar and anchored in a small bay on the east side of the island in August 1774. Naming the bay Port Resolution after his vessel. He attempted to climb the volcano, but because it was tabu the islanders would not allow him to do so.
Cook using sign language pointed to the ground and asked the island’s Chief what is this island called? The chief, answering literally said “muk-tana” (meaning ground). Cook, having only heard the second part, recorded the island of Tanna.
Trading in sandalwood (from Port Resolution) started in 1847 even though most of the wood was found on the neighbouring island of Erromango. Traditionally, the Tannese were enemies of the Erromangans and feuded constantly with them. In an attempt to get the upper hand, the inhabitants of Port Resolution offered the sandalwooders three pigs for every Erromangan captive brought to them. The bride price at the time on Tanna was 10 pigs.
The most popular trade goods after stick tobacco were axes and guns. Axes made gardening and canoe building much easier, leaving more time for inter-clan fighting and ceremonies. Occasionally the guns were used against Europeans. In 1874 a Tannese man shot a particularly obnoxious labour recruiter called Lewin, causing several other Europeans to flee.
Three years later a British naval party executed a Tannese islander after another trader had been killed. Too bad the condemned man was innocent. These were the days when punitive raids were official British policy. Deterring islanders from further killings was considered more important than justice.
Meanwhile Tanna’s first missionaries who landed in mid-1842, were forced to flee a few months later. The islanders believed a devastating epidemic of dysentery at the time had been caused by sorcery – their initial impression of Christianity.
Polynesian religious teachers replaced them three years later, but another epidemic occurred and they were blamed. A fresh group arrived in 1846, only to have smallpox bring their work to an end six years later.
John Paton arrived at Port Resolution in 1858. He was a fundamentalist missionary of the fire-and-brimstone type, and condemned all those customs that the Tannese delighted in. He forced his male converts to work for the mission, to have only one wife, to stop fighting, to take over garden work from the women, and to wear European clothes rather than nambas (penis sheathes).
The Tannese revolted against Paton’s blind bigotry in 1862, and he fled. Returning on HMS Curacao in 1866, he persuaded the crew to bombard several villages, killing a number of people. His credibility destroyed on Tanna, he moved on to ‘civilize’ 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.
There were official moves against Tanna’s Presbyterian theocracy in 1912, with many attempts by Condominium staff to restrict its excesses. But after WW1, Presbyterianism again flourished, leaving kastom worshipers to number only 25% of the island’s population.
Eventually, a homegrown religion called the Jon Frum movement emerged as a form of resistance to the missionaries’ teachings. It blossomed to such an extent that by the end of WWII it was one of Tanna’s three main religious groups, the others being Presbyterians, and kastom people. Although widely regarded as simply another cargo cult, it is in fact a hybrid of Christianity and traditional beliefs in which cargo (or wealth) is secondary. However, it’s this aspect of the cult that has most appeal to tourists.
In the early 1970s, as the call for national independence grew louder, Tanna Island became highly politicized. 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.
The Modérés were especially active after the 1979 election. They alleged electoral fraud when their party narrowly missed winning majority in Tanna (by 2% of the vote).
Galvanized into action by the so-called ‘coconut rebellion’ in Espiritu Santo in May 1980, Tannese Modérés struck. They seized two British government staff, who were freed by police action two days later. Although many Modérés were arrested, Protestant islanders, fearing a civil war, fled into the bush.
On 10 June 1980, a force of 300 Modérés attacked the township of Isangel, where their friends were being held prisoner. In the ensuing shoot-out a Modéré leader was killed. Arrests were made and the Tannese insurrection fizzled out.
Most Tannese people live a traditional lifestyle practicing the ancient customs of their ancestors including kastom medicine, initiation and circumcision rites and the colourful Nekowiar.
This three-day ceremony is one of the most significant custom celebrations in Vanuatu, part of which is the Toka dance. Living separately from other Tannese, the John Frum Cargo Cult in Sulphur Bay observe strict community rules and celebrate their customs every Friday.
Tanna is also a minefield of adventure – the wreck of the Fijian, a sailing ship which sank in 1916 lies in 20 metres of water, wild horses inhabit White Grass Plains, white sandy beaches and the black sand of Imlao Beach, waterfalls, hot springs and the spectacular Yapilmai Cascade and of course that lady, Mt. Yasur which keeps all of us on our toes!