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Southern Malakula reveals secrets of the past

In December 2006, an archaeological expedition, led by Dr Stuart Bedford of the Australian National University and Marcelin Abong, the newly appointed Director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VKS), was undertaken in the south of Malakula. The pair along with VKS fieldworkers from Lamap, Akhamb and Tomman made some very interesting discoveries. The fieldwork was a component of a three research project being undertaken by Bedford and Matthew Spriggs of the ANU in collaboration with the VKS titled “Northern Vanuatu as a Pacific Crossroads: the Archaeology of Discovery, Interaction and the Emergence of the ‘Ethnographic present’ being funded by the Australian Research Council. But a separate interest of both Bedford and Abong is the early colonial history of the Port Sandwich area and more specifically the French fortification that was built there in May 1886. The French actually built two forts in 1886 following the calls from French settlers in Vanuatu at the time who were concerned about security. One was built at Port Sandwich and one at Havannah Harbour. They were short-lived ventures of about five months as the English Government protested their presence. Interestingly the fact that they were built at all is something that is not generally known amongst contemporary ni-Vanuatu. But as emphasised by Abong, “this period of colonial history is very important for understanding the development of our nation. It is not simply the history of settler activity in isolation, the colonial activities of the nineteenth century greatly affected ni-Vanuatu and it is essential that we have a greater understanding of such events and activities which influenced how we have arrived where we are today”.

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Excavations at the Port Sandwich site revealed multi-layered evidence of a whole series of buildings over different periods dating from the 1880s. One very distinctive stone lined floor was revealed which may be related to the fort (photo to the right). After the abandonment of the French fort it was the site of an SFNH trading station and plantation and continues to be used as a store for copra today, adjacent to the wharf and deep water channel which was the initial attraction. It is also the site of the first Catholic church in the area in the late 1890s. “So we are dealing with quite a complex archaeological landscape which both requires further excavation but also more historical research. We are appealing to anybody out there who might have any old photos of the Port Sandwich area which would aid us in untangling the archaeological evidence” said Dr Bedford.

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Other interesting remains associated with this early colonial period in Port Sandwich were several brick plinths (photo to the left). The function of these were largely a mystery to younger locals but the older generation were aware that they had something to do with land claims of the 1880s. It appears from the inscriptions on the plinths that this is in fact exactly what they are. They are engraved on one side CNH (Compagnie Nouvelles-Hébrides) and on one the 19 Août and the other the 20 Août 1887. This was a period of major land speculation undertaken by agents of the Compagnie Calédonienne Nouvelles-Hébrides who ‘bought’ up large tracts of Malakula, Epi and Efate. It is a poignant reminder some 120 years later as land speculation is once again affecting parts of Vanuatu.

One of the more major finds during the fieldwork was the extensive nature of pottery remains that are found across southern Malakula, particularly on the small islands. It had been thought up until recently that pottery making was an art that died out hundreds of years ago and certainly before the arrival of Europeans. But with careful excavation at a number of sites and with the help of historical linguistics we have been able to clearly establish that pottery manufacture and use continued right up into the mid-1800s in southern Malakula. It is simply the fact that iron pots were so quickly adopted and pottery was abandoned within a generation that any oral traditions relating to it have largely been lost. Profiling the pottery of this late period has received a major boost by a chance discovery by Tom Ayemalgil on Tomman Island. In 1996 he was digging a hole to plant a banana at the site of an old nasara. However rather than soil in the hole he found a cache of large sherds of pottery from at least 7 or 8 different pots. It appears that they were placed there following some ceremonial activity. Tom had the foresight to make a wooden box and securely store the pieces of pot for the future. Some ten years later the significance of this discovery has been realised (main photo) and the collection has been shipped to the Vanuatu Cultural Centre for study, display and long-term storage.

The Cultural Centre wishes to thank communities and VKS fieldworkers (Phillip Tali, Meleun Erna, Hedrick Peter, Longdal Nobel and Lydia Tom) from southern Malakula for their support and collaboration during the fieldwork.