The Village of Unpongkor
We spuddled ashore and slowly made our way up the Williams River, salty on investigation.
Erromango or ‘Here’s a Mango’ in Bislama, is the largest island in Tafea Province, the southernmost province of Vanuatu. Its highest point is Mount Santop, at 886 metres. Its largest villages are Port Narvin (Potnarvin) and Dillons Bay (Unpongkor). The former main village was Ipota. The total area of Erromango is 888 square kilometres. It was formerly known as Martyr’s Island by the Presbyterian missionaries in the 19th century, because of the risk attached to missionary activity there.
To our left, Unpongkor Village.
Prehistory: Erromango was first settled by humans around 3,000 years ago, as part of the Lapita migration out of south-east Asia into island Melanesia. The Lapita people brought with them domestic animals such as pigs and chickens and food plants such as yam and breadfruit. Two sites on Erromango, Ifo and Ponamla, have yielded significant archaeological evidence of habitation by Lapita and post-Lapita peoples, including pottery shards, adzes, marine shell artefacts and cooking stones.
Erromango contains numerous caves that provided refuge from tribal warfare and cyclones. Human use of these caves has been dated to 2,800-2,400 years before present. Some of the caves contain rock art and petroglyphs that have been identified with clan motifs and traditional stories. Caves were also used as burial sites.
Our welcome committee – very different to Captain Cook’s. As people saw us they stopped to wave. A school class came out to welcome us shout “Hello”, little ones giggled, many were seeing a ‘whiteskin’ for the first time. A dad brought his daughters out in his canoe to see us this morning for this very reason. The little girls were so very intrigued.
European contact: Captain James Cook was the first European to land on Erromango, landing near present-day Potnarvin in the north-east on 4 August 1774. Cook and his landing party were set upon by a group of local men, and in the scuffle that followed, several of Cook's men were injured and a number of Erromangans killed. Following this incident, Cook gave the name 'Traitor's head' to the peninsula adjacent to Potnarvin.
The sandalwood trade: In 1825, trader and adventurer Peter Dillon discovered the island's large reserves of sandalwood (Santalum austrocaledonicum), valued in China for its aromatic oil and as a carving wood. Dillon found that his trade goods were not sufficient to entice Erromangans to cut the timber for him, so he left without gathering any sandalwood. News of his discovery brought other outsiders to Erromango to exploit the resource, and this caused conflict between the Erromangans and the traders.
The old church was in poor shape and not in use. Pam finished off the roof.
In 1830, King Kamehameha III of Hawaii sent two ships with 479 Hawaiians on board to seize control of Erromango and its sandalwood, under the command of Governor Boki, ruler-designate of Erromango. Their arrival in Cook's Bay coincided with the arrival of two other groups of traders intent on exploiting the sandalwood; two ships, the Dhaule and the Sophia, both crewed by 330 Rotuman labourers and another ship, the Snapper, with a crew of 113 Tongan labourers on board, had all arrived just before the Hawaiian vessels. The Erromangans resisted the Hawaiians' takeover attempt, and the Hawaiians' hostile intent turned the Erromangans against the other interlopers and their Polynesian crews. Fever killed most of the Tongan and Hawaiian labourers, and just 20 Hawaiians returned to Hawaii to tell the story of their failed occupation. A crash in the price of sandalwood shortly after deterred most traders until the mid-1840’s, but even when prices rose again, the combined risks of attack on shore, uncharted reefs, storms and hurricanes meant that sandalwood trading was a highly speculative venture. Some traders such as Robert Towns and Aneityum and Île des Pins in New Caledonia to reduce their costs. By 1865 though, Erromango's sandalwood resource was exhausted.
Children doing the washing up.
Introduced diseases and depopulation: Erromango's population prior to European contact is estimated at approximately 5,000, though some estimates are as high as 20,000. European visitors brought diseases such as influenza, smallpox and measles to which the local population had no immunity. Sixty per cent of Erromangans died during a smallpox outbreak in 1853 and a measles epidemic in 1861.
Contemporary accounts by missionaries blamed the sandalwood traders for the outbreaks. However, all Europeans, including missionaries, brought disease with them. Erromangans sought reprisal by killing European and Polynesian missionaries, their converts and other visitors.
The Labour Trade and Blackbirding: Between 1863 and 1906, around 40,000 people from what was then the New Hebrides were blackbirded onto ships to work as indentured labour on cotton and sugarcane plantations in Queensland, Australia. Another 10,000 went to work in nickel mines in New Caledonia and on plantations in Fiji, Samoa and Hawaii. Many of the islanders recruited were duped into taking part, some were coerced and some volunteered. While some Erromangan names are listed in official records of Melanesian labourers in Queensland, no exact figures exist for the number of Erromangans who were blackbirded. However, 25 years after the White Australia Policy ended the Melanesian labour trade in 1906, Erromango's population had dwindled to just 381.
Then came the Missionaries, a total of six of them were killed. In sympathy to the people whiteskins in the beginning were not the kindest and it was right not to trust them.
A huge banyan taken out by Pam.
We followed Donald’s instructions and carried on up the river until we saw an oak tree. Strange, we thought he would have been ashore to welcome us. We pulled in at the place he had told us to, I stayed put and Bear scrambled up the steep bank to investigate. Moments later he came back with a smiling Lota, Donald’s wife. She was apologetic, Donald had been called to a meeting by the chief who had three important things on his agenda. Lota took us home and sat us under an awning in the garden and hurried away to fetch us some juice. We spent a very happy couple of hours chatting about village life. The building next to us was “Kindi” Lota told us proudly. Donald had built it after Pam and she currently had forty pikininis. Donald came home flustered at not being a good host. We reassured him that there was little he could have done and we had suspected he may be at the meeting we saw as we came up the river.
The current men in my life – Donald, our guide. Chief Jason – standing in for four years for his brother Joe, who is currently on a Government Committee serving on Tanna. He will take back the reins on his return. The last one needs no introduction. A very chiefly [and not a bit difficult to look at] Jason also apologised at having called Donald to a meeting. They had been discussion the very pressing issue of crops. They have grown everything with a quick yield but have to be mindful that the root crops will not be in supply until at least April next year. There have been some problem teenagers in the area throwing stones and shouting. Apparently they had been at the yeast and sugar. We did point out that this produced alcohol, this raised eyebrows. The third and sad point discussed was a woman who had been beaten and victimised – looking at the orators eyes one didn’t need more than a brain cell to hear ‘rape’. We spoke to Chief Jason about the problems in Fiji, told him of the conference we had heard about in Savusavu and told him he was not alone in dealing with this. We paid him our kastom fee and he formally gave us permission to go and see his ancestors. He wholeheartedly welcomed us to his village and gave us the freedom to explore as we wished and hoped to see us again.
Off we went.
We were very surprised to see a two-storey building. “We call that the Chinese House” said Donald. Next stop Baby Beez to go and see the ancestors.
One tourist site made us laugh: Dillon’s Bay or locally called “Unpongkor” is the largest of Erromango’s villages. It has a few basic stores (that might be empty), telephones (that might not work), a water supply, generators and a medical dispensary. Dillon’s Bay itself is picturesque and, if you’re lucky, you might see whales hanging about in the bay. Turtles and dolphins can also be seen around Erromango when traveling by boat. Locals may invite you to see a Kauri Reserve in the Dillon’s Bay area. It’s about three hours walk away and the kastom fee. The Dillon’s Bay airstrip is 9 km by road from Upongkor. A truck charter costs 3000 Vatu or a shared ride is about 500 Vatu. Don’t be surprised if the truck doesn’t turn up to meet your flight or breaks down (be prepared to walk, about two and a half hours). Sadly, we never found anyone who knew about the Kauri Reserve but did learn that Erromango is considered one of the best islands in Vanuatu for trekking or walking.
Later, heading back to Beez, a tiny dot in the middle of the picture.
ALL IN ALL IT FEELS LIKE WE HAVE BEEN HERE MONTHS ALREADY
SUCH LOVELY PEOPLE PREPARED TO SHARE ANYTHING