Identification. Ambae is an island that has had many names. The earliest European who wrote on the region adopted the explorer Bougainville's designation of the island as Ile de Lepreux or Leper's Isle; after 1880, most European writers used one of five variant spellings of Aoba, usually pronounced Omba. People on the island insist that Aoba is a name of nonindigenous origin, possibly a European misappropriation of the local word for "seabird." In 1980, near the time of Vanuatu's Independence, the Aoba Council of Chiefs officially renamed the island Ambae. Acrimonious debate between customary chiefs and Western-educated young leaders preceded the council's decision to give the island a new name. On Ambae, as in many parts of Vanuatu, knowledge of a place's "true" name is a vital aspect of establishing control over the place itself.
Location. Ambae is situated in northern Vanuatu between 167°40′ and 167°46′ E and between 15°13′ and 15°24′ S. It has a total land area of 399 square kilometers and is one of the largest islands in northern Vanuatu. Its volcano (which is dormant rather than extinct) has a central caldera that rises to 1,300 meters with cloud cover above 450 meters. Eruptions have occurred in small craters along the NE-SW spine of the island. The most recent spilled down the northeast coast in the early 1900s. There are no permanent rivers on Ambae but lack of water seldom is a problem, even during the dry season from April to October: parts of the island receive up to 400 centimeters of rainfall per year. Dark volcanic loam carpets much of the island, and in most years Ambaeans enjoy a rich harvest of root crops, green vegetables, fruit, and nuts. Two shoulders of the central mountain separate the eastern and western sides of the island. The mountainous Terrain makes foot travel between East and West Ambae difficult, and there is little trade or intermarriage between people living on the two sides of the island.
Demography. In 1885, a British colonial official estimated the population of Ambae to be between 10,000 and 12,000; however, a 1919 census recorded only 4,000 people living on the island. According to the last official census in 1979, the island's population of 7,754 resides in 306 separate localities. The two halves of the island have roughly equal numbers of inhabitants, but two-thirds of the population of West Ambae live in Nduindui, a densely settled area of 18.2 square kilometers over which households are more or less evenly distributed. Throughout the rest of the island, clustered households form hamlets. Typically, these include three or four nuclear families. For example, in Longana in 1982, hamlet size averaged 16 people. Occasional hamlet clusters, such as develop around a church, may have populations that approach 100. Hamlets are scattered along the coast and in the hills, up to a maximum of about 3 kilometers inland.
Linguistic Affiliation. There are two languages spoken on the island, Nduindui (West Ambae) and Northeast Aoban (East Ambae). Both are multidialectal: on the eastern portion of the island alone, linguists have found over fifteen dialects. People from East and West Ambae understand each other's native language only with difficulty and usually communicate with each other in Bislama, the lingua franca of Vanuatu.