Tanna - History and Cultural Relations

Although the archaeological record has yet to be fully explored, it is thought that oceangoing Melanesians first landed on Tanna about 3,500 years ago. The island has also experienced considerable Polynesian influence. In fact, Tanna's two nearest neighbors, Aniwa and Futuna, are Polynesian outliers. From the 1860s through 1900, labor recruiters removed more than 5,000 Tannese men to work on plantations in Queensland and Fiji. During these years, too, Presbyterian missionaries opened stations on the island. In mission literature, Tanna was infamous for its resistance to Christianity, but by 1910 the missionaries had succeeded in converting about two-thirds of the population. Mission success correlated with the establishment of joint British and French colonial rule over the archipelago in 1906. Vanuatu remained under this unusual "condominium" form of colonial administration until its independence in 1980. Starting in the late 1930s, a number of island social movements emerged in reaction to foreign rule, and many people quit the missions. The John Frum movement, much influenced by World War II, is the best known of these. A spirit figure, John Frum, counseled people to return to traditional practices and to seek help from American troops. This movement, once a cargo cult, remains an important religious group and political party. Other national political parties are also active on the island. In general, Presbyterians support the Vanuaaku party, while John Frum and "Custom" people (traditionalists) and French-educated Catholics support its rival, the Union of Moderate Parties. This contemporary political opposition reflects an enduring traditional dualism in island culture.

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