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ETHNONYMS: a Bai, Angai Tagaro, Aoba, Butona, Leper's Island, Lombaha, Longana, Nduindui, Oba, Omba, Opa, Waluriki


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.

History and Cultural Relations

On 23 May 1768, Louis de Bougainville became the first European to lead a landing party to the rocky shores of Ambae. He was dispatched back to his vessels with a volley of stones and arrows. Almost a century elapsed before other Europeans visited the island and, from first contact until independence in 1980, whites in the archipelago stereotyped Ambaeans as intractable and sometimes violent. Conversion to Christianity reached a peak in the 1930s. Most West Ambaeans joined the Church of Christ, a denomination that encouraged copra production but prohibited rank taking, kava drinking, and traditional forms of marriage and burial. Christianity and cash cropping coexist with customary practices in East Ambae, where Anglicans tolerant of many elements of the indigenous culture gained a majority of converts.


Prior to the 1930s, most settlements in East Ambae were in the hills where residents were nearer their gardens and safer from attack than on the coast. In rimes of warfare, some settlements were fortified with log palisades. Each married woman, including cowives, had her own house in which she slept with her daughters and young sons. Older boys and adult men slept in the men's clubhouse na gamal. Christianity changed the structure of hamlets and encouraged relocation to the coast. Churches became spatial and social centers of hamlets. Women's houses became family homes in which husbands and sons might also sleep. Most na gamals ceased to be forbidden to women. But men's activities still take place in and around the na gamal, the largest traditional building in a hamlet. About two-thirds of the houses still have thatched roofs and bamboo walls. The need to rebuild makes hamlet mobility possible. Moves often reflect concerns with land tenure, although ill health attributed to magic and sorcery also can be an important reason for leaving a particular place. Cement and corrugated iron are increasingly used in house Construction, which is reducing hamlet mobility. Rural water development projects have constructed village cisterns to catch rainwater, these also encourage permanent settlement. Two towns are beginning to develop on the island, one at the old Anglican mission station on Lolowai Bay at the eastern tip of the island, the other at Nduindui in West Ambae. Dirt roads link these settlements with grass airstrips at Longana, Walaha, and Red Cliff and with many outlying hamlets. A handful of resident white traders lived on the island in the early to mid-1900s. The last such trader/planter left prior to independence.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Swidden horticulture provides Ambaeans with subsistence crops. Gardens are maintained under a seven-year fallow cycle. Yams, taro, and bananas are the staple crops. Sweet potatoes, manioc, and island cabbages are also important. A variety of other indigenous and exotic fruits and vegetables supplement these crops. Kava (Piper methysticum ) is grown in quantity for its roots. These are ground to produce an infusion that men drink to produce a state of relaxation. Men and women use kava medicinally. Some hunting of birds, fruit bats, and feral pigs takes place. Fishing plays a minor role in subsistence as fish poisoning is feared to be common among predatory fish species and smaller reef-feeding fish. Development projects have introduced some commercial deep-water hand lining for snappers. There is some cash cropping of cocoa. Coconuts, however, have been the major cash crop since the 1930s. The practice of planting coconut palms in gardens has taken much of the arable land out of the swidden cycle. Households make copra in small smoke driers. Production time is approximately nine person-days per ton and yields are about two tons per hectare annually. In 1978, per capita income from copra was $387 in the Longana district. Differential control of coconut plantation land has led to considerable income inequality.

Industrial Arts. Ambaeans once built sailing canoes with mat sails. Today, men continue to make kava bowls, Ceremonial war clubs, and a few items of regalia for use in graded Society (hungwe ) activities. Women weave pandanus mats in a variety of lengths, widths, and degrees of fineness. Imported dyes have largely replaced indigenous vegetable dyes, but turmeric is still used to color mat fringes.

Trade. Trade in pigs occurs between Pentecost and East Ambae. In the past, there were trade links between East Ambae and Ambrym. West Ambaeans traded widely throughout the northern islands.

Division of Labor. The household is the basic unit of Production in subsistence gardening and cash cropping coconuts. Men fish and hunt, whereas women weave mats. Child care is a cooperative effort on the part of mothers, fathers, and siblings, with mothers being the primary care givers for infants. Male hamlet residents generally work together in house building.

Land Tenure. In West Ambae, there are concepts of Village and patrilineage land, but in both parts of the island Individuals rather than kinship groups are now the primary landholding units. Coresident brothers, however, often own and use land together. In the past, leaders were able to acquire their followers' land through intimidation as well as through customary exchange payments. Land use is Important in establishing land rights, but residential and garden use are not sufficient in themselves to determine ownership. Usufruct rights are available to any adult. Ownership, with rights of disposal and the right to plant coconut palms, is acquired primarily through contributions to funerary feasts (bongi ) and occasionally through cash purchase. Landowners are Primarily male but women can and do own land in both East and West Ambae. A few landholders in East Ambae have been able to acquire plantation landholdings that are much larger than the 2.5-hectare average through inheritance, purchase, and contributions made at bongi ceremonies of poorer Families. Inequality of landholding in Longana is such that in the late 1970s, 24 percent of the population controlled more than 70 percent of available plantation land. Conflict over land is frequent and is often provoked by planting coconuts or undertaking other income-producing activities.


Kin Groups and Descent. Everyone in East Ambae belongs to an exogamous matrilineal moiety ("Tagaro" or "Mwerambuto"). Children also acquire their mother's clan membership, but clans are neither corporate nor very Important in social organization. Moiety affiliation is crucial in defining roles on ceremonial occasions. In West Ambae, there is a legend that people lost their knowledge of matrilineal Moiety and clan membership in a great flood. Today they have a cognatic kinship system.

Kinship Terminology. Both East and West Ambae use a Crow-type cousin terminology. Mother's brother and father's sister are more strongly marked in the East.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Before conversion, men of high rank on both sides of the island often practiced polygyny. Such men aspired to have ten wives. One would be a member of his own moiety with whom he could not have sexual intercourse. Child betrothal also was common. Churches discouraged both polygyny and arranged marriage. Today young people have considerable freedom to choose a marriage partner, so long as (in East Ambae) moiety exogamy is followed. Bride-wealth exchanges customarily involved tusked pigs and mats. Nowadays, cloth, household goods and/or money are included. Postmarital residence tends to be virilocal. All missions on the island discourage or prohibit divorce, and legal separation of marriage partners is very rare.

Domestic Unit. The household composed of the nuclear family is now the basic domestic unit. Prior to conversion to Christianity, settlement patterns were such that the domestic unit was the extended family.

Inheritance. In West Ambae, land inheritance is patrilineal. In East Ambae, land inheritance is said traditionally to have been bilateral, but the pattern of funerary obligations suggest the priority of matrilineal land transmission. Children must make funerary gifts to the father's matrilineal kin to secure ownership of his land. Matrilineal heirs need make no such payment. Land inheritance is often contentious.

Socialization. Parents share duties as primary caretakers, and grandparents, father's sisters, and the mother's brothers also play important roles in socialization. Children learn Primarily through imitation rather than verbal instruction. Both wives and children may be subject to beatings, although legal sanctions may be imposed in cases of severe physical abuse. A national system of education has replaced many (but not all) church schools. Most children can walk to school through grade six. Boarding schools on the island provide education through high school.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Locality, politics, and, to a lesser extent, kinship determine group membership. Moieties and clans are dispersed and noncorporate; affiliation in kinship groups larger than the extended family assumes most importance in the context of the mat displays and exchanges that accompany marriages and funerary feasts. In everyday life, the hamlet is the basic unit of cooperation. Hamlets join together into long-standing, largely endogamous alliance networks formed on the basis of affiliation with Christian denominations. Alliance networks, in turn, are subdivisions of named territorial units. There are ten such "districts" on Ambae, each of which claims a measure of cultural and linguistic distinctness. Residents of each district share an identity based on a sense of place and common culture. Districts are the electoral unit used to determine membership in the state-sponsored island government.

Political Organization. Big men on East Ambae are men of rank, titleholders in an elaborate social hierarchy consisting of grades scaled in terms of relative prestige. Prestige in the graded society or hungwe is allocated to individuals on the basis of their ability to accumulate and dispose of boars with tusks in particular stages of development. The man of highest rank in the community often serves as its designated leader on ceremonial occasions. Within groups of allied Hamlets, high-ranking men compete with each other for authority, prestige, and privilege. The alliance network is the largest Political unit on East Ambae within which a leader can exercise authority on a regular basis. Similarly, on West Ambae, Hamlets and groups of allied hamlets are the most important Political divisions but there the church rather than the rank association controls processes of recruitment to positions of political authority.

Social Control. High-ranking chiefs on Ambae at the turn of the century possessed the legitimate right to order an offender's execution. When the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides "pacified" the island in the 1930s, chiefs lost the power of life or death over their followers; however, the central government exercised little control over the internal political and legal affairs of the island throughout the Colonial era. Today, Ambae remains largely autonomous in conducting its legal affairs. Ambaeans process most disputes and a broad range of offenses in village and district courts. These courts use written legal codes that local people themselves devised. The courts impose fines that offenders pay in cash or in traditional valuables, specifically pigs and pandanus mats.

Conflict. The introduction of firearms almost certainly increased levels of violence on the island, although the true extent of conflict before contact is hard to judge with accuracy. However, all sourcesEuropean and indigenous alikeagree that 1870 to 1930 on East Ambae was an era of endemic raiding, "days of never-ending revenge," in which the political reputation of chiefs depended as much on their prowess in warfare as on their abilities in the graded society.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Except for two people, everyone on the island identified themselves as a Christian on the 1979 Census. Within living memory, however, most people believed in a high godTagaro Lawo (or Tagivui)who made the earth, and in two culture herosTagaro Biti and Mwerambutowho created humans and many elements of customary culture.

Religious Practitioners. The main practitioners who deal in magic and the supernatural are diviners, clairvoyants (who find lost objects), and weather magicians. Other practitioners are specialists in customary medicine, which is still widely practiced. People sometimes accuse each other of sorcery, a serious breach of local law.

Ceremonies. Major ceremonial occasions include rank takings, betrothals, weddings, funerals, Christmas, Easter, and saints' days honoring the patron saints of local churches. Kava, drumming, singing, and traditional dancing are Important elements of many ceremonies, especially on the eastern half of the island.

Arts. Unlike the people of Ambrym and Malekula, Ambaeans are not well known in Vanuatu as carvers and artisans. The artists in an Ambaean community are the community's best singers, dancers, storytellers, speech makers, weavers of pandanus mats, and makers of a highly regarded feast food (generically called laplap in Bislama) made of grated root crops steamed in an earth oven and decorated with coconut cream.

Medicine. In the people's view, traditional and Western medicine complement each other. Despite the existence of a small hospital on each end of the island, well-respected specialists in traditional "leaf medicine" still exist on Ambae. Patients usually pay for the spells and herbal compounds these experts provide with pandanus mats and pigs rather than money.

Death and Afterlife. A dead person's closest relatives hold a series of funerary feasts in his or her honor. They arrange small feasts every ten days until the hundredth day of mourning, when a major feast is held. During this time, the spirit of the deceased is believed to linger near his or her Community. A final feast is held 1,000 days after a death. This feast signals the end of mourning and the complete separation of the spirit of the dead person from the world of the living. According to custom, spirits then go to the crater lakes on the top of the Ambae volcano. There they join their ancestors in a shadow world similar to the world of living people.

See alsoPentecost


Allen, M. R. (1968). "The Establishment of Christianity and Cash-Cropping in a New Hebridean Community." Journal of Pacific History 3:25-46.

Blackwood, Peter (1981). "Rank, Exchange and Leadership in Four Vanuatu Societies." In Vanuatu: Politics, Economics, and Ritual in Island Melanesia, edited by Michael Allen. New York: Academic Press.

Rodman, Margaret Critchlow (1987). Masters of Tradition: Consequences of Customary Land Tenure in Longana, Vanuatu, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Rodman, William L. (1985) "'A Law unto Themselves'": Legal Innovation in Ambae, Vanuatu." American Ethnologist 12:603-624.

Rodman, William L., and Margaret C. Rodman (1990). "To Die on Ambae: On the Possibility of Doing Fieldwork Forever." In The Humbled Anthropologist: Tales from the Pacific, edited by Philip DeVita. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Co.