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ETHNONYMS: Laus, Mewun, Seniang, Small Nambas


Identification. This summary focuses on South West Bay, the home of several culturally similar ethnic groups, including the Laus (or Small Nambas), Mewun, and Seniang.

Location. The island of Malekula, at 167° E and 165° S, is the second-largest in Vanuatu. About 88 kilometers long and 48 kilometers at its widest, Malekula has few mineral resources aside from its fertile volcanic soil. Although there are no active volcanoes on the island, earthquakes are common. The southwestern part of Malekula is quite mountainous and covered with rain-forest vegetation. The climate provides a year-round growing season, divided into wet and dry periods, with most rainfall occurring between November and March, while drier, cooler weather dominates the region from April through October. Hurricanes are likely in January and February.

Demography. A detailed census of Mewun in 1974 recorded 482 people; the population of Seniang was about the same, while that of Laus was estimated at 125. In all three groups there is a surplus of bachelors, which seems to occur spontaneously but which has had an impact on social organization.

Linguistic Affiliation. All three groups speak Austronesian languages of the Malekula Coastal Subgroup. The Languages (referred to locally as Ninde [Mewun], Nahava [Seniang], and Mbotegate [Laus]) are not mutually intelligible, but some residents are bi- or even trilingual.

History and Cultural Relations

The first sustained contact between South West Bay inhabitants and Europeans began in 1896 when a Presbyterian missionary settled there. As the missionary's power and following grew, the incidence of interethnic and intervillage warfarepreviously an integral part of local lifedeclined, and by 1960, all people from Mewun and Seniang had moved into mission villages. Laus has remained, for the most part, unconverted, although a few people from this region have moved into Mewun and Seniang villages on the bay in the last decade or so. Colonization followed missionization as religious representatives inspired political interest in the region and the islands became the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides in 1906. For seventy-four years the country had two colonial governments and three official languages (English, French, and Melanesian Pidgin). There also were dual or parallel systems in nearly every domainjudicial, educational, monetary, and medical. This political arrangement, sometimes called the "Pandemonium," often operated roughly or ineptly, thereby leaving local people much autonomy. In 1980, after electing a government, the condominium became the nation of Vanuatu.


Prior to the twentieth century most people lived in the foothills surrounding South West Bay, but missionization was the main catalyst for resettlement along the shores of the 9.6-kilometer-long harbor. Today the Mewun live on the northern half of the bay, the Seniang live to the south, and the unmissionized people of Laus remain farther inland in a number of small settlements. Traditionally all three groups lived in small settlements of fewer than fifty people, with separate residences for men and women arranged around a central clearing where dances and other ceremonies could take place. Children initially lived with their mothers, with boys moving into the men's house when they reached the age of 5 or 6. Since missionization, the Mewun and Seniang have settled in larger villages of 100-300 residents. Missionized villagers were required to have two houses, one for sleeping and the other for cooking, because it was considered unhealthy for residents to sleep in smoky areas. Although men and women were expected to live and sleep together, many Mewun used their two houses to preserve their traditional custom of sleeping apart; while women and children slept in the official sleeping houses, their husbands often slept in the family kitchens. This separation of the sexes has remained common up to the present. Traditional house styles with walls of black palm and thatched roofs made of tangura palm have given way in mission villages to walls and elevated floors of woven bamboo; nowadays, some families prefer corrugated tin roofs because they last longer and can be used to catch supplies of rain water.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Swidden horticulture provides the subsistence base, and either yams, taro, cassava, bananas, or sweet potatoes are usually eaten daily. Yams are probably the preferred form of carbohydrates, but they can be harvested only in the dry season. Yams store well for several months but the local supply is usually exhausted halfway through the rainy season. The traditional food remains the laplap or "pudding." This is made of one of the staple foods flavored with coconut cream and either protein or local greens. The protein supply is varied, including pork, fish, shellfish, turtle, chicken, or tinned meat or fish, but it is of limited quantity. Boiled rice is an increasingly common component of the diet. Cash crops include copra, cocoa, and a small coffee crop. There is little else in terms of commercial activity, but a local bakery operation and the sale of handicrafts to a cooperative in the capital city are two small enterprises that have endured.

Industrial Arts. Women weave mats and baskets of coconut and pandanus leaves. Nowadays men make canoes, but this is a new art. When the first missionary arrived, local People were still using rafts for ocean travel, but through mission influence they soon learned to carve outrigger canoes.

Trade. Trade among the three ethnic groups has rarely focused on essential items. In early colonial days, Mewun and Seniang people would hold "markets" to exchange yams with one another. Cultural artifacts, including special dances and unintelligible songs in foreign languages, are still traded within and between the groups.

Division of Labor. Traditionallyand still among the Laushouse building was a male task; however, in mission villages it is a cooperative task involving both sexes. So, too, yam gardens are now the exclusive province of men only in Laus; in Mewun and Seniang today, women work in yam gardens unless they are menstruating. Men and women share other agricultural tasks, and, while only men hunt, both men and women fish and gather shellfish. Although both sexes can be involved in cooking, ceremonial cooking for feasts, funerals, etc., is usually supervised by men.

Land Tenure. Land is inherited patrilineally. Married women retain usufruct rights to their brothers' coconut land and may gather the nuts without asking permission. In the past few decades, some men have found themselves with few heirs but much land. To prevent encroachment by Europeans, some men in this situation have given parcels of land to their sisters' sons. However, this new practice has led to a plethora of court cases, so men reportedly are moving away from this innovation in land inheritance. Although women do not usually hold or inherit land, there are instances where women are the sole heirs of a patrimony, and these women sometimes hold and control family land until their sons mature.


Kin Groups and Descent. In all three groups the community is divided into a number of localized, patrilineal, exogamous descent groups called "clans" by their first ethnographer, A. B. Deacon. Each clan member can trace descent from a village or locality. Place membership appears to be a stronger factor in unity than clan membership per se. Children belong to the place of their father, but they can be adopted into other places on occasion. Members of a clan or place share a specific totem and a sacred place where group rituals were performed in precontact times. The descent group is the landholding unit, and food and other valued items are frequently shared by members.

Kinship Terminology. All three ethnic groups use Crow-type kinship terms in a patrilineal descent system. This combination is unusual, found in only two other Oceanic ethnic groups.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Polygyny is still found in Laus and was common in Mewun and Seniang before they were completely missionized. Polyandry also occurred in traditional times among the Mewun. Members of the three groups occasionally intermarry. Substantial bride-wealth is required; in all three groups this can consist of a combination of pigs and cash, though a Laus bride-price is likely to include more pigs than brideprices in Mewun and Seniang. With the current surplus of bachelors, older married men seek to control younger bachelors through their control of marriage choices for young women. In order to marry, most young men must obtain the approval of older men and use either bride-wealth or sister exchange to contract engagements. Postmarital residence is patrilocal. Although women move to their husbands' land when they marry, a widowed woman is almost always required to return to her patrilocality, leaving her children behind with her deceased spouse's relatives. This move, however, may not always involve a change in villages for her. Since mission villages in Mewun and Seniang are composed of several different patrilines, she may simply relocate to a different quadrant of the village and begin to farm the land of her patrilineal relatives. Divorce is illegal and almost absent in South West Bay. The few people who have separated from their spouses have left the bay for either Port Vila or Luganville (Vanuatu's only two cities) where they can form liaisons with new spouses.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit is composed of relatives who share food and eat from a common fire. This may or may not coincide with a dwelling unit or household.

Inheritance. Inheritance is patrilineal. Daughters are given pieces of their fathers' territory to use before marriage and after they become widows. However, this is usually not inherited by their sons.

Socialization. Children are raised to interact with one another peaceably, so it is extremely rare to see children fighting or a parent striking a child. The threat of shame is often employed to ensure correct behavior. Most Mewun and Seniang children go to school until the third grade. While a large percentage finish primary school, only a few progress to secondary school. The district schools were established in the early 1900s by the resident Presbyterian missionary. Before independence, a few children from Mewun and a larger group from Seniang went to a French boarding school in southeastern Malekula. Laus children, for the most part, are not formally educated, although a few attend the mission schools in Mewun.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The basic organizing principle is that of a common "place." Ancestral "place" commonly coincides with patrilineality, but there is plenty of room for ascription when suitable. Rights to "place" can be gained by adoption and long-term contiguity and commensality. Mission villages in Mewun and Seniang usually include residents from several "places." Members of a "place" are exogamous and cooperate on work teams; they also pool their resources for bride-wealth and funerary contributions. Members of a "place" will also share rights to unique artistic creations (dances, artifacts, songs, etc.), said to be given to members as gifts from the spirit world. These cultural artifacts can be bought and sold between "places." The emphasis on "place" seen in South West Bay apparently is significant throughout Vanuatu; not only is it noted by anthropologists in other parts of the archipelago, but the newly invented (postindependence) pidgin word for "citizen" is man ples (or woman ples )."

Political Organization. The traditional political system operated through a combination of personal and positional power. A men's graded society developed in all three South West Bay ethnic groups. By earning his way up the ladder of ritual position (each position involving payments and bestowing ritual privileges on the aspirant), a man could reach the top grade, at which point he became a spiritually powerful and feared person. High-ranking men were likely to have several wives, often obtained from different ethnic groups, and great wealth in pigs. Laus men still have a graded society, or nimangi. A shadow graded society also exists for Laus women and was described for Mewun and Seniang in traditional times. Since missionization of Seniang and Mewun, official political power in the form of chiefdoms has been rotated every year or two among various members of each "place." Prior to independence, Mewun and Seniang were each represented by an assessor, who officiated at the trials of small offenses but called in the British or French district agents in cases of major disputes or crimes. Outside the official realm, power is held by big-men who are empowered by their ability to control large networks of kin and affines and by their speaking talents. In general, postcontact power is much more diffused among socially prominent citizens, political representatives, and church officials than it reportedly was in earlier times.

Social Control. The most frequent causes of intragroup conflict are land disputes and adultery. In Mewun and Seniang, such disagreements are settled by long discussions monitored and guided by elected chiefs. Adultery is frequently punished by fines, levied on both parties, or by public service, such as caring for communal grounds or repairing public property. In Laus, disputes are still settled by big-men, just as they were in Mewun and Seniang prior to missionization.

Conflict. Until the arrival of Europeans, warfare was an integral part of life in South West Bay. Members of a descent group usually remained at peace with one another, but war could break out between different kin groups within Mewun, Seniang, or Laus. Aggression between members of these cultural groups was also common before missionization. Disputes between groups nowadays are most commonly over adultery or land. When these disagreements do occur, the cases are tried by chiefs from the involved communities. Very severe crimes, such as assault and battery, are tried by the national court system and guilty parties may serve prison terms. Whenever possible, disputes are settled by reciprocal exchanges of goods or services. The object of all locally tried court cases is the reduction of ill will between the parties, so all court proceedings tend to involve a great deal of negotiation rather than arbitrary legal sanctions.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Although people of Seniang and Mewun consider themselves good Presbyterians, they nevertheless share certain beliefs with the unmissionized people of Laus. Essentially, all three groups believe the world is inhabited by spirits, some of whom take on human form temporarily until the death of a person sets the spirit loose again.

Religious Practitioners. Certain men are reputed to be especially clever in magic. Their services are sought to resolve human problems or punish grievances. Traditionally, there was said to be one shaman for each patrilocality. Some women also are said to have great powers to dream and thereby enter the spirit world where they can find ways to cure human illnesses and other problems.

Ceremonies. Ceremonial dances, usually accompanied by giant slit gongs or drums located in village dance areas, are frequently held in Laus. For example, funerary dances, performed with puppets made from cobwebs and clay, are part of the rituals for the dead. Prior to missionization, all three groups had nimangi grading systems. Advancement along the ladder of grades always involved ceremonies, including special dances and pig slaughters, for each level attained. One of the most famous Mewun ceremonies, apparently defunct since missionization, was known as the "Making of Men" ceremony, or "Nogho Tilabwe." Performed periodically, it was believed to increase fertility and preserve the health and strength of the Mewun population. A South West Bay precontact ceremony that has been reworked into local Presbyterian ritual is a yam harvest festival, followed by exchange of yams in memory of the dead. When the first yams are harvested, families decorate them with colorful flowers and leaves before taking them to the local church where they are blessed. After the ceremony, each yam is given to someone who is unrelated to the dead person commemorated by that yam. Since independence, when most missionaries left, Mewun and Seniang people have revived a number of old dances and ceremonies, which they researched among local elders with anthropological zeal and precision.

Arts. Southern Malekula has been praised as a center for exceptionally fine art. Most famous are the rhamberamb, or life-sized funerary statues of the dead, which are prized by museum collectors. While the people of Laus have continually created these and other art objects for ceremonial use, there has also been a renaissance of traditional art objects in Seniang and Mewun since Independence.

Death and Afterlife. All three ethnic groups believe that the spirits of the dead are dangerous influences on the living for a year after the deceased's funeral. Mewun mourn for twelve hours following a death and then take pains not to anger the deceased's troublesome spirit presence. After a year has passed, spirits pass to the land of the dead, which is under the surface of the earth and referred to as "dark Paradise."

See also Pentecost


Deacon, A. Bernard (1934). Malekula: A Vanishing People in the New Hebrides. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Larcom, Joan C. (1980). "Place and the Politics of Marriage: The Mewun of Malekula, New Hebrides." Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University.

MacClancy, Jeremy (1981). To Kill a Bird with Two Stones: A Short History of Vanuatu. Port Vila, Vanuatu: Vanuatu Cultural Centre Publications.

Sope, Barak (1976). Land and Politics in the New Hebrides. Suva, Fiji: South Pacific Social Sciences Association.

Weightman, Barry, et al. (1981). Vanuatu: Twenti Wan Tingting Long Taem blong Independens. Port Vila, Vanuatu: Institute of Pacific Studies.


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