Chief Roimata: The Chief Who Brought Peace to Efate

Chief’s Day in Vanuatu is celebrated on March 5th. The holiday honors leadership and the chiefs’ accomplishments throughout Vanuatu.

In honor of this day, I wanted to talk a little about an important chief in the Efate region named Chief Roimata.

Cave drawings at Chief Roimata's burial site

Chief Roimata, who lived in the 1600s, is revered as one of the most important chiefs in Vanuatu history, because at a time of conflict, he brought peace to the entire Efate region, which is comprised of Efate island as well as several outer islands including Lelepa, Moso, Nguna, Pele, Emao, and more.

(Below is a map of the Efate region. Eretoka Island is to the west, just south of Lelepa)

In the early 1600s, there was conflict in the Efate region, causing general warfare between chiefs. After this, Roimata joined together the conflicting tribes in a big feast. As it was a feast, the Ni-Vanuatu brought food ranging from coconuts to vegetables to seafood. When everyone gathered, people from conflicting villages often carried the same item as other villages. Roimata explained that everyone with the same item, say, water taro, was now together as one family. All of those who brought prawns were the same family. All of those who brought breadfruit seeds were the same family. He forced people to understand that while they were different, they all share the same land and live in the same way. These new animal- and produce-formed tribes were known as nakainanga in the northern region and naflak in the southern region.

Roimata then declared that these newly-formed tribes now would follow marital rules that previous family clans had followed. If you were in the water taro clan, you could not marry someone who also identified as that nakainanga. It would be ruled just as wrong as marrying a cousin or a straight blood relative. This forced the people of Efate to intermingle with other areas and spread their family line across the land.

The idea was introduced, and five more annual feasts called natamwate were hosted to enforce this new system.

Today, only Lelepa still upholds this structure, but it doesn’t mean that it’s lost in other parts. People in the Efate region still know their family clans associated with that big feast. You can ask a native Ngunan, “What is your nakainanga” and they will easily answer “island cabbage!” or whichever food their ancestors brought to that major feast over 400 years ago. The oral history lives on, as I'm writing this post based on stories those in my village have shared with me, with minimal additional online research.

The only UNESCO World Heritage site in Vanuatu (declared in 2008) is located on Eretoka island at Chief Roimata’s burial site. The burial site was excavated in 1967 by a French archaeologist. The discovery of this burial site put proof to much of the oral history.

It's been said that Roimata's brother shot him with a poisoned arrow. Roimata was buried in a grandiose way, with many ornamental bones and jewelry, and many from his clan.  At least 16 were buried with Roimata, some buried alive to be included in the grave. Strong kava or perhaps poisoned kava was fed to the men, but since women don't traditionally drink kava, they weren't allowed the sedative before being buried alive. The burial of children assumed to be Roimata's was presumably done to extinguish his chiefly line.

The name Roimata was no longer passed on to future chiefs, in respect.

For more information, check out these links:
The Journal of the Polynesian Studies article titled "Retoka Revisited and Roimata Revised"
UNESCO video on Chief Roimata's Domain
UNESCO website about Chief Roimata's Domain


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