The Australian Museum now has links with Australian South Sea Islanders - ASSI (Port Jackson) - and decades of close links with Vanuatu, signified especially since its 1981 repatriation of the large now-famous Efate Island slit drum given in recognition of 1980 Independence.

Flag of Vanuatu
Flag of Vanuatu Image: Vanuatu
© Vanuatu

Vanuatu (formerly the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides) received Independence from its former British and French colonial powers on 30th July 1980. Nine full days of consecutive public holidays in July 2020 gave ni-Vanuatu full scope to celebrate the nation’s 40th birthday (1). ASSI (Australian South Sea Islanders)(Port Jackson) celebrated its own 25th anniversary on 25th August 2020. ASSIPJ (2), representing the descendants in Australia of those South Sea Islander labourers (two-thirds of them from the then New Hebrides) brought to NSW and Queensland 1863 – 1906, is now represented on the Australian Museum’s recently-established Pacific Collections Advisory Panel.

The Republic of Vanuatu is a Y-shaped archipelago in the SW Pacific consisting of 80 inhabited small islands and islets and 12 large islands. Its total land area is around 12,190km2. It stretches from south to north (the direction in which distances are traditionally measured there) over nearly 1000 km from the island and islets of Aneityum and Matthew & Hunter (3) to the Torres Islands in the far north. These are, in general, very fertile sub-tropical and tropical islands. They are a rather ‘moving feast’: the islands, part of the famous “Ring of Fire’ are on the edge of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates and there are currently seven active volcanoes on land and four active undersea.

In July of 2020, the UN estimated Vanuatu’s population at around 308,000 (98.5% of whom are of indigenous Melanesian descent): for a definite figure, the Fourth National Census is planned for November 2020. This is a very large and pleasing growth in population since its all-time-low of circa 40,000 in the late 1920s/early 1930s. Introduced European diseases, the introduction of alcohol and firearms, the depredations of the notorious labour recruiting/Blackbirding days, early cultural dislocations and disturbances wrought by the introduction of various (and competing) forms of Christianity combined with early (competing) dual government ‘gunboat diplomacy’/ ‘punitive patrol’ actions and colonial neglect had combined to decimate the island communities. Even though the current population might seem to be fully recovered, it is still, even today, possibly only a half or a third of what it may have originally been at its peak. So much for the benefits of contact with ‘civilization’!

However, this growing, vibrant, and greatly youthful population, currently speak 138 indigenous languages (and cultural variation is similarly complex), the highest rate of linguistic diversity per capita in the world. On top of this, the nation has three official languages: Bislama (the Vanuatu form of Pidgin English, its national language) and English and French (its working languages). Ni-Vanuatu are immensely proud of their languages and cultures and are physically, emotionally and spiritually strongly linked to their Land and their Ancestors. The chiefs and traditional cultural activities and expressions are still highly respected and give stability and a feeling of security and continuity to the peoples. Around 80% of the population still live according to the traditional seasonal agricultural cycles and are essentially mostly self-sufficient and living in a system of ‘subsistence affluence’. Living on extremely fertile land makes life much easier for rural ni-Vanuatu than for those living in the nation’s two towns.

Culture is extremely important for any nation that has had to struggle for Independence. Vanuatu is the only Pacific Island nation that did not necessarily have its Independence handed to it on a platter. One of the two former colonial powers was not necessarily sympathetic to allowing this type of full Independence at that time in history and there were some local ‘tensions’ essentially aided and abetted by outside influences. Reconciliation and the creation of a sense of national unity were therefore a priority in those early years after July 1980. Along with the National Council of Chiefs and the government, the National Museum of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre also played a role in this important task.

The Mele slit drum inside the Vanuatu National Museum
The Mele slit drum (the second large object from the right behind the visiting group) on display inside the Vanuatu National Museum. The museum guide, Chief Edgar Hinge (Matasangavulu), poses with a group of local students and their teacher come to visit the national cultural symbols on the afternoon of the 30th anniversary of Independence. The Mele slit drum is 2.3 metres high and weights 200 kilos. Image: K. Huffman, 30th July 2010
© K. Huffman

A very notable input into this task at this time was the kind gift from the Australian Museum to the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VKS) of an extremely rare and large wooden slit drum. This was originally collected in Mele in the southwest of Efate Island in central Vanuatu in 1895 by P.G. Black, then working for the Burns Philp trading company. It had been in the Australian Museum’s collections since 1897 when the Australian Museum Trust agreed to repatriate it, in recognition of Independence and to assist the Cultural Centre and the nation’s work in cultural re-awakening. At this period, the Australian Museum was probably the world (museum) leader in targeted cultural repatriations, and this was a very good example. The fact that Vanuatu’s first President, Ati George Sokomanu, was himself from Mele, made it more symbolic. When the slit drum finally arrived from Sydney by ship in May 1981, thousands of people – including numerous chiefs, the President, the Prime Minister and most of the government were at the Port Vila wharf to welcome it. Excitement was at fever pitch and the crate containing it was partially opened at the wharf so that the crowds could file past to view it and pay respect – like looking at a deceased high dignitary in an open coffin. This analogy is entirely appropriate, as slit drums from this area, and some other areas in Vanuatu (4) can represent actual chiefs and are afforded the respect due to chiefs.

This photo (5) shows the Mele slit drum (second large object from the right), Tamtam blong Mele (in Bislama) or (Te)Tuki Imere (in Atara Imere [‘the language of Mele’], that has been on display in the National Museum of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre/VKS since June 1981. It has periodically been the star in a number of Mele-related and national events and has become justifiably famous, even having had songs composed about it. Between the time of its arrival and the opening of the new National Museum building in 1996, the Australian Museum kindly repatriated three other important artifacts to its Vanuatu counterpart. The exchange was not just one-way. In February 2002, the Australian Museum hosted the VKS’s travelling exhibition, ‘New Traditions: Contemporary Art of Vanuatu’, which was opened in Sydney by the then Prime Minister of Vanuatu, the late Honorable Edward Nipake Natapei (6).

The Vanuatu cultural/ethnographic collections at both institutions are about the same size: circa 4200 objects at the VKS (July 2016 survey) and circa 4300 objects at the Australian Museum. The latter institution contains a higher percentage of older Vanuatu artifacts – some even collected during Captain Cook’s 1774 voyage through the archipelago – than the VKS. This is normal, as the Sydney institution was founded in 1827 and the VKS only in 1961 (and didn’t begin major collecting until the mid-1970s). Other than the Cook-collected material, though, the earlier Vanuatu pieces in the Australian Museum’s collections tend to have been acquired from the 1880s onward. The museum had lent most of its Pacific and First Nations Aboriginal material to the Ethnological Court of the famous Garden Palace Exhibition which opened in Sydney in 1879. Unfortunately, almost all this important early material was lost in the disastrous fire there in 1882, and the museum then had to rapidly expand collecting activities to make up for this sad loss (7).

Flag of Australian South Sea Islanders – Port Jackson (ASSIPJ) Image: ASSIPJ

The indigenous cultures represented in both collections are extremely relevant not only for current-day ni-Vanuatu, but also for the circa 50,000-70,000 individuals of ni-Vanuatu and Solomon Islands descent living in Australia today, the Australian South Sea Islanders who are descendants of the ‘Kanak’ labourers brought to Australia in the 19th century. They were more recently also sometimes called ‘The Forgotten People’, a title shared by the groundbreaking 1978 ABC TV documentary and ABC Radio Australia series that were the breakthrough in bringing to the wider general public the topic of one of Australia’s hidden histories: the Blackbirding days. The gradual revealing to the Australian public of this history owes a lot to the hard work of numerous people of ASSI descent and to Dr Clive Moore (involved with the ABC series) of the University of Queensland but also, at a public and government and legal level, to the untiring visionary lobbying of the late and highly-respected Faith Bandler, AO (8) and her colleagues. Dr Bandler passed away at the age of 96 on 13th February 2015. For over 50years she had lobbied tirelessly for legal and human rights recognition of the rights of First Nations Aboriginal Australians and Australian South Sea Islanders. Her father had been kidnapped from the island of Ambrym as a young teenager. She had visited her Ambrym island relatives in 1975 and was well-respected in Vanuatu. Her Australian State Funeral was held in the Great Hall of Sydney University.

Blackbirding is a complex story, so what follows is a very brief general account. Between 1863 and 1906, labour recruiters mainly out of ports on the eastern coast of Australia, kidnapped, stole, or recruited circa 60,000 Melanesian islanders, mainly from Vanuatu and the Solomons, to work on sugarcane plantations in Queensland. These ‘Kanak’ labourers were nicknamed ‘Blackbirds’. Two thirds of these were from Vanuatu (9), a quarter of whom died in Queensland, with a small number of deaths on the way over or back. Officially considered as ‘labour recruiting’, it was promoted in Australia as a ‘necessity’ as it was then believed by colonists that peoples of European origin could not work properly in the tropics.

These thousands of Melanesians, over decades, were essential in the development of what Queensland has become today. But many of them had a bad time. The ‘down’ side of island recruitment, particularly in the early days, often involved trickery, lying, cheating and kidnapping. Its ‘good’ side, particularly in its latter decades – after pressure from missionaries in the Pacific and officials in Australia – was a gradual introduction of controls and a development of proper labour recruitment policies. On the plantations themselves, there was a similar assortment of conditions; ranging from almost abject slavery (particularly in the early days) to those few very well-run plantations (particularly in the latter days) where workers were well-housed, and well-fed. Ni-Vanuatu who did recruit rapidly learned which places to avoid and which places they would want to go to. Many died, some ‘went bush’, some, once having found a good workplace, even re-recruited two or three times. Some returned to their islands never wanting to have anything more to do with the white man, some brought Christianity and ideas of ‘education’ back with them. Some brought back muskets (10). Stories of the blackbirding days are still told widely throughout Vanuatu: just about every family has an ancestor who ‘went to Queensland’ who either did or did not come back. It was still common in the outer islands at least until the 1980s to hear mothers warning unruly children, ‘If you don’t behave yourselves, the white man will come and steal you and take you to Queensland!’ These stories, songs - and often jokes – reflect the good and bad sides of those days (11).

Australia’s development of the White Australia policy brought in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. All Kanak labourers in Queensland (or elsewhere) were to be sent back to their islands by the end of 1906. Nicknamed the Deportation Act, it caused great trauma for those Pacific islanders who had by then made their homes and families in Australia. Around 1500 managed to stay on – half by coming under an earlier exemption, and half by ‘going bush’ (by being taken in by First Nations families, etc). The tens of thousands of their descendants in Australia today are almost all descended from this group. After decades of intense lobbying, these special peoples, strongly linked psychologically to the Pacific and now with First Nations Aboriginal links, finally received Australian government recognition as a ‘distinct cultural group’ in 1994. For more details on aspects of this history, go to the ASSI (Port Jackson) website {see Endnote (2)}.

Tanna panpipes
Tanna panpipes, SW Tanna Island, 1990 Image: K. Huffman, 1990
© K. Huffman

In September and October 1996, Vanuatu’s National Museum hosted a special travelling exhibition on the topic of the South Sea Island labour trade and the Australian sugarcane plantations. This had been developed by the National Maritime Museum in Sydney to tour those parts of the Pacific who had provided the labourers. DFAT kindly assisted with the tour expenses and the publication of the VKS’s special 40-page illustrated associated publication in Bislama {for reference, see endnote (11)}.

As Vanuatu celebrates its 40th birthday, and ASSI (Port Jackson) its 25th, it is interesting to note how history often repeats itself. Australia has now revived, in a newer form, the Pacific labour model. It is now called the Seasonal Worker Programme. Begun as a pilot scheme in 2012, to bring in temporary horticultural workers (‘fruit pickers’) from the Pacific and elsewhere, it proved immediately attractive to youth in Vanuatu, many of whose grandparents and great-grandparents had cut sugarcane in Queensland. Like the old Kanak labour trade in its early days, though, it had its periodic (some still continuing) ups and downs, both in the Pacific and in Australia (12). These wrinkles have been gradually, but not completely, ironed out (but some older ones have only just recently come to light [13]), by the time of Australia’s 2017 Pacific ‘step up’ and its 2018 introduction of the Pacific Labour Scheme. Ni-Vanuatu (and other Pacific peoples) are now queuing up to join this scheme (in spite of some periodic drawbacks and accidents) and their nomadic presence has now become almost a necessity for the successful continuity of the Australian horticultural industry (14) in the same way that their ancestors’ presence was essential for the growth of the Queensland sugar industry. In recognition of the importance of these seasonal visitors from the Pacific, the Australian government is currently in the process of making special visa arrangements for them during this time of the Coronavirus crisis. It should also be noted here that at the time of writing, only a dozen nations in the world have so far recorded no cases of Covid-19, and 10 of these are in the Pacific. One of them is Vanuatu. Having previously nearly been wiped off the face of the earth by introduced diseases, Vanuatu is possibly more aware than most nations of the downside of external contacts, so they very smartly locked that world out, very strictly and from very early on.

To bring this anniversary celebration note to a close, let us take a brief look at two particular objects, from the island of Tanna (southern Vanuatu), that are in the Australian Museum collections. This is not an accidental digression. A very significant percentage of ni-Vanuatu labourers in Queensland were from Tanna. They were (and are) powerful, hard-working, people who make their mark wherever they go. They made their mark on those 19th-century plantation worlds to such an extent that ‘Tommy Tanna’ came to be, in some areas, almost a nickname for any male Kanaks there. Many of the Kanak ASSI descendants have Tannese ancestry, as does the current Chairwoman of ASSI (Port Jackson). Theirs is a very special island, rather different from islands further north that are famous worldwide for innumerable types of materialized spirit forms, megalithic masterpieces, masks, tusker pigs, massive wooden slit drums and labyrinthine systems of secrecy and copyright. Tanna traditionally produces no wooden drums, no tree fern carvings, no masks and does not specifically value tusker pigs. Yet it has it all in intangible form: the island is the Rush Hour of Spiritual Visions. The physical island itself is a massive spiritual creation, ‘art’ on an absolutely massive scale, and its human lineages can have origins from living stones and spiritual ancestral canoes.

Barkcloth belt, Vanuatu.
Decorated male beaten barkcloth waistrap/belt. Tanna, Vanuatu. Australian Museum Pacific Collections, donated by Mrs E. A. Freeman, 1936. AM Catalogue number E043430. Image: Emma Furno
© Australian Museum

Here is the first object to look at. Linked to, and signifying, certain hereditary positions from these worlds is what might appear to be a minor piece of attire, bit is not: a decorated beaten barkcloth waistrap or belt (15 ). In most areas of the Pacific east of Vanuatu, beaten barkcloth is part of the wonderful world of women. In Tanna, it is made by men, for men. Its practical function is to hold upright the male penis wrapper, still a respected form of male daily or ritual attire in the more customary areas of the island. This type, and one other decorated form, can only be worn by hereditary dignitaries of specific type, and signifies their cultural status, obligations, rights and duties. The second object (16) is a set of bamboo panpipes collected on eastern Tanna during Captain Cook’s 1774 visit to the island. Such panpipes are still made and used in the same fashion in many areas of the island, and are an essential male training instrument (17) and backup to certain dance procession rituals.

Bamboo pan pipes bound with split cane string. Tanna Island, Vanuatu.
Set of bamboo panpipes, Tanna, Vanuatu. Australian Museum Pacific Collections, collected during Captain Cook’s 1774 visit to the island. Perishable objects collected there on this visit are the earliest known surviving examples of their type. Exhibited at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, 1886. AM Catalogue number H000112. Image: Paul Ovenden
© Australian Museum

Such objects are still an integral part of normal life in parts of the non-missionized kastom areas in the interior of Tanna. Kastom life there (and in many other areas of Vanuatu) can be rich and immensely satisfying. Everyone has access to their own land, language, culture and food and no-one living a traditional life is really in debt in the modern monetary sense of the term. They are in a much better situation than most people in most other parts of the world. The Tanna and Vanuatu descendants in Australia, though, do not necessarily have these essential ingredients for a stress-free life. Access to objects from their cultural ancestries in collections such as those in the Australian Museum can help them to fill the possible cultural voids that some of them may currently periodically be in. It can also help them to feel part of distant, but still-functioning, cultural communities with whom they have blood links and which are part of their own real identities.

Happy Birthday Vanuatu and ASSIPJ !!

The author would humbly like, in customary fashion, to dedicate the above short and incomplete text to the spirit and memory of his classificatory brother, Kamanlüver Sinmürmindrik of Komanlwiver village, south-central Malakula, who passed away in his newer home in Rokross village, southeast-central Malakula, on 19th July 2020, and to the memory of his dear wife, Laërese(i), who pre-deceased him in 2013. Ibwoi(é) meta(m)boke(i). Now you will know the full meaning of the message the ancestors gave you when you first passed away in late 1976.


(1) ‘Vanuatu celebrates 40 years of independence with nine-day holiday’, by Tahlea Aualiitia & Elsie Lange, ABC Pacific Beat, 30.7.20, available at :


(3) The islets of Matthew and Hunter (not, of course their real names, which figure in traditional stories from southernmost Vanuatu) are also claimed by France, so there continue to be long-standing negotiations between the two nations.

(4) Huffman, K., ‘The Drum is the Voice of the Chief: Slit drums and language in northern-central Vanuatu’, Explore (The Australian Museum Magazine), vol.37, no. 2, Summer 2015, pp. 10-13. Click here for pdf of article (plus Explore cover page).

(5) Photo The Mele slit drum (the second large object from the right behind the visiting group) on display inside the Vanuatu National Museum. The museum guide, Chief Edgar Hinge (Matasangavulu), poses with a group of local students and their teacher come to visit the national cultural symbols on the afternoon of the 30th anniversary of Independence. The Mele slit drum is 2.3 metres high and weights 200 kilos. Photo © K. Huffman, 30th July 2010.

(6) See Fitzgerald, M., ‘Tradition’s New Faces’, TIME magazine (Australian edition), 11th February 2002, pp. 58-59.. NB: the two large wooden slit drums (from the AM collections) pictured on p. 59 are from the island of Malakula (Malekula before Independence), not Ambrym as per image caption. Click here for pdf of article (plus TIME cover page).

(7) Strahan, R., Rare and Curious Specimens: An Illustrated History of the Australian Museum 1827 – 1979, Sydney, 1979,pp. 38-39.

(8) Makin, B., ‘Faith Bandler dies’, Vanuatu Daily Digest, 17th February 2015. This article was originally published and available online, but the website no longer exists. Click here to view screen shot of original article.

(9) ‘Blackbirding: Vanuatu’s stolen generation’, by Miyuki Jokivanta and Fiona Pepper, BBC World Service/ABC Radio National, 22nd February 2020 (28 minutes, 36 seconds). Podcast available at :

‘No slavery in Australia? These Pacific Islanders Tell a Different Story’, by Isabella Kwai, New York Times, 12th August 2020. Available at:

‘The South Sea Islanders who shaped Australia – in pictures’, The Guardian, 28th February 2019. Available at:

(10) Some men, particularly from cultures with very strong chieftainship systems, were told by their leaders to recruit to bring back particular items such as firearms. This was the case where certain Big Nambas (NW Malakula) hereditary chiefs had specifically ordered some of their men to do so: this (along with later purchases from French traders) resulted in the situation where, by the 1930s, the interior of their area could gather together more rifle-armed warriors than the Anglo-French Condominium could raise against them (consequently, this area was very much left to its own devices by the colonial government[s] until the 1950s).

(11) Huffman, K., ‘Storian o Histri Blong Olgeta We Oli Bin Go Katem Sugaken Long Ostrelia’ (written in Bislama; ‘Stories or histories of those who went to cut sugarcane in Australia’, in Storian Blong Olgeta We Oli Bin Go Katem Sugaken Long Ostrelia, Port Vila (National Museum/Vanuatu National Cultural Council/), 1996, pp. 1-6. Click here for pdf of chapter.

(12) ‘$1 million a month skimmed from seasonal workers’, by Sarina Locke, ABC News, 1st November 2017, available at : .

(13) A major ’wrinkle’ from the early 20th century deportation of islanders back to Pacific has also just recently been brought to light through the long-term investigative work of Dr Clive Moore: Moore, C., ‘The Pacific Islanders’ Fund and the Misappropriation of the Wages of Deceased Pacific Islanders by the Queensland Government’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol.61, no.1, 2015, pp. 1-18.

(14) ‘Without seasonal workers, Australia may face a hungry summer’, by Michael Rose, The Pacific project, The Guardian, 4th August 2020, available at : . The government is trying to help out : ‘Federal Government set to allow fruit pickers from Vanuatu despite Coronavirus border closure’, by Kath Sullivan and Matt Brann, ABC News, 31st July 2020, available at

(15) Photo Decorated male beaten barkcloth waistrap/belt. Tanna, Vanuatu. Australian Museum Pacific Collections, donated by Mrs E. A. Freeman, 1936. AM Catalogue number E043430. Photo © Australian Museum.

(16) Photo. Set of bamboo panpipes, Tanna, Vanuatu. Australian Museum Pacific Collections, collected during Captain Cook’s 1774 visit to the island. Perishable objects collected there on this visit are the earliest known surviving examples of their type. Exhibited at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, 1886. AM Catalogue number H000112. Photo © Australian Museum.

(17) Photo: Young male playing panpipes (of the same style as photo 16), wearing customary penis wrapper and braided hairstyle (indicating he is currently going through a traditional education process, or has been though it recently). His waistrap belt, however, is not of the traditional barkcloth variety. Non-missionized Nivhaal/Nah’wal-speaking area, interior of southwestern Tanna. Photo © K. Huffman, October 1990.