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Robert Tonkinson


Ambrym Island lies in the center of the New Hebrides chain about 100 miles north of the main island, Efate (map 13). Totaling ap­proximately 160 square miles in area, Ambrym is dominated by two active volcanoes and a large surrounding ash plain that occu­py the central area and divide the island into three habitable re­gions. The population (4,246 according to the 1967 census) clus­ters in the north (1,875), southwest (1,309), and southeast (1,062). This separation is reflected by linguistic and cultural differences, particularly between Southeast Ambrym and the other two areas.1

Both volcanoes are fairly active, and serious eruptions with lava flows have at times rendered parts of the island unsafe for habita­tion. Much more common than lava flows are ash-falls, which kill yam crops and, if prolonged, defoliate vegetation in affected ar­eas. In 1950–1951, eleven months of heavy ash-falls ravaged the island, especially the southeast where all the vegetation was strip­ped bare.2 By November 1951 the condominium government had evacuated the populations of both West and Southeast Ambrym.3 The latter were hastily settled on the nearby island of Epi, only to be victimized weeks later by a disastrous hurricane.

Whereas most Southeast Ambrymese soon returned to their homeland and reestablished themselves there, the members of one village, Maat, resettled on Efate where their leaders had found them employment and a village site, and this new Maat village be­came their permanent home. Their resettlement is the concern of this chapter. 270


The Maat villagers have extensive landholdings in Southeast Ambrym and abundant stands of coconuts. They have never re­nounced their land and coconut rights, and at any given time there are always a few of them visiting their homeland and living in the old village of Maat. Ambrym is an extremely fertile island; the ash soil is very easy to till, and it is possible for people to grow food there with little effort and to earn a cash income by cutting copra whenever they need money. Since the 1950–1951 eruptions, there have been no ash-falls severe enough to affect copra produc­tion or ruin gardens (apart from the delicate yam crops). Other Ambrymese and many outside observers find it difficult to under­stand why the people of Maat have chosen to remain on Efate, where they possess little land of their own, have insufficient coco­nuts to make copra, and must therefore work almost constantly—for European employers—while all this time their coconuts rot on Ambrym and their land there remains unworked.

Since each village in Southeast Ambrym as a social unit is part of a larger network of kinship, marriage, and economic ties, it is understandable that the removal of an entire village would disturb the network as a whole. Moreover, the fact that Maat land, its most important resource, remains but is unavailable for occupa­tion by the other villages exacerbates an already disturbed situa­tion. There is subtle pressure on the Maat people either to return to Ambrym or to make some definite disposition of their land, and the villagers are well aware of this. The persistence of the relocat­ed community thus presents a paradox.

Given the apparent permanence of Maat Efate and the prob­lems it engenders for both the villagers and their congeners, it is the persistence of the relocated community that demands explana­tion, both for the observer and for those involved. One possible ex­planation is that their successful adjustment to a new environment constitutes what the villagers regard as a major investment, a stake to be maintained. An alternative explanation is an economic one, of the kind usually suggested by government officials, which states that the relatively affluent life-style of the Maat Efate people is so attractive that they are unwilling to give it up. A third possi­bility is that there are crucial contrasts in the social orders of relo­cated 272 and home villages, contrasts of sufficient significance to warrant a commitment by the villagers to their maintenance. The latter alternative assumes both sociocultural change and continu­ity whereas the others assume only change as an explanation of the persistence of the relocated community.

In this chapter each of the three alternative explanations is ex­amined. It will be shown that the first alternative is not supported by available data, that the second involves faulty assumptions, and that only the third allows for an adequate explanation. In ad­dition, it accounts for the nature of the paradox presented by the community’s persistence and suggests resolutions of the paradox.


It is assumed that a major factor influencing the manner in which people cope with resettlement is their previous history of move­ment, particularly in terms of the perceptions and adaptive strate­gies that prior experience affords them. An examination of the his­tory of mobility of the Maat community in relation to an account of their adaptation to Efate leads to three conclusions:

1. Maat people arrived on Efate with a set of adaptive strategies fully adequate to cope with the new physical and social environ­ment.

2. Adaptation to Efate entailed no drastic changes.

3. Not only were Maat people able to replicate major features of their social order on Efate, but they were also able to replicate mobility patterns analogous to those they had practiced in South­east Ambrym.

Maat, with a population of about 140 in 1950, was one of four­teen villages in Southeast Ambrym, a culture area in which there is a common language and a complex web of kinship-friendship ties linking members of different villages. Like the other villages, Maat was composed of a number of residentially contiguous patri­lineages, united under a “big name’. Residence was strongly patri­virilocal with a considerable amount of hamlet-village exogamy. The tendency for several hamlets to amalgamate was accelerated after the coming of Christianity, whose first influences date from about the early 1890s.4 Traditionally, changes in the location of hamlets were common, occurring most often as a response to shift­ing 273 patterns of slash and burn agriculture, intra-and interhamlet conflicts, problems with ancestral spirits, and sorcery scares.

There were well-established intervillage visiting patterns, since villagers had kinship and friendship links with some of the people in most other villages. Individuals or families sometimes made spontaneous, short-term visits to other villages, but these were rarely for more than two or three days at a time. Longer stays, ex­ceeding a month, were rare and were most often prompted by some kind of conflict in the home village or when a family fled af­ter a village sorcery scare.5 The local schoolteacher-catechists who operated in every village, and to a lesser extent the village chiefs and their assistants, were the most mobile of the inhabitants. Any intervillage visiting that was other than purposeful was infrequent (with the exception of groups of young men who sometimes com­bined for hunting and sports) since anyone who wandered about aimlessly was likely to be suspected of having ulterior (sorcery) motives.

Traditionally, contacts with the rest of Ambrym and with neighboring islands were probably not strongly developed. There was some contact with Paama, a nearby island inhabited by peo­ple who speak a language related to that of Southeast Ambrym. However, Ambrym’s notoriety as the home of the most powerful sorcery in the Group rule it out as a favored port of call for all but a few courageous Hebrideans from neighboring islands; besides, the perpetually rough seas and lack of anchorages in the southeast did not attract visitors.6

Contact with Europeans and resultant movements of Southeast Ambrymese outside their home area date from about the 1870s when recruiting vessels first called at Southeast Ambrym. During the following thirty or so years they took large numbers of able-bodied men to Queensland to work on sugar plantations as labor­ers, on contracts of at least three years.7 The nine Maat men who are remembered as having gone were all repatriated safely to their homeland, complete with rifles, axes, cloth, and other trade goods.

The conversion of Southeast Ambrymese to Christianity, ac­complished largely through the efforts of Hebridean evangelists, led to new kinds of movement by a small proportion of the local population. No European missionary ever lived in the southeast, but Maurice Frater, who was in charge of the nearby mission in North Paama, supervised both areas for nearly forty years after his 274arrival in 1900.8 He trained schoolteacher-catechists (mostly Paamese at first) to teach in the schools he founded in both areas; then he began educating the most promising young Ambrymese at the mission boarding school in North Paama. Most of the brightest boys were later sent to Santo to attend a theological college (Tan­goa Training Institute), which took students from all Presbyterian areas of the New Hebrides and gave them four years of general and religious education. After their return home, most of the eigh­teen Southeast Ambrymese men who attended the institute be­tween 1913 and 1951 became the best teachers and most devoted evangelists in the southeast, where they exerted considerable in­fluence and introduced important cultural innovations.

The kind of movement that involved the largest number of Southeast Ambrymese since the early 1900s was that of able-bod­ied men who were regularly recruited for plantation work on oth­er islands—mostly Malekula, Santo, Efate, and Epi (map 13). For the Ambrymese this movement was prompted less by economic motives (except when volcanic activity or hurricanes destroyed their coconut crops) than by curiosity, a desire for a change of scene, or escape from conflicts or sorcery threats. Women and children rarely went, as the men were housed in large dormitories on plantations. They had little intercourse with non-Ambrymese coworkers or with villagers in surrounding areas—especially on Epi, which had a reputation for sorcery that was alleged to be even more virulent than their own.

During World War II, almost all able-bodied Southeast Am­brymese men were recruited to work at least one three-month con­tract for the Allied forces based on Efate. During this time they lived with Hebrideans from all over the Group and worked either in the town of Vila or in the surrounding Southwest Efate area. Some men served as many as five contracts. They were attracted by the wages, which were higher than those for plantation labor, and by the generosity of their Allied employers, who with their vast materiel were an exciting novelty.9

Another kind of movement was that of relocation, usually prompted by severe volcanic activity. An eruption in 1888 led to the abandonment of nine villages, and another in 1913 resulted in the evacuation of the people of Southeast Ambrym to Paama Is­land where they were billeted by the Paamese. As a result of this temporary resettlement, Southeast Ambrymese developed close 275ties of friendship and reciprocity that are still maintained with the Paamese. It is clear from available records and from informants’ recall that hurricanes and ash-falls and the resultant destruction of food and crops and coconuts were sufficiently common to be an accepted part of life in Ambrym.10

The 1951 relocation differed from previous ones in several im­portant ways. First, the prolonged ash-falls that precipitated the decision to evacuate the area were viewed as a crisis by the con­dominium government, not by the Ambrymese, who were accus­tomed to such phenomena and regarded them as inconveniences. Second, the decision to relocate was made by the administration, not by the Ambrymese. Third, the places selected for refuge were chosen because of their convenience for the administration, not the preferences and needs of the Ambrymese. The Ambrymese were reluctant to leave their homes, especially if this meant relocating on the allegedly sorcery-ridden island of Epi. The misgivings of the Ambrymese were confirmed when a hurricane struck Epi six weeks after the resettlement, killing forty-eight peo­ple and leveling the shelters of the refugees. Completely unsettled by the experience, the Ambrymese resolved to leave Epi as soon as possible, either by securing passage back to Ambrym (where the ash-falls had ceased) or by finding work on plantations elsewhere.

The fortunes of the Maat people diverged from those of their fel­low Ambrymese shortly after the hurricane. Several of the village leaders, their most influential men, had been arrested on Ambrym the year before and sent to jail in Vila on fabricated charges of in­citing Cargo Cult activity in their homeland. After their release from prison, the four men stayed on in the Vila area to work for local planters and later sent for their families from Ambrym, part­ly because of the difficulties caused there by the ash-falls.11

A local planter, already known to the villagers because he had operated trading vessels in the Ambrym area and had recruited laborers there, approached the village leaders with a proposal that would be mutually beneficial: he would give them land for a vil­lage site and some building materials if they would become his labor force and work exclusively for him on the several planta­tions he maintained in Southwest Efate. Knowing the deteriorat­ing situation back on Ambrym and being aware that it would be at least three years before they could again earn cash from their coconuts there, the leaders agreed. They sent a messenger on a 276planter’s boat with a letter instructing the Maat people to proceed en masse to Vila. On receipt of this message, the villagers were ap­parently unanimous in supporting the move: they could see the ad­vantages of steady employment on Efate at a time when their homeland was unable to provide a source of cash; in addition, they were anxious to escape from the place they now associated with destruction. Thus the new settlement of Maat, 7 miles from the main town of Vila, came into being in mid-1952.12

For the men of the village, Southwest Efate was familiar terri­tory, since they had previously worked there for the Allied forces and on several of the plantations in the area. The twenty-six Maat men who were born before 1935 had averaged almost three trips each to Efate before relocation, but only two of the women in this age category had been there before 1950. For the women, then, re­location involved movement to an area they had heard much about but had never seen. With a few exceptions, the only time women had left Ambrym previously was in response to some kind of crisis, such as the 1913 evacuation, or for the treatment of seri­ous illness. So in this regard the relocations to Epi and then to Efate were no different because they too were prompted by crisis.

Their mobility before relocation inevitably brought Southeast Ambrymese into contact with other ethnic groups, with alien eco­nomic institutions, and, to a lesser extent, with officialdom. Be­cause of the relative isolation of Southeast Ambrym, with its poor anchorages and its inhabitants’ reputation as sorcerers, there has been little contact between Southeast Ambrym and the outside world. Apart from the occasional appearance of trading vessels seeking to recruit or repatriate laborers, periodic visits by mis­sionaries and, rarely, district administrators were virtually the on­ly other contacts with outsiders. Most interethnic contacts have occurred outside Ambrym.

The interaction between Southeast Ambrymese and members of other ethnic groups, with the exception of some Paamese, has been characterized by limited, highly context-specific contact involving narrowly defined roles and behavior. Roles such as those of em­ployer-employee, clerk-customer, administrator-subject, cowork­er, and coreligionist define the entire range of contact before relo­cation.

Since men were the more mobile sex and women moved with the men only during temporary crises, it was mainly men who 277learned and assumed these roles. Their subsequent use of these roles provided the Southeast Ambrymese with the strategies neces­sary to cope outside their homeland. Thus, by the time of their relocation to Efate, the migrants already had the prerequisites for adaptation to their new social environment. Moreover, the fami­lies who were already living on Efate in 1951 constituted the lead­ership of the original Maat community. These people had already established contacts with plantation owners, the government, and coreligionists in order to provide the migrants with land, food, building materials, employment, and educational opportunities for their children by the time they arrived. Their adjustment to a peri-urban environment, in other words, required little of the mi­grants that was not already familiar to them.

Interethnic contacts since relocation reveal a strong continuity with those characterizing the period before the Maat people moved to Efate. Outside contacts still involve men much more than women, since the latter mostly stay in the village—as do the men when they are not working. Although outside contacts are certainly more frequent now, they are still fairly circumscribed and are limited to interaction that takes place away from the vil­lage, with the exception of coreligionist contacts described below. Contact with the administration remains minimal, and the Maat people are left to run their own internal affairs much as they were on Ambrym.

The relations between Southeast Ambrymese and other ethnic groups on Efate range from highly superficial to cordial. Maat people evince neither particular hostility nor enthusiasm toward any group other than the Paama people, with whom they have many friendship links. Maat people prefer to socialize with and marry other Southeast Ambrymese, but they do not appear to dwell on ethnic stereotypes. Their closest contacts have been with their neighbors, the inhabitants of Mele Village, which is the larg­est in the New Hebrides and is situated only a half-mile from Maat. Both villages are Presbyterian and share the same pastor and school facilities, located in Mele. Inhabitants of the two vil­lages exchange visits for certain church services and social events such as dances and marriage feasts.

Apart from activities connected with the church, which some­times take them to Vila and other peri-urban villages, Maat people are mainly interested in their own village relationships and in in­teraction 278 with Southeast Ambrymese friends and relatives in the southwest Efate area and their homeland. Interethnic relations are neither stressed nor denounced, simply because they are not con­sidered by the Maat people to be important.

The foregoing discussion should make clear that the patterns of mobility of the Maat people before relocation have been replicated in large part on Efate. Movement out of the village mainly in­volves males, and they leave for the same reason they did before relocation: to work. While in town they often shop, and they some­times visit friends or relatives there. Women tend to remain at Maat, except for trips to the hospital and occasional shopping or visiting outings. Movement into the village by outsiders other than Southeast Ambrymese is rare and mainly involves vendors or co­religionists.

Only mobility connected with the homeland has undergone ma­jor change since relocation. Instead of spending temporary peri­ods outside Ambrym, as was the case before relocation, Maat vil­lagers now reside permanently on Efate and spend only temporary periods back on Ambrym, an average visit lasting a little more than seven months.13 At any given time, then, Maat Ambrym has about ten to twenty inhabitants, and although the village popula­tion is small and fluctuating, it continues to function.

From the viewpoint of most remaining Southeast Ambrymese, the existence of Maat Efate makes visits to Vila a much more at­tractive proposition than in earlier times. People wanting to visit the town can expect to be accepted at Maat and to be offered lodg­ing and hospitality there. Thus the population of Maat Efate al­ways includes a small proportion of Southeast Ambrymese who are visiting from the homeland. They come for a variety of reasons and stay for periods ranging from a few weeks to a few years. Whether they choose to stay at Maat or with relatives who live closer to Vila, visiting Southeast Ambrymese generally spend some of their leisure time in the village, especially on weekends and for celebrations.

Friends and relatives from Southeast Ambrym form the largest category of outside visitors to Maat.14 Maat villagers who visit Vila outside working hours interact mainly with other Southeast Ambrymese; women and children who visit town generally have informal contacts only with Southeast Ambrymese there. Friend­ships and visiting patterns indicate a strong preference among 279Southeast Ambrymese for one another’s company. The marked preference of Southeast Ambrymese for marriage with others who speak the same language has continued at Maat, and although the frequency of intermarriage with non-Southeast Ambrymese has increased since relocation, it is still not high. Despite a marked shortage of women in the village, very few Maat men have mar­ried girls from neighboring Efate villages.15

Adjustment of the Maat people to Efate does not appear to have been a difficult process. They have been able to replicate their village social structure with a minimum of ecological obstacles or interference from the outside. Back on Ambrym, the important boundaries beyond the family were the ‘small name’ (a named residential area of the village, most of whose male inhabitants claim membership in the same patrilineage), the village, and the culture area. Since relocation, the individual nuclear family boundary has grown more distinct as the unit becomes increasing­ly independent and self-sufficent, but the other significant bound­aries are still the village and the culture area (that is, Southeast Ambrymese as opposed to outsiders).


In his detailed account of the Tolai of Matupit, a peri-urban vil­lage near Rabaul, New Britain, Epstein (1969:294) concedes that much of the evidence points to change; but he notes that “what gives the Tolai situation so much of its complexity, and, for the ob­server, its peculiar fascination, is the no less striking evidence of persistence and continuity…. Change and continuity represent two faces of a single coin, so that in any given context the one can­not be understood without at the same time specifying the nature of the other.” These observations are relevant to the Maat situa­tion. Following the important and dramatic changes that took place in Southeast Ambrymese culture during the first few decades after contact with Europeans, the whole pace of change slackened considerably, and by the time of the relocation the villagers of Southeast Ambrym had experienced at least thirty years of little change compared to the preceding period.16

In considering the persistence of Maat Efate it is more appro­priate to talk of continuity than of change, because relocation in­volved, in most respects, adaptations or changes that were rela­tively 280 minor and were handled by the villagers with a minimum of disturbance. Close similarities in climate, physiography, and ve­getation between Ambrym and Efate enabled the villagers to establish a new settlement, make gardens, and cut copra with a minimum of conscious adjustment to altered conditions. Their adaptation was aided by the fact that their move to Efate was unanimously agreed upon and by their previous history of mobili­ty. Change of location per se was not a new experience for these people, who traditionally abandoned their hamlets from time to time and rebuilt at new sites closer to their gardens. Also, the Vila area was well known to the men, and for many years after their re­settlement they worked at jobs they had long since mastered: clearing and copra cutting. True, they had to cope with a new social environment beyond the village, but with Pidgin as the lingua franca and coreligionists as neighbors, communication with outsiders was not difficult for them.

A significant continuity was that relating to isolation and non­interference. The people were accustomed to isolation and little contact with outsiders while in Ambrym, and because there was little in the way of government assistance or interference, self-reg­ulation was the normal state of affairs: they solved their own prob­lems and settled their own disputes. This heritage of independence was very helpful to them after relocation, because the administra­tion continued to ignore them. They have never been handicapped by feelings of dependence on outsiders, so in this important respect governmental laissez faire has been largely beneficial to their ad­aptation to Efate. The new location has so far been sufficiently iso­lated for the villagers to make their own decisions as to the level of interaction they desire with outsiders.17

The freedom of choice that the villagers have enjoyed since re­location appears to be another significant factor in the persistence of Maat Efate. They made the decision to build the new village; no contracts were signed, and no one could have prevented them from leaving Efate at any time. The option of returning to Am­brym always existed, and nothing was done, either by government officials or other outsiders, to prevent their return. Kiste (1968; 1972:92–93), in his study of the resettlement of the ex-Bikini Mar­shallese, tells of the reactions of these islanders to the news that a return to their homeland was impossible and how this belief led them to find many faults with their new location, while their home 281atoll came to be regarded as a kind of Elysium in retrospect. The Maat people, in contrast, maintained direct and indirect contact with Ambrym and thus had a reasonably accurate idea of condi­tions there. Those who felt homesick could, and often did, go back and stay as long as they desired; this liberty still exists, depending only on the availability of transportation and on individual in­clination.

If Maat Efate is compared to the villages in Southeast Ambrym, it is clear that relocation has not in itself produced marked socio­cultural changes. Demographically, Maat is notable for its rapid population growth and lower infant mortality rate than Southeast Ambrym villages (see Tonkinson 1968:67,252), but many of the other changes that have occurred at Maat have also taken place in Southeast Ambrym. In both places there is an increasing preoccu­pation with money-earning activities and a consequent decline in the amount of time spent at subsistence tasks; certain kinship ob­servances have been relaxed, and certain taboos abandoned.

For Maat people, life in the new environment has not led to any rapid alteration in patterns of social relationships or in the opera­tion of the kinship system. Nor have the people chosen to adopt radically different gardening methods or, until the 1970s, tech­niques of construction formerly unknown to them. Although more orderly in ground plan and more heavily vegetated with hedges, shrubs, and trees, Maat Efate is still a Southeast Ambrymese vil­lage, architecturally and culturally, and it more closely resembles a homeland village than it does any of its peri-urban neighbors.18

Despite a higher standard of living in their Efate environment, such are the continuities which link Maat to Ambrym that people can move from one place to the other with very few problems of adjustment. Maat people who visit Ambrym fit back into their old environment with ease. No drastic alterations in either diet or liv­ing conditions are entailed, and the same applies to Ambrymese visitors to Maat, who find themselves—within the village—in a social environment quite similar to the one they have just left. Dif­ferences do exist, of course, but they lie mainly in the realms of ideas and attitudes; Ambrymese, for instance, have no great en­thusiasm for Maat or Efate, and they think their Maat relatives have lost their sense of values in choosing to remain away from Ambrym for so long. For their part, many Maat people feel that they are better Christians than their Ambrymese congeners and 282have more enlightened attitudes to such important questions as marriage arrangements and bridewealth. These differences are never aired openly between Maat people and Southeast Ambry­mese, so relations between them remain amicable, to the advan­tage of all concerned.


Europeans, both inside and outside the administration, explain Maat’s permanence in terms of what they see as the obvious ad­vantages, economic and social, of living near Vila as compared to living on Ambrym. To an outside observer, the peri-urban en­vironment of Maat affords its inhabitants advantages they could not possibly enjoy in the homeland. In support of this contention, outsiders cite the ready availability of wage labor in Southwest Efate, access to a wide range of material goods, proximity to the main administrative agencies and to excellent medical and educa­tional facilities, the irresistible lure of the bright lights of Vila, the fact that the Maat people own their own land, the safety and pre­dictability of life on Efate as compared to Ambrym with its active volcanoes, and so on. The worth of these assumptions will now be examined more closely.

The villagers have long been aware of certain economic advan­tages of their new location. Maat lies in a highly developed planta­tion area where the demand for labor has generally exceeded the supply, causing the villagers to be much sought after as copra cut­ters. Most villagers commute to and from work each day and have thus had time to devote to subsistence garden activities, which give them self-sufficiency in the native staples that still form the major part of their diet.19 Understandably, they were opposed to the administration’s suggestion that they move to the north side of the island, in 1954 and again in 1962, since this would have meant giving up an established village and gardens and leaving the area of greatest employment potential. This was especially true in 1962 because by this time some men had begun regular wage work in Vila, and others intended to do likewise. There were also the practical advantages of rent-free occupation of garden land and, on the plantations, a piecework payment rate that en­abled them to work when and at what pace they liked, without supervision. 283

By about 1954 the coconut palms were again bearing on Am­brym and the main economic objection to the return of the Maat people to their homeland was removed, yet no one went back for more than a short visit. When asked to explain their reluctance to return home permanently, villagers give different reasons, all equally plausible. In discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the old and new locations, everyone can enumerate what they consider to be the good and bad points of both (see table 6). In some cases the same point is cited by different informants as a good feature of Ambrym as opposed to Efate, or vice versa; for ex­ample, an abundance of good food is often given as an advantage of both places.

Table 6 Comparative Advantages of Maat Ambrym and Maat Efate

Stated Advantages Ambrym Efate
One’s own coconuts x  
Plenty of good garden land x  
Self-employment x  

Better reef; more shellfish and fish

More leisure time x  
“You waste less money” x  
No big hills x  
Easily worked soil x  
Bigger tubers x  
More breadfruit x  
More fowls x  
Less malaria x  

Abundance of bush and garden foods

x x
Less sorcery   x

Better facilities (educational, medical, etc.)

Good water supply   x
No ash-falls   x
Fewer hurricanes   x
More entertainment   x 284

According to the native advocate, an administration official who in 1954 reported that the Maat people intended to remain on Efate, the main reason given by the villagers was that Efate did not suffer from ash-falls or the risk of lava flows. This was no doubt a consideration, but the reason was probably based on the advocate’s own assumptions, since the villagers rarely cite it when giving their opinions of the two locations. Many mention their reluctance to take their children away from the schools for fear of ruining their chances of a good education. They also talk of their unwillingness to abandon the village and gardens and thus waste all their hard work. The proximity of Maat to hospital facilities and to an excellent water supply (on Ambrym, water supply prob­lems are commonplace) are also given by many informants as rea­sons why they remain on Efate.

Significantly, the attraction of living only a few miles from Vila is rarely given as an advantage of the Efate location. The lure of the town, as such, was never really a factor and it was not until about 1960 when hurricane damage caused a coconut shortage in Southwest Efate that men decided to seek work in Vila. Outside working hours, the only villagers who visit town are the young men, most of whom consider the bars, cinema, and nightclubs as worthwhile attractions but are often content to remain in the village, especially if a supply of liquor is assured. In fact, some in­formants stress that store goods and liquor are also available on Ambrym, as if to downplay this supposed advantage of being near Vila.

Economic rationales are markedly absent when villagers ex­plain why they remain on Efate. All have stands of coconuts in the homeland, and most concede that they could work their own coco­nuts and make ample money, at their own pace, back on Ambrym. They complain that wage work in Vila ties them down to the job and that Efate is a place for work whereas Ambrym is a place for rest. Certainly, they are aware that they earn more money by working constantly, but they also know that they spend more than they would back on Ambrym and that some goods classed as luxu­ries on Ambrym are necessities on Efate. All are aware that they could get by comfortably on Ambrym with much less cash than they need in the new location and that they would be their own bosses back there, whereas on Efate they must work for outside employers at fixed rates. It must be concluded, then, that from the viewpoint of the Maat people economic rationales for their con­tinuance on Efate are of little importance, as table 6 suggests. 285


Many villagers like to stress the comparative advantages of Am­brym, and many of them do in fact express a preference for their homeland. When asked why therefore they do not return perma­nently, they usually mention the lack of hospitals, poorer schools, water shortages, and so on, but many admit that their fear of sor­cery is what inhibits them most from returning permanently to Southeast Ambrym. No matter what their level of commitment to Christianity, degree of sophistication, or educational background, the Maat people, almost to a person, firmly believe in the reality of sorcery, the existence of sorcerers, and their destructive capabili­ties and activities on Ambrym. Sorcery scares are endemic in their homeland, and fear of sorcery continues to be the greatest single determinant of the movement of people out of Ambrym.20

In Southeast Ambrym there are men who claim the ability to detect impending sorcery attacks on others. These men usually warn the people they have discerned to be potential victims, and the typical reaction of Ambrymese thus alerted is to lock them­selves and their families in their houses and then take the first available boat off the island. They may stay away for months or even years, until they feel it is safe to return. Accounts of sorcery attacks, death attributed to poisoning and sorcery, near misses, and warnings of impending sorcery are being constantly commu­nicated through and beyond Southeast Ambrym, and with each new letter or arrival from Ambrym, the news spreads throughout the Maat Efate community. It is not surprising that the Maat peo­ple are always most impressed by these stories and unhesitatingly accept them as absolute truth.

If villagers can give as many reasons for returning to Ambrym as for remaining on Efate, there is one feature of the village social order that appears to have tipped the balance in favor of Efate as a permanent home—the almost complete absence of sorcery in the new location. Informants often pointed out to me the large num­ber of children at Maat, and they commented on the small number of deaths among their children since relocation, compared to the small number who survive on Ambrym.21 It was surprising to discover that the Maat people do not attribute the different sur­vival rate to their proximity to excellent medical services, of which they invariably make full use in cases of serious illness. As one in­formant 286 put it, “On Ambrym the sorcerers always kill the small children; here, no sorcery, so lots of children.” Thus the villagers have what is to them concrete proof of the murderous activities of sorcerers on Ambrym and a corresponding lack of sorcery in their village on Efate.

A significant feature of the relocation has been the lack of con­flicts arising from land claims. As stated earlier, the villagers re­tained their land rights on Ambrym, and even after they had de­cided to remain permanently on Efate, there was little fear of land loss on Ambrym—there was always someone living in their old village, and the presence of such residents discouraged neighbor­ing villagers from usurping Maat land. On Efate, the people at first owned none of the land they exploited for gardening, and the land they later purchased was registered and held communally in the village name. As a result, there have never been any disputes over boundaries, tree ownership, and so on, in marked contrast to what had apparently been the case on Ambrym before 1951. Thus relocation not only removed the Maat people from the threat of in­tervillage sorcery, but it also lessened the possibility of intravillage conflict and sorcery, much of which had allegedly stemmed from arguments over land and coconuts. The fact that on Ambrym sor­cery was attributed almost entirely to males—in a male-dominat­ed society with respect to descent, residence, and inheritance principles—suggests that quarrels over land, pigs, and coconuts probably brought about people’s misfortunes. In this respect Maat Efate could be viewed as proof of such an assertion since there are no quarrels over these matters in the new location and there is no sorcery.

Once the people shifted to Efate, these disputes lost their poten­cy and nothing in the new system of land tenure gave people the opportunity to revive them. It could perhaps be argued that relo­cation should have led to an increased incidence of alleged intra­village sorcery, once the blame for suspicious deaths could no longer be placed readily on people in other villages. Since 1952, however, only two Maat deaths have been widely attributed to sorcery poisoning, and in both cases the initial suspect was an out­sider who lives in the village. It is for these reasons that the shift itself has been so important, because it has separated the people from their land, coconuts, and neighbors in other villages and thus from most of the conflict these engender. 287

It has been pointed out that movement out of the Ambrym com­munity, for temporary but indefinite periods, was often the result of crises, which were of two main kinds: natural disasters (highly irregular in occurrence) and escape from victimization by sorcery (which apparently occurred quite regularly). Although the Maat resettlement was an outcome of a crisis, it should be remembered that the ash-falls that prompted the evacuation were not consid­ered critical by the Maat people, who were opposed to leaving Ambrym if it meant relocation on Epi. Nor was the relocation a direct result of fear of sorcery; the initial reasons for staying on Efate were economic ones, and only later did the lack of sorcery in the new community come to be regarded as a major factor in the permanence of Maat Efate.

The absence of sorcery in Maat Efate represents a most impor­tant contrast with Ambrym, in that the homeland environment represents an ongoing context in which sorcery allegedly occurs whereas Maat Efate represents the context of a refuge outside the social system of Southeast Ambrym where a person can escape from the threat of sorcery as well as from other social obligations that are inevitably part of life in the homeland. It is precisely this situation, the contrast of homeland-sorcery and Efate-refuge, which generates paradox and ambiguity of at least two kinds.

The first paradox concerns the nature of the Maat Efate com­munity, mainly the extent to which it corresponds to its Southeast Ambrymese counterparts. The Maat people have built what looks much like a Southeast Ambrymese village, and they have pur­chased some of the nearby land (using money contributed by themselves but with some assistance from their homeland con­geners) so that they could carry on in the new location the same kind of subsistence gardening activities they practiced on Am­brym. The inhabitants view Maat essentially as an Ambrymese village, yet in one vital respect—the lack of sorcery—its social order differs from those of its Southeast Ambrymese counterparts. The ambiguity suggested by this difference resolves itself if sorcery is associated strictly with locale, but sorcery is obviously a rela­tion, or the outcome of sets of relations, among people. In other words, locale may be used to symbolize the difference between the two areas, but it cannot account for the difference, so this contrast between Southeast Ambrym and Maat Efate remains somewhat paradoxical. 288

Another paradox, closely related to the first, concerns whether or not the Maat Efate community represents a permanent removal of an entire village from the homeland cultural milieu. Escape from sorcery in Ambrym, while common, has generally entailed temporary movement out of the homeland, yet the Maat villagers have shown no sign that they intend to return to Ambrym perma­nently. They have not, however, informed their Southeast Am­brymese congeners that they will never return, and some villagers periodically express their intention of returning permanently at some unspecified time in the future. At the moment, Maat Efate is the permanent home of the Maat villagers and Maat Ambrym is a place to stay while visiting Ambrym, but it is not inconceivable that the roles of the two villages could be reversed at some future time. Thus the twin set of ambiguities: Maat Efate is and is not an Ambrymese village; it is and is not a permanent resettlement.

These ambiguities merit further consideration for both substan­tive and theoretical reasons. Substantively, they affect the atti­tudes of the Southeast Ambrymese who remain in the homeland and thus the relations between them and their congeners in Maat Efate. Theoretically, the ambiguities and their resolution involve the process of cultural change and its relation to cultural continu­ity, not only in the Maat Efate community but also in comparison with other communities described in this volume.

Given a fear of sorcery as the major determinant of the Maat people’s continued residence in Efate, it is reasonable to ask why the rest of the Southeast Ambrymese dared to return home in 1952 after the ash-falls had ceased. This question can be answered satisfactorily. For one thing, the refugees were more afraid of hav­ing sorcery worked on them by the people of Epi than they were of their own sorcerers. For another, despite the pervasiveness of real or imagined sorcery, few people live in constant fear of it. There are risky places (such as the deep bush, particularly when people must spend many days preparing new gardens there) and risky times (such as at night when sorcerers are said to be most active). Much of the time, however, people feel reasonably safe, provided they have done nothing to provoke a sorcery attack, go about their business openly, and take care never to expose themselves unneces­sarily to the risk of attack.

In the case of the Maat people, it seems that they stayed away too long. They had time to think about all the alleged sorcery ac­tivities 289 occurring back home, to hear the constant flow of stories concerning sorcery, and to inflate this fear into something stronger than it had ever been before they left Ambrym, until they literally reached the point of no return—or at least of no perma­nent return. If it is true that fear of sorcery has important social control functions, and that conflicts over land and coconuts invite the possibility of sorcery attacks on the participants, the few Maat people who do venture back to Ambrym from time to time should feel reasonably safe—provided they stay out of the bush and do not wander about alone at night—because they are no longer em­broiled in conflicts of the kind just mentioned.

It is not clear at what stage after relocation the Maat people be­gan to regard Maat Efate as a possible permanent home, but this point may well have coincided with their growing awareness of the absence of sorcery in the new village. Their perception of this contrast was no doubt due to the periodic influx of news from the homeland and of new arrivals who had fled Ambrym as a result of sorcery scares. The Maat people would then have realized that sorcery is not inevitable, but contingent. If they conceptualized this contingency in terms of location, then the homeland would have been seen as a milieu in which a certain set of relations leads to sorcery as an inevitable but to some extent unpredictable out­come. This perception would have become objectified in the con­trast: homeland (sorcery and death) versus Maat Efate (life and well-being).

This positive evaluation of Maat in contrast with Ambrym was never perceived or shared by those who remained in Southeast Ambrym. The resident Southeast Ambrymese claim never to have understood the motivations of the Maat people in remaining on Efate while their coconuts rot in Ambrym and their valuable land there goes untilled. Typically, they characterize their congeners in Maat Efate as crazy for staying there and are convinced that Am­brym is a better place to live than Efate. The fact that the return of Maat people to Southeast Ambrym is sporadic and temporary could be taken by the Southeast Ambrymese to indicate a measure of noncommitment on the part of the Maat people toward their re­latives in the homeland. The absence of practically an entire vil­lage suggests that links in the reciprocity network are being dis­rupted or at least attenuated. Moreover, to the extent that personal relationships are important above and beyond structural obliga­tions, 290 the continued absence of the Maat people becomes a con­spicuous communication in and of itself. If this situation were not somehow mitigated, it could easily lead to a permanent schism be­tween the people of Maat and their Ambrymese congeners.

No such schism has occurred, however, in large part because of the ambiguities inherent in the position of Maat Efate. First, some of the money that was used to purchase land near the relocated village was contributed by congeners in many Southeast Am­brymese villages; thus the new location is partly “theirs.” This ideal is supported by the fact that Southeast Ambrymese visitors to Efate are welcome in Maat, are generally given hospitable treat­ment, and can stay as long as they desire. Second, men from Maat go to Ambrym in search of brides and in return they give women to Southeast Ambrymese men, most of whom then stay on at Maat and live uxorilocally. Third, there has been continued com­munication between Maat and the homeland, with exchanges of letters, messages, and visits, such that to a certain extent the Maat people remain in the reciprocity network of the homeland and thus fulfill many of their responsibilities to their relatives there. Finally, the people of Maat still consider themselves to be ethnical­ly Southeast Ambrymese and are unequivocal about this continu­ing identification with the homeland.

So, while the relocated village is strongly identified with Maat Ambrym people, it is never exclusively so, since it is, ideally and actually, a refuge for all Southeast Ambrymese who care to make use of it. This ambiguity in Maat’s status is a source of frustration to the Southeast Ambrymese in the homeland in that they are not being totally rejected but are instead in the position of tacit collu­sion with the Maat Efate people. Thus they attempt to explain the absence of the Maat people with statements such as “they must be crazy” or “we can’t understand them.” In essence, this attitude suggests that there must have been some mistake for which no one is really responsible. Thus the Ambrymese perceive that the ap­parent rejection of them by the Maat people is not a deliberate re­sponse to something the Ambrymese have done or to what South­east Ambrymese society is. The explanation that the Maat people are crazy or do not understand implies that no one is responsible for the current situation. Should some attribution of responsibility arise, the result would inevitably be a serious rift in relations be­tween 291 the Maat people and their congeners in the homeland. As long as both sides retain an element of ambiguity in the situation and neither openly voices its objections to the other’s choice of home location, the status quo will continue.

It may be productive to speculate on resolutions of this am­biguity for two reasons: one is that this speculation may produce testable hypotheses for research not only in this community but also in similar situations elsewhere; the other is that it may have comparative value—given the possible resolutions of this situa­tion, would the outcomes resemble those discussed elsewhere in this volume?

At least three different kinds of resolution can be posited, and each entails some interesting theoretical implications. First, a schism could develop, although this possibility seems remote in the present circumstances. A serious rift implies a breakdown in communications and the likelihood that the Maat people would be forced to give up their land rights in Ambrym and the loss of Maat Efate as a refuge for visiting Ambrymese. None of these even­tualities seems likely.

Second, it is possible that the Southeast Ambrymese as a whole, given time and further experience in Maat Efate and the world outside the homeland, will eventually redefine their own social mi­crosystem. Given the many reasons for Ambrymese to visit Efate and stay at Maat, which include hospital care, visits to relatives, the negotiation of marriages, temporary wage work, holidays, and so on, as more and more people make the trip they will notice both the continuities and the differences between their homeland and Maat Efate. It should become apparent to them that Southeast Ambrym and Maat are really two different life-styles based on a similar pattern. They will notice that in their contacts with other ethnic groups, the latter perceive them as an ethnic entity regard­less of whatever stylistic variations occur; and of course none of the Ambrymese themselves question their Southeast Ambrymese identity. Once the distinction between the relocated village and the homeland is seen as one of style, the identification of Southeast Ambrym’s social order with Southeast Ambrym as a place will become much looser and will probably lose its symbolic force. The outcome may be a universalization of Southeast Ambrymese iden­tity and social order such that they are seen as transcending a par­ticular 292 locale. Should this eventually be the case, sorcery will assume a position of central importance, since it is around the no­tion of a lack of sorcery that the Maat outlook crystallizes.

Consideration of sorcery, or the lack of it, leads to a third possi­bility. The Maat population will no doubt continue to grow rapid­ly through a combination of natural increase and immigration.22 The village site itself is limited in size, and already there is a grow­ing shortage of suitable garden land close to the village, so there is a possibility of eventual population pressure and overcrowding. In such a situation, lack of privacy and competition over women, jobs, garden land, and so on may lead to sorcery accusations and counteraccusations. This would be, then, the final replication of the Southeast Ambrym social order in Maat Efate. Such a develop­ment could lead to a movement back to Ambrym like the current one to Efate; the outcome could be a kind of equilibrium of popu­lation through reciprocal movement.

The implications of such a resolution are as follows. Sorcery is not necessarily or exclusively tied to conflicts over land and coco­nuts, but it could be regarded as a result of competition induced by population pressure; that is, it is a function of demographic structure at a given time. Thus the relations symbolized by sorcery would become universalized rather than remaining part of the concept of Southeast Ambrym’s social order and being tied to the homeland locale.

Each of the foregoing possibilities for resolving the ambiguous position of Maat Efate has its parallel in other cases cited in this volume. The schism resolution is represented by the Southern Gil­bertese situation (chapter 8) by a break between the home com­munity and a break within the new community. The universaliza­tion of the social order through a “we, the people of …” idea is represented by the Kapinga (chapter 3) and the Rotumans (chapter 7). The third possibility, total replication of the relations that peo­ple are attempting to escape from, along with movements approx­imating an equilibrium, is precisely the Nukuoro case (chapter 4).

It appears normal in relocation situations that some kind of ideology about the old homeland evolves; generally the ideology emphasizes a kind of hindsight regarding what the former social system was all about. This ideology tends to reflect present con­cerns which interpret or reinterpret what was going on before re­location. In the Maat case, rather than a growing nostalgia for the 293good old days back on Ambrym, there arose among the people an increasing sense of relief at their good fortune in living in a place where the fear of sorcery could be kept to a minimum. Perhaps the Maat people are aware that in many respects they have the best of both worlds in their new location; perhaps they are merely using the sorcery as a convenient rationalization for not wanting to go back home and thus give up their new life. But, as table 6 in­dicates, they do appear to have a genuine preference for their homeland, although they feel it is not worth the risk to go back on a permanent basis. Efate will remain their home as long as their conception of Ambrym as a place riddled with sorcery continues unaltered.


This chapter is based on field research carried out on Efate and Ambrym, New Hebrides, from July 1966 to August 1967 and on Efate in July and August 1969. The earlier fieldwork was supported by the University of Oregon on a grant from the National Science Foundation; research in 1969 was undertaken while I was a Graduate Fellow of the University of British Columbia. I wish to thank H. G. Barnett, director of the Oregon-supported field research, and Michael Lieber, Joan Metge, Jean-Marc Philibert, and Murray Chapman for their helpful com­ments.

1. To date, the only detailed ethnographic information on Ambrym is that of Guiart (1951a:5–103; 1956a:217–225; 1956b:301–326).

2. Williams (1964:41–46) describes the volcanology of Ambrym and gives a list of recorded eruptions since 1774. He attributes the unusually heavy ash-falls in the southeast to the presence of high-altitude countercurrents to the pre­vailing southeast trade winds.

3. In 1906 the British and French took joint control of the New Hebrides. Since 1914 there have been, in effect, three main administrative organizations: British government, French government, and the joint administration. In each of the four main administrative districts, there are two resident district agents, one British and one French, who deal mainly with local matters and make regular tours of the islands under their joint supervision.

4. By the 1920s all Southeast Ambrymese were at least nominally Presbyte­rians.

5. Precise information on these intervillage movements was not obtained, since my stay in Southeast Ambrym was brief and this was not one of my major re­search concerns.

6. “The Group” refers to the New Hebrides, as it is commonly called by its En­glish-speaking inhabitants. Robert Lane’s South Pentecost informants attri­buted the alleged superiority of Ambrym’s sorcery to the presence of active volcanoes on the island (Lane 1965:257). 294

7. Many Hebrideans were also taken to Fiji as plantation laborers, but no Maat men are remembered as having gone there. Unfortunately, I have no statis­tics on the approximate number of Ambrymese who were taken to Queens­land; judging by the number who went from Maat, perhaps 150 to 200 men went from Southeast Ambrym.

8. Frater’s book (1922) and magazine articles give the only published accounts of the early days of Christianity in Southeast Ambrym and Paama.

9. Worsley (1957:150) notes that “the large-scale activities of British and American forces in the New Hebrides, and rumours of events in the north, had powerful repercussions.” As Worsley (1957) and Guiart (1951b: 86–88; 1956c) point out, these repercussions took the form of a recrudescence of Cargo Cult notions and activities, in most of which the Americans were hailed as the bringers of the millennium. Geslin (1956:245–285) discusses aspects of interaction between servicemen and Hebrideans in his description of the Allied presence in the New Hebrides during World War II.

10. In the postcontact era, however, these periodic setbacks became more serious in that people temporarily lost their only source of cash (copra), which their newly developed and increasing needs for European goods demanded. To continue to fulfill these needs they were thus forced to leave Southeast Am­brym and seek plantation work elsewhere to earn the necessary cash until their own coconuts were again ready for harvesting.

11. The leaders also remained on Efate because of an illegal banishment decree; two of them were forbidden to return to Ambrym for three years. This ruling was apparently imposed out of spite by the district agent, whose unjust treat­ment of the men in the court he convened in Southeast Ambrym later earned him the censure of the joint court, which reduced the original heavy sen­tences.

12. When Brookfield, Glick, and Hart (1969:116) took a census in the Southwest Efate area in June 1965, the nonvillage population of this area was 4,624, of whom 487 were on plantations or in schools located in the rural area; 1,491 were in the peri-urban areas around the town, and the balance were in the town itself. Of the latter, 2,786 were Hebrideans, 745 Europeans, 476 Metis and others, 305 Asians, and 303 people from other Pacific islands.

13. Between 1952 and 1967, over 75 percent of the adult population visited Southeast Ambrym; adult males made an average of almost three trips each, for an average duration of about seven months, and adult females made nearly two trips each and stayed for about seven and a half months at a time.

14. In May 1967 there were about 140 non-Maat Southeast Ambrymese living in the Southwest Efate area, and 18 percent of them were living at Maat.

15. In July 1969 the population of Maat consisted of 116 males and 85 females. Since about 1960 seven Maat girls have married outsiders; all had gone to work as housegiris in Vila, where the shortage of women is acute, and almost all married after becoming pregnant by men from other islands who were working in town. Marriage of Maat men with women from neighboring Efate villages dates from only 1972, when three such unions took place.

16. The reasons why their ritual life, their hierarchical grade system, and their whole “pig culture” should have collapsed so rapidly and completely in an 295area as isolated from the mainstream of European pressures as Southeast Ambrym are unfortunately not known. The magnitude of this loss is surpris­ing when one considers other parts of the same island. North Ambrym, with a history of much greater and more intensive contact with whites, still has several pagan villages which continue to exert considerable influence in the area.

17. Between 1970 and 1973, however, the unprecedented growth of Vila led to a rapid spread of suburbia, which has reached the environs of Maat; there are now whites living just across the road from the village. Increasing numbers of Maat men and women are being employed as laborers and domestics by these whites, so there is now a great deal more interaction, close to and even within Maat, between the villagers and outsiders. In one sense, land has become an issue at Maat, because of disputes over boundaries with newcom­ers whose properties adjoin village land. These were still being resolved when I left Maat in September 1973.

18. In the three years prior to 1973, however, the village almost doubled in area and now contains at least a dozen large, substantial cement and iron houses, several with louvered windows and store-bought doors, gutters, and so forth. These new buildings have given Maat much more of the look of an Efate village.

19. From Epstein’s accounts (1963:182–215;1969) of the peri-urban Tolai com­munity of Matupit on New Britain, there are many similarities to the Maat situation. In both places much of the labor force commutes each day, but the villagers are able to maintain subsistence activities as well. Both villages have many features of a peri-urban community, but they retain distinctive features of their own culture in terms of residential divisions, kinship struc­turing and marriage rules, language, and patterns of social interaction.

20. Excluding the people of Maat Efate, about 32 percent of the Southeast Ambrymese population was absent from the homeland in July 1973, and of these absentees only a very small proportion (7 percent, or 44/641) were children temporarily away at school. There has been no serious volcanic ac­tivity since 1951 and in only a few villages are there land shortages, so economic factors alone could not account for such a high absentee rate. I spent the months from June to September 1973 on Ambrym and Efate study­ing the connection between sorcery and emigration from Southeast Am­brym; this matter will be discussed in a forthcoming paper.

21. For a period of forty years prior to resettlement, 51 percent (57/111) of children born to women in Maat Ambrym died before reaching adulthood. This contrasts markedly to the 1952–1967 postrelocation period when only 15 percent (18/120) of their children died.

22. Between July 1969 and June 1973, Maat’s population rose from 201 to 307 (the latter figure includes 53 Southeast Ambrymese visitors in temporary residence). According to the British District Agency in Vila, Maat is now the fastest-growing village in Southwest Efate. There is still adequate house and garden land, however, and the level of intravillage conflict does not appear to have risen as a result of this rapid population increase. Nor have sorcery accusations yet appeared as a feature of life in Maat.

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