Tanna Island

Last updated

Tanna and the nearby island of Aniwa
Vanuatu - Tanna.PNG
Location South Pacific Ocean
Coordinates 19°30′S169°20′E / 19.500°S 169.333°E / -19.500; 169.333 Coordinates: 19°30′S169°20′E / 19.500°S 169.333°E / -19.500; 169.333
Archipelago Vanuatu
Area550 km2 (210 sq mi)
Length40 km (25 mi)
Width19 km (11.8 mi)
Highest elevation1,084 m (3556 ft)
Highest point Mount Tukosmera
Province Tafea Province
Largest settlement Lénakel
Population28,799 (2009)
Pop. density36.36/km2 (94.17/sq mi)
Ethnic groups Melanesians

Tanna (also spelled Tana) is an island in Tafea Province of Vanuatu.



It is 40 kilometres (25 miles) long and 19 kilometres (12 miles) wide, with a total area of 550 square kilometres (212 square miles). Its highest point is the 1,084-metre (3,556-foot) summit of Mount Tukosmera in the south of the island.

Siwi Lake was located in the east, northeast of the peak, close to the coast until mid-April 2000 when following unusually heavy rain, the lake burst down the valley into Sulphur Bay, destroying the village with no loss of life. Mount Yasur is an accessible active volcano which is located on the southeast coast.


Cannibal Feast on Tanna by Charles E. Gordon Frazer c. 1885-9 Cannibalism on Tanna.jpeg
Cannibal Feast on Tanna by Charles E. Gordon Frazer c. 1885-9

Tanna was first settled about 400 BC by Melanesians from the surrounding islands. The glowing light of Mount Yasur attracted James Cook, the first European to visit the island, in August 1774, where he landed in an inlet on the southeastern tip of the island that he named Port Resolution after his ship HMS Resolution. He gave the island the name of Tanna, probably from the local name for earth, tana in the Kwamera language. [1]

In the 19th century, traders and missionaries (chiefly Presbyterian) arrived. The Tannese stuck to their traditions more strongly than other islands; there remain fewer Christians in comparison with the other islands of Vanuatu.

Whaling vessels were some of the first regular visitors to the island in the nineteenth century. The first on record was the Rose in February 1804. The last known such visit was by the Sea Ranger in September 1871. [2]

Tanna was not a principal site of World War II, but about 1,000 people from Tanna were recruited to work on the American military base on Éfaté. Exposure to First World living standards may have led to the development of cargo cults. Many have died out, but the John Frum cult remains strong on Tanna today, especially at Sulphur Bay in the south east and Green Point in the South West of the Island. The documentary Waiting for John (2015) by Jessica Sherry provides a history and overview of the current scene regarding these beliefs. [3]

A secessionist movement began in the 1970s, and the Nation of Tanna was proclaimed on 24 March 1974. While the British were more open to allowing its holdings in Vanuatu to achieve independence, it was opposed by the French colonists and finally suppressed by the Anglo-French Condominium authorities on 29 June 1974.

Flag of the Island of Tanna Bandera Tanna Vanuatu.svg
Flag of the Island of Tanna

In 1980, there was another attempt to secede, declaring the Tafea Nation on 1 January 1980, its name coming from the initials of the five islands that were to be part of the nation (Tanna, Aniwa, Futuna, Erromango and Aneityum). British forces intervened on 26 May 1980, allowing the island to become part of the newly independent nation of Vanuatu on 30 July 1980.

Tanna and nearby Erromango were devastated by cyclone Pam in mid-March 2015, with reports of an unknown number of deaths, complete destruction of the island’s infrastructure and permanent shelters, and no drinking water. [4] Following this, an El Niño-spurred drought further impacted on the people of Tanna. [5]

Culture and economy

Tanna's location. Nh-map.png
Tanna's location.


It is the most populous island in Tafea Province, with a population of about 29,000, [6] and one of the most populous islands in the country. Isangel, the provincial administrative capital, is on the west coast near the island's largest town of Lénakel.

Tanna is populated almost entirely by Melanesians and they follow a more traditional lifestyle than many other islands. Some of the higher altitude villages are known as kastom villages, where modern inventions are restricted, the inhabitants wear penis sheaths (Bislama : nambas) and grass skirts, and the children do not go to public schools. According to anthropologist Joël Bonnemaison, author of "The Tree and the Canoe: history and ethnography of Tanna," their resistance to change is due to their traditional worldview and how they "perceive, internalise, and account for the dual concepts of space and time." [7]

John Frum movement

The island is the centre of the John Frum religious movement, which attracts tourist interest as a cargo cult.

The first John appeared at night as a spirit at a place called Green Point and told the people to return to their traditional way of life, or kastom. From that time kastom on Tanna has been seen as an alternative to the modernity encouraged by many missionary denominations. Yaohnanen is the centre of the Prince Philip Movement, which reveres Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II. The cult is examined by British writer Matthew Baylis in his 2013 book Man Belong Mrs Queen: Adventures with the Philip Worshippers. [8]

Christian missionary John Gibson Paton served in Tanna in the mid 1800s. Cannibalism was practiced before Christianity swept the island. In the biography of Paton the horror of the pagan practice of abusing and murdering disobedient wives is detailed.


There are three main languages spoken on Tanna: the southern language of Kwamera, the South-Western language adjacent to the slopes of Tokosmera, of which there are many dialects spoken by very small groupings, constitute two of the languages. The remaining majority of Tanna islanders speak four dialects, being North Tanna in the northwest, Lénakel in the west-central area near Lénakel, and the middle bush dialect in the central plateau of the island, which is very close to Lenakel Whitesands in the northeast near Whitesands.

These are generally grouped into the Tanna languages family, which is a subgroup of the South Vanuatu languages, an Austronesian language branch. According to Ethnologue , each is spoken by a few thousand, and Lénakel, with 8,000 speakers, is one of the dialects of Vanuatu with the most speakers. Many people on Tanna also speak Bislama, which is one of Vanuatu's three official languages (together with English and French).


The island is one of the most fertile in Vanuatu and produces kava, coffee, coconut, copra, and other fruits and vegetables. Recently, tourism has become more important, as tourists are attracted to the volcano and traditional culture. [9] To help preserve the integrity of culture as a tourism asset, only local people are permitted to act as guides. There are various types of accommodation on the island.

Cultural references

Five men from Tanna's Prince Philip Movement cargo cult, which considers Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh a god, were brought to the United Kingdom as part of the Channel 4 reality show Meet the Natives in 2007. Part of their itinerary included an off-screen meeting with the prince. [10]

In An Idiot Abroad , Series 2, Episode 1, Karl Pilkington visited Tanna and discussed the Prince Philip Movement and met those who visited Windsor Castle.

In 2009 the Travel Channel aired Meet the Natives: USA , which brought five men from another group from Tanna to the United States. [11] Their tribe reveres Tom Navy, an American World War II sailor who generations ago had taught the inhabitants to live in peace. The Tanna ambassadors were taken across, visiting five states, and eventually meeting former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell and verifying with him that the spirit of peace taught by Tom Navy lives on in then US President, Barack Obama. While visiting with a family on Fort Stewart, US Army Major-General Tony Cucolo conferred a World War II Victory Medal and an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal upon the chief in representation of the contribution the people of Tanna in World War II.

Tanna , a film depicting the true story of a couple who decided to marry for love, rather than obey their parents' wishes, is set on the island, [12] [9] and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards. [13]


The island is served by Whitegrass Airport.

Related Research Articles

Vanuatu Country in the South Pacific Ocean

Vanuatu, officially the Republic of Vanuatu, is an island country located in the South Pacific Ocean. The archipelago, which is of volcanic origin, is 1,750 kilometres (1,090 mi) east of northern Australia, 540 kilometres (340 mi) northeast of New Caledonia, east of New Guinea, southeast of the Solomon Islands, and west of Fiji.

History of Vanuatu Aspect of history

The history of Vanuatu begins obscurely. The commonly held theory of Vanuatu's prehistory from archaeological evidence supports that peoples speaking Austronesian languages first came to the islands some 3,300 years ago. Pottery fragments have been found dating back to 1300 BC. What little is known of the pre-European contact history of Vanuatu has been gleaned from oral histories and legends. One important early king was Roy Mata, who united several tribes, and was buried in a large mound with several retainers.

Cargo cult New religious movement

A cargo cult is a indigenist millenarian belief system in which adherents perform rituals which they believe will cause a more technologically advanced society to deliver goods. These cults were first described in Melanesia in the wake of contact with allied military forces during the Second World War.

John Frum Figure associated with cargo cults on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu

John Frum is a figure associated with cargo cults on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. He is often depicted as an American World War II serviceman who will bring wealth and prosperity to the people if they follow him. Quoting David Attenborough's report of an encounter: "'E look like you. 'E got white face. 'E tall man. 'E live 'long South America."

Tafea Province

Tafea is the southernmost of the six provinces of Vanuatu.

Provinces of Vanuatu

Vanuatu has been divided into six provinces since 1994. The names in English of all provinces are derived from the initial letters of their constituent islands:

The nine South Vanuatu languages form a family of the Southern Oceanic languages, spoken in Tafea Province of Vanuatu.

Futuna is an island in the Tafea province of Vanuatu. It is the easternmost island in the country.


Erromango is the fourth largest island in the Vanuatu archipelago. With a land area of 891.9 square kilometres (344.4 sq mi) it is the largest island in Tafea Province, the southernmost of Vanuatu's six administrative regions.

Aniwa Island Island in Tafea Province, Vanuatu

Aniwa is a small island in the southernmost province of Tafea, Vanuatu.

Mount Yasur Volcano on Tanna Island, Vanuatu

Mount Yasur is a volcano on Tanna Island, Vanuatu, 361 m (1,184 ft) high above sea level, on the coast near Sulphur Bay, northeast of the taller Mount Tukosmera, which was active in the Pleistocene. It has a largely unvegetated pyroclastic cone with a nearly circular summit crater 400 m in diameter. It is a stratovolcano, caused by the eastward-moving Indo-Australian Plate being subducted under the westward-moving Pacific Plate. It has been erupting nearly continuously for several hundred years, although it can usually be approached safely. Its eruptions, which often occur several times an hour, are classified as Strombolian or Vulcanian. A large lava plain creeps across the valley at the base.

Isangel Town in Tafea Province, Vanuatu

Isangel is a town in Vanuatu.

Sulphur Bay is a bay on the eastern side of Tanna island in Vanuatu. Nearby is Mount Yasur, called the world's most accessible volcano. The area is the center of the John Frum cargo cult, a movement that believes their savior, an American World War II GI, resides within Yasur with his men. Sulphur Bay was the first part of the island visited by Westerners, when the glow of Mount Yasur attracted James Cook in 1774.

Prince Philip movement Religious sect followed by Kastom people in Vanuatu

The Prince Philip movement is a religious sect followed by the Kastom people around the villages of Yaohnanen and Yakel on the southern island of Tanna in Vanuatu. It is a cargo cult of the Yaohnanen tribe, who believe in the divinity of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921–2021), the former consort to Queen Elizabeth II.

Religion in Vanuatu

Approximately 83% of the population of Vanuatu is Christian. An estimated 32% is Presbyterian, 13% Roman Catholic, 13% Anglican, and 11% Seventh-day Adventist. Groups that together constitute 14% include the Church of Christ 3.8%, United Pentecostal Church UPCIV Assemblies of God, and other Christian denominations.

Culture of Vanuatu

This article presents an overview of the culture of Vanuatu.

Vanuatu, officially known as the Republic of Vanuatu, is an island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean. The archipelago, which is of volcanic origin, is some 1,750 kilometres (1,090 mi) east of northern Australia, 500 kilometres (310 mi) north-east of New Caledonia, west of Fiji, and southeast of the Solomon Islands, near New Guinea. The nation's largest town and the capital Port Vila is situated on Efate Island.

Lenakel, or West Tanna, is a dialect chain spoken on the western coast of Tanna Island in Vanuatu.

<i>Tanna</i> (film) 2015 film by Bentley Dean, Martin Butler

Tanna is a 2015 Australian-Ni-Vanuatu film set on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific, depicting the true story of a couple who decided to marry for love, rather than obey their parents' wishes. Starring Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain, the film is based on an actual marriage dispute.

Victoria-Vanuatu Physician Project

The Victoria-Vanuatu Physician Project (ViVa) was a Canadian non-governmental organization of physicians and their families from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. For 24 years it supplied a medical doctor to the island of Tanna, Vanuatu.


  1. Biography of John Gibson Paton at Christian Biography Resources
  2. Langdon, Robert (1984) Where the whalers went: An index to the Pacific ports and islands visited by American whalers (and some other ships) in the 19th century, Canberra, Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, p.191. ISBN   086784471X
  3. Waiting for John Documentary. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  4. Robertson, Joshua (15 March 2015). "Cyclone Pam: aid agencies report widespread devastation in Vanuatu" . Retrieved 4 November 2016 via The Guardian.
  5. "Tanna struggles through devastating drought as El Nino continues". 3 November 2015. Retrieved 4 November 2016.
  6. 2009 Census Summary release final Archived 2013-12-21 at the Wayback Machine - Government of Vanuatu
  7. Lissant Bolton. Tree and the Canoe: History and ethnogeography of Tanna, The Oceania, Dec 1996
  8. Baylis, Matthew (2013). Man Belong Mrs Queen Adventures with the Philip Worshippers. ISBN   978-1-908699-64-0.
  9. 1 2 Lindstrom, Lamont. "Award-winning film Tanna sets Romeo and Juliet in the south Pacific" . Retrieved 4 November 2016.
  10. , The Independent, 6 October 2007
  11. Meet the Natives: USA Archived 2009-11-22 at the Wayback Machine , Travel Channel, Accessed 24 December 2009
  12. Luke Buckmaster. "Tanna review – volcanic South Pacific love story shot entirely in Vanuatu". the Guardian. Retrieved 30 January 2017.
  13. Samuelson, Kate (24 January 2017). "Here Are the 2017 Oscar Nominations". Time . Retrieved 30 January 2017.


God is american, feature documentary (2007, 52 min), by Richard Martin-Jordan, on John Frum's cult at Tanna.