400 years on… in the wake of Roi Mata
A milestone in the history of Vanuatu was reached in July 2008, when the demesne of Chief Roi Mata was recognised and listed as a World Heritage site by Unesco.
Chief Roi Mata’s demesne comprises three sites connected to his life and death : his home at Mangaas, the location of his death on Lelepa and his place of eternal rest at Artok (aka Eretoka or Hat Island). According to the oral traditions of the central islands, passed down through the generations, Roi Mata arrived in Vanuatu on a canoe around 1600. Landing at South Efate, at Maniora, the southern-most tip of the island, he set off to conquer Efate and its neighbouring islands, before settling in the north.
Unification of the island
In those days, the tribes were at war with each following the eruption of the Kuwae volcano, which caused land issues. In order to bring about a lasting peace, Roi Mata introduced a matrilinear
lineage system based on totemic lines of descendants between whom no war could be waged. By granting them titles, he enthroned the main chiefs on the island, who were thus tied to him personally after swearing an oath of allegiance. This system is still in force today.
It gave the people of Efate a sense of common identity and contributed to unifying the whole island. Today, more than ever, Chief Roi Mata is the symbol of the cultural heritage of Vanuatu, the bearer of unity and peace.
Word has it that sibbling jealousy led to this great man’s demise, when his very own brother, Roi Muru, shot him through the throat with a poisoned arrow. He succumbed as a result of this treachery, in a cave called Feles,
on Lelepa Island. His body was then carried back to his home at Mangaas on a canoe. He was to be buried on the small uninhabited island of Artok. To accompany him on his final voyage, members of his court and his family were buried alive at his side...
Not just a legend...
This fascinating legend spurred the French archeologist José Garanger into excavating the various sites back in 1972. He discovered Roi Mata’ tomb, together with the skeletal remains of 47 people on Artok Island, thereby confirming the local oral traditions.
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