Vanuatu: Amongst Used-to-be Cannibals

Searching for somewhere off the beaten track – Malekula in the Vanuatu-archipelago.

Published 14 years ago, updated 2 years ago

Our thanks to Rune Kr. Ellingsen for this fascinating article.

MALEKULA, VANUATU: – They will love your white skin, our man says, smilingly, showing off his long, yellow teeth and looking at us with blood-shot eyes. We are on our way to the island of Malekula in the Vanuatu-archipelago, to look for the last cannibal alive.

At the small, local freighter “Kijanga”, originally a fishing vessel remade, sailing with tourists on board is no everyday matter. Especially not white tourists. They tend to stay in the populated areas and only move around on big charter boats, with all facilities on board. We want to see something more, something off the beaten track and intend to try to get under the skin of the local Ni-Vanuatu’s, who are famous for their cannibalism, but also for their great hospitality and friendliness towards strangers. Therefore, we are spending the night on an old, rusty deck hatch under the open sky, whilst our boat “Underveis, is safely berthed in the sailing club in the capital Port Vila.

The friendly people

As we arrive outside the village of Malfakal on the southern shores of Malekula, we ask the captain to take us ashore. The crew hesitate and exchange looks. Here? But there is nothing here! No jetty, no hotels or bars. The village, with its population of 200, in many ways live the same life they lived 4,000 years ago. There are no roads, cars, nothing.

Perfect, we exclaim, eager to get ashore and make new friends. As we wade ashore, 40 plus people sit around in the shadow of the trees, watching us with big smiles, wondering who on earth we might be. Anthropologists or missionaries? Some little children start weeping and run to their mothers. They have never seen white people before. “Ambat”, is the word for fair skinned people here. And there are only two of us. Nearest village sporting telephone and electricity is four hours quick march through the dense and wild jungle.


Some of the youngsters run forward and carry our backpacks up the steep hill from the sea to the village. All the houses are made from palm leaves, even though the presence of a church and a school reminds us that the missionaries and so-called civilization are closing in and placing an ever firmer grip, also in this remote place. It has only been 20-30 years since the villagers were converted to Christianity, and local tradition is still strong among the people here, with jungle spirits and supernatural forces still playing major parts in peoples everyday life. As we are about to find out during our week and a half in Malfakal, their hospitality knows no boundaries. We are given our own hut, three delicious meals a day, and are shown around the village and the premises, free to go wherever we want. The local food favourite is “laplap”, a pudding made from roots and banana leaves. Laplap with meat, fish or shellfish. It doesn’t matter. It all tastes wonderful. And fruits literally fall down on us from the trees.


But we are here looking for cannibals. The last official human sacrifice that took place here, happened as late as in 1967. Today, cannibalism is a shameful thing here, and everybody claims that the times when people were eating people are over. We ask around, and they tell us that also in Malfakal, cannibalism was practised up until the 1960s or 1970s.

The best pieces were the head, the thighs and the buttocks, chief Daussie explains to us. His parents took part in man-eating ceremonies, but he assures us that he never participated in any such activity.

But the people living in the next village, around the bend you see over there, they were eating people all the time, he claims and points his finger. Usually, people from neighbouring tribes would be killed and eaten in a seemingly endless circle of revenge and counter-revenge. Neither children nor women were spared, and every tribe was closely guarded. Nobody was allowed to leave the village without a guard.

But why did you eat missionaries and white people? What had they done to you? That was pure vengeance for the white slave traders that came here first and kidnapped our boys and menfolk by the hundreds. When the missionaries turned up later on, they were usually killed off and eaten immediately. As an example, an old man tells us of his father that was kidnapped by Australian so-called blackbirders as late as in 1922. We didn’t see him again for ten years, he exclaims angrily.


Later on, another chief, Eric, shows us the place where they would dispose of the bones and skins after their cannibal feasts and the place where they cooked their victims. The place is called “nakamal”, a place that is taboo for people who have not been formally allowed to enter it. We are not, of course, but when we are going there with the chief, we are safe from the spirits that guard the nakamal. The recipe for cooking someone was simple. After the victim had been clubbed to death, arms and legs were cut up in pieces, and everything put in an earth oven furnished with palm and banana leaves. There, the meat was cooked until it was done. With bones, skin and hair.

This place has been used by my ancestors for sacrificing humans from time immemorial, Eric says, and shows us stone walls so old that no one knows who built them. Very few people from outside the village have seen this place before us, and we feel both privileged and disgusted at the sight, and at the thought of what must have taken place here, up until for just a few decades ago.


In the evenings, my travel companion Finn Olav organizes shows with him spewing flames and juggling burning sticks. All the children and all the village gather to watch in awe. We listen to them telling the century-old stories of their culture, and we tell them some of our old Norse and Viking stories. It is customary to exchange presents in the Pacific. We give them a large bag of fishing equipment, writing books for the children, an old knife, a torch and many other things. When you own a few items on this earth, you learn to appreciate what you have, and even our plastic water bottles with sports caps, are well received as gifts. After a week and a half among once-was cannibals, the time has come for us to say goodbye and catch another boat back to the capital Port Vila. With luggage of splendid memories, we set our course back to Port Vila, Coca-Cola and cold beers.

Rune Kr. Ellingsen

S/V Underveis

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