Mother Earth a Ghost?

By Jheri St. James

Vanuatu Island

Vanuatu is an island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean. Of volcanic origin, this archipelago consists of approximately 82 relatively small, geologically newer islands (65 of them inhabited), about 1,090 miles east of northern Australia, 310 miles northeast of New Caledonia, west of Fiji, and southeast of the Solomon Islands near New Guinea. The distance is about 800 miles from north to southernmost islands.

For nearly 400 years after a Spanish expedition arrived and named Espiritu Santo (Holy Spirit) for Spain in 1605, Vanuatu was ruled and managed by Europeans—Spain, France and the United Kingdom—under the name the New Hebrides. In the 1970’s an independence movement arose, featuring a mythical messianic figure named John Frum, promising Melanesian deliverance. In 1980, amidst the brief Coconut War, the Republic of Vanuatu was founded: Vanua – home, and tu – stand, indicating the independent status of the new nation.


Provinces in Vanuatu Islands

Provinces in Vanuatu Islands

From largest to smallest, islands are named: Espiritu Santo, Malakula, Efate, Erromango, Ambrym, Tanns, Pentecost, Epi, Embae or Aoba, Vanua Lava, Gaua, Maewo, Malo and Anatom or Aneityum. Largest towns are the capital Port Vila on Efate, and Luganville on Espiritu Santo. The highest point is Mt. Tabwemasana on Espiritu Santo.

There are several active volcanos in Vanuatu—Lopevi above ground, and several under water. Vanuatu is recognized as a distinct terrestrial ecoregion known as the Vanuatu rain forests, part of the Australasia ecozone, which includes New Caledonia, Solomon Islands, Australia, New Guinea, and New Zealand. What this often means is that Vanuatu is fresh, new soil being made by the Great Mother.





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Volcanic Cinder Plain at Mt. Yasur on Tanna Island

(Volcanic Cinder Plain at Mt. Yasur on Tanna Island)

Despite its tropical forests, Vanuatu has a limited number of plant and animal species; no indigenous large mammals. The 19 species of native reptiles include the flowerpot snake, found only on Efate. There are 11 species of bats (3 unique to Vanuatu) and 61 species of land and water birds. The region is rich in sea life with more than 4,000 species of marine mollusks.

Stream on Efate Island

Stream on Efate Island


Wooden Vanuatu Slit Drums

Picture of wooden Vanuatu slit
drums at a museum in Vanuatu.

The John Frum cult originally was formed in Tanna in the 1940’s with the arrival of Americans during World War II and their informal habits and relative wealth. The mythical John Frum was the basis for an indigenous cargo cult—a movement attempting to obtain industrial goods through magic. In addition to this John Frum cult , which is still large and has adherents in the parliament, another cult is the Prince Philip Movement, which reveres the United Kingdom’s Prince Philip. Villagers of the Yaohnanen tribe believed an ancient story about the pale-skinned son of a mountain spirit venturing across the seas to look for a powerful woman to marry. Prince Philip, having visited the island with his new wife Queen Elizabeth, fit this description exactly and is therefore revered and even held as a god around the isle of Tanna.

The Coconut War: Beginning in June 1980, Jimmy Stevens, head of the Nagriamel movement, led an uprising against the colonial officials and the plans for independence, in an uprising that lasted about 12 weeks. The rebels blockaded Santo-Pekoa International Airport, destroyed two bridges, and declared the independence of Espiritu Santo island as the "State of Vemerana". Stevens was supported by French-speaking landowners and by the Phoenix Foundation, an American business foundation that supported the establishment a libertarian tax haven in the New Hebrides.

On 8 June 1980, the New Hebrides government asked Britain and France to send troops to put down a rebellion on the island of Espiritu Santo. France refused to allow the United Kingdom to deploy troops to defuse the crisis, and French soldiers stationed on Espiritu Santo took no action. As independence day neared, the Prime Minister-elect, Walter Lini, asked Papua New Guinea if it would send troops to intervene. As Papua New Guinean soldiers began arriving in Espiritu Santo, the foreign press began referring to the ongoing events as the "Coconut War," brief and unconventional as it was.

The residents of Espiritu Santo generally welcomed the Papua New Guineans as fellow

Long God Yumi Stanap

Melanesians. Stevens' followers were armed with only bows and arrows, rocks, and slings. There were few casualties, and the war came to a sudden end. When a vehicle carrying Stevens' son burst through a Papua New Guinean roadblock in late August 1980, the soldiers opened fire on the vehicle, killing Stevens' son. Shortly thereafter, Jimmy Stevens surrendered, stating that he had never intended that anyone be harmed. At Stevens' trial, the support of the Phoenix Foundation to the Nagriamel movement was revealed. It was also revealed that the French government had secretly supported Stevens in his efforts. Stevens was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment; he remained in prison until 1991.

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Agriculture on Vanuatu

The four mainstays of the Vanuatu economy are agriculture, tourism, offshore financial services, and raising cattle. There is substantial fishing activity, although this industry does not bring in much foreign exchange. Exports include copra, kava, beef, cocoa, and timber. Agriculture provides a living for 65% of the population. The picture right is from a commercial agriculture endeavor on Efate.  










Collector in Vanuatu

Our collector in Vanuatu was Amanda Prasow (pictured), through her association with Selianne Kalsakau, who was with the Peace Corps in Vanuatu at the time of this collection in 2008. Selianne gave “Travis” the empty box and he brought it to Amanda in Bongo Bongo, on Tongoa Island. “Hi Gary. I’ve sent you an e-mail of a picture of the area where the soil was from (below). I am no longer in touch with Selianne, though I do still talk to some of the other Peace Corps Vanuatu staff. I was the photographer.” at: Don’t miss these other gorgeous views.







In Vanuatu, there seem to be large populations of people with great faith in the mythical and fantasy hero John Frum and the living man, Prince Philip. Belief systems are interesting as we at Common Ground 191 have learned in studying all these various countries and their people and soils. In Christian faiths, the main deities are called Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Everybody in those religions is very clear about the identity of the Holy Ghost. But what if this invisible deity called the Holy Ghost is Mother Earth, a living, breathing, volcanic female deity? She and her processes of birth and life and death go unseen to many of her inhabitants. The island named Spiritu Santo in Vanuatu gives credence to this idea, as surely Vanuatu is one of the most beautiful, blessed and continuously new, birthing places of the Great Mother--no ghost at all, but a living, breathing entity—embracing her human children for millennia in peace and even in the Coconut War! As the oceans continue to rise, island nations like Vanuatu may become underwater ghosts themselves. Let us enjoy her beauty and her soil while we may.


Thank you to Selianne, Amanda and the ghostly Jason for collecting the lovely soil of Bongo Bongo in Vanuatu for Common Ground 191. (All uncited photos are from Wikipedia)  















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