Chief Roi Mata's Domain - World Heritage Site
PO Box 184
Port Vila, SHEFA
In July 2008, Chief Roi Mata’s Domain was formally registered as a World Heritage site – the first in Vanuatu! Just half an hour’s drive north of Port Vila and featuring a string of perfect beaches, a breathtaking harbour, spectacular views of the hat-shaped island of Artok, and so much more! Click here to book a tour to the world heritage site. Throughout the middle and southern islands of Vanuatu there existed the story of a great and powerful chief, who united the warring and cannibalistic tribes of the area into a unified, and peaceful group of tribes, a first in ancient Vanuatu.
In a cultures where language is unwritten, oral traditions are faithfully passed down from generation to generation. The accuracy of such history is frequently disputed by Western cultures, for what is heard can be changed in the retelling. And in any case, how does one separate fact from legend? Throughout the middle and southern islands of Vanuatu there existed the story of a great and powerful man. A Paramount Chief beyond Paramount Chiefs, so that he took on the title of King. Through sheer personal magnetism, Roymata, so the story goes, united the warring and cannibalistic tribes of the area into a unified, peaceful group in what are fondly 'remembered' as halcyon years. But sibling jealousy ended the life of this much revered man, when his brother shot a poison dart into Roymata's throat. He did not die quickly, but suffered a lingering malaise.
His grieving family and clan carried the dying King around the island of Efate, to say farewell to those whom he had unified. Finally he was taken to the famous Feles Cave on Lelepa Island where he died. It is then told how he was carried to Devil's Point, the entry to the underworld, and through the underwater caverns of Tukutuku to the nearby Island or Retoka (Hat Island) where he was interred. And, say the legends, with him, following the custom of the era, men and women were interred with him. But perhaps most spine chilling was that many of these people were entombed alive. How true could the legend be? One aspect tells how the waters between Tukutuku and Retoka Island parted to allow the funeral party across. Certainly that could not be fact. As to the caverns of Tukutuku, they are very real. Lava tunnels and coral encrusted lava flows create an underwater labyrinth that could easily be thought to lead to a mythical underworld. But the caves have been explored extensively by scuba divers and do not lead to Hat Island. How long ago did it happen? By *matrilineal decent, the people of Tongoa (who retain an extensive oral history going back to their first settlement in Vanuatu over 5,000 years before) narrowed it down to 1265 A.D. A seven hundred year long tabu, on pain of death had been placed on Retoka, more commonly known as Hat Island (photo below).
No one lived there and few plucked up the courage to sleep, or even go there, despite its wealth of turtle eggs and abundant fish life. Hat was know as the Island of the dead, a ghost island. In 1967 a French archeologist, Jose Garanger, offered to search for the grave of Roymata to determine if he was a real, or mythological figure. The chiefs of Lelepa, equally curious, gave their go-ahead on condition that the grave be returned to its original state after investigation. On Retoka, the site was surprisingly easy to find. Two rock slabs, like tombstones, at the base of a large white wood tree were located in a natural 'clearing' only 100m from the beach, on the north west side of the small island. Oral tradition held that no tree or bush would ever grow over the site of Roymata's grave.
In an area 20m x 10m, the archeological team dug down about a metre...carefully uncovering skeletons as they went. Again, according to oral history, they would find 47 skeletons. As bones were uncovered it quickly became evident that a mass burial had taken place.
Finally, with the entire grave site exposed, the evidence was carefully documented and photographed and the site reburied intact, complete with rich adornments. Information from the site and oral history paints an amazing story. Perhaps most incredible is the accuracy of the legend. Forty seven skeletons were unearthed, radio carbon dating placing their time of death at between 1250-1300 A.D.
These facts verified the oral histories was true. And from such history was revealed what the discoveries at the site really meant. It must have been a grand event. Hundreds of mourners had accompanied Roymata to his final resting place. Forty six were never to leave. Mass burials for big chiefs were customary until the arrival of Europeans.
Traditionally, when a prominent chief died he required the company of his family and supporters to join him in his journey to the subterranean nether world. At least one of his wives must go - Roymata was reputed to have had ten.
Also on the sacrificial hit list were the very old, incurably sick or incapacitated, children whose mothers had died in childbirth and lesser chief's wives where a daughter had died, sick witch doctors and wives of dead sorcerer's.
From a practical standpoint, it was a general clearing out of economically unproductive people, and those who may have caused the deaths of others. For the men, being buried alive followed the ritual kava ceremony. But on this occasion, the kava would have been laced with a soporific poison. But women were not allowed to drink kava, so they were either bravely buried alive or strangled with a cord and laid out beside their husbands. All were orientated towards the southwest, so their spirits entered the dry 'country of the dead' out from Devil's Point. Those buried closest to Roymata were richly adorned with bracelets, shells and carved bones.
These were most likely immediate family or honoured volunteers. Roymata's arms were ringed with valuable full circle pig's tusks, and white 'magic' shells placed strategically around his body. His head was supported on a slab of dressed limestone. Many skulls appear elongated, following the fashion of some northern islands to stretch the skull by biding after birth. Hat Island is no longer tabu. The customary owners of the island offer tours to explore Hat Island and Roymata's grave.