Scoop Review of Books

Looking for Vampires in Vanuatu

By Scott Hamilton

Last month a couple of vampires knocked on my door. It was after eight o’clock in the evening, and I had fallen asleep, as the fathers of three small boys so often do, on the couch. I opened the door and swallowed my yawn in alarm when I saw the black robes and blood-speckled cheeks of my visitors. One of them opened his black lips, and revealed two long fangs. Saliva dripped from them, so that they resembled melting blebs of ice.

The vampires were short, and I wondered for a moment whether a diet of blood and a nocturnal lifestyle had stunted their growth. Then I noticed the plastic pumpkin emerging like a distended stomach from the robe of one of the vampires, and heard both of my visitors squeal ‘Trick or treat!’, and heard the same greeting echoing through the twilight from a neighbour’s porch. I remembered that it was October the 31st, Halloween, and that, across Auckland and the other cities of New Zealand, groups of kids were hurrying up and down streets pounding on doors, like Jehovah’s Witnesses or desperate insurance salesmen. I yawned again and wandered inside to look for some chocolate in the fridge.

In New Zealand and in many other Western nations, vampires are in fashion. Movies like the Twilight Saga, television series like Van Helsing and Preacher, and a slough-heap of novels all describe the dress, diet, and social codes of the creatures. Sam Neil’s movie Daybreakers made vampirism into a sophisticated allegory for a resource-hungry capitalist society, and professors of cultural studies and sociology are publishing books with titles like Blood will Tell: vampires as metaphors before World War One and Vampires Today: a study of the subculture.

In New Zealand vampires may be the stuff of horror movies, but they entertain rather than frighten us. We leave the movie theatre or turn off Netflix with smiles rather than grimaces on our faces. In another part of the Pacific, though, the vampire elicits genuine horror.
Port Vila has less than fifty thousand residents, but it is the most diverse city in the world. Speakers of almost all of Vanuatu’s one hundred and thirty languages live in the nation’s capital, which is built on a lizard-shaped peninsula on the sheltered western side of the island of Efate. Migrants from Vanuatu’s eighty-two other islands usually settle in Port Vila’s shantytowns.

The shantytowns look to outsiders like perfunctory jumbles of shacks and sheds and tiny gardens, but they are carefully ordered. Migrants from each island generally live together in a particular section of shantytown, speaking their own language or languages and maintaining their own traditions. Each community has its own chiefs, its own informal legal codes, its own ways of settling disputes. Lanes filled with mud and pigs and chickens separate one people from another, in the way sea and jungle once did.

When they came to Port Vila, the peoples of Vanuatu’s outer islands brought more than their languages and their animals and their chiefs. They brought a belief in an invisible world of spirits and ancestors and elemental forces, a world that overlaps with and intervenes in our own. Fishermen brought stones that, simply by being placed on the earth, could extract lightning from a cloud, or throw waves over a reef. Young men brought spells that, if chanted properly, could seduce a woman. Farmers had stones and leaves to make the city’s earth fertile.

Port Vila became a target for migrants after French and British colonists made it their capital. The colonisers claimed that had come to Vanuatu to establish order and unity, but they could never unify their own administration. During its seventy-four years of life the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides featured separate school systems, separate courts, and even duelling postal services. In Port Vila, the Union Jack and the tricolour decorated competing flagpoles, and the Rue du General de Gaulle competed with Winston Churchill Avenue. Migrants came to Port Vila to work for the fragmented civil service, and to grow and sell food to the bickering colonists. In 1980, with the help of troops from Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu won independence from a distracted Britain and a reluctant, spiteful France. Port Vila became the new nation’s capital; more migrants arrived.

Port Vila’s waterfront commercial district is a short walk from some of its poorest neighbourhoods. The waterfront is dominated by the masts of luxury yachts and by the eight stories of the Grand Hotel and Casino, which was built by an Australian company in 2003. The hotel’s balconies lean over a long, curved pool of cerulean water: a clean, contained, safely navigable version of the Pacific.

The hotel’s casino teems with expatriates and tourists. Elderly Americans on day leave from their cruise ships walk zimmer frames like poodles down the aisles between gambling machines; gangs of red-faced Caldoche housewives who have flown an hour from Noumea suck martini straws and thump the machines in frustration; Chinese businessmen sit dourly at poker tables, reluctant to touch their double scotches or their piles of chips; tanned, hirsute IT millionaires lean on the bar and admire the view of the yachts their employees have sailed all the way from San Francisco.

Outside the casino, visitors from the shantytowns unfold blankets filled with carvings, bright and complicated seashells, bags of local tobacco, and lay them on the pavement.

In 2010, at the beginning of February, a young woman was admitted to Port Vila’s hospital. Her limbs were feeble, her face ashen. She managed to lift her hospital robe and show a doctor two deep, clean clefts, one on her back and the other under her left breast. The woman explained that for the last six months her boyfriend had been drinking her blood. He was a vampire – a fampa, in Bislama, the creole that ni-Vanuatu use as a lingua franca. The boyfriend was part of a gang of fampa controlled by a league of sorcerers. When the boy had joined the gang the league’s leader, who was a rich white businessman, had made him swallow a tiny, hairy creature. This creature gave him magical skills, but it had to be fed blood.

The boy would enter his girlfriend’s house trembling, like a junkie needing a fix, and order her to remove her clothes. Long fangs would sprout from his upper jaw. He would feed quickly, clinically, then staunch the girl’s bleeding with magical leaves.

After he had drunk his fill of blood, the fampa would begin to change. His skin would lose its blackness. His arms would become thin. Lumps would grow on his chest. By the time she had left her girlfriend’s house to burglarise Port Vila’s houses and stores, the fampa had temporarily become a white woman with supernatural powers. She could walk through walls, leap from one rooftop to another, crumble into air when a police car or chief approached.

Soon the Melanesian Brotherhood, an Anglican religious order, had been summoned to the hospital. The brotherhood’s members are known as tasiu. They wear robes and wooden staffs, and are sometimes called Christian sorcerers. They exorcise demons, remove curses, reconcile enemies. The tasiu were credited with helping to end the Solomon Islands’ fin de siècle civil war, and with cursing the more recalcitrant warlords of that country with death. The tasiu talked with the girl. They decided to contact the police, and to confront the fampa’s family.
The boy’s parents came from Tongoa and Paama, two small islands in central Vanuatu, and lived with him in the Tongoa section of Man Ples, a shantytown in central Port Vila. By the time tasiu and policemen arrived the boy’s home, they found it filled with his extended family, and with Tongoan chiefs. The boy was crawling from room to room, barking. Blood and pus oozed from wounds on his torso. The boy’s father and uncles had been beating him, in an effort to force the blood-hungry creature out of his stomach. In between his barks, the boy had talked, in a voice that did not seem his own, about his life as a fampa, about the league of sorcerers, and about two inhabitants of Man Ples he had killed.

A crowd soon built outside the fampa’s home. It included a delegation of chiefs from the stretch of shantytown inhabited by migrants from Ambrym, a triangular island in north Vanuatu with an ill-tempered volcano.

Just as electricity is made in power stations, so magic, in ni-Vanuatu tradition, is generated in the fissure vents and lava domes and craters of volcanoes. Ambrym’s sorcerers are feared throughout the country, and in 2007 rioters attacked the Ambrymese inhabitants of Port Vila in revenge for the unexplained death of a woman. Three people died, scores of shacks were burned down, and Ambrymese took refuge in Efate’s forests. Now the chiefs from Ambrym wanted to assure the police and their tasiu allies that the sorcery of the young fampa had nothing to do with their kastom, or culture. The Tongoan chiefs hastily added that they knew nothing about the boy’s magic, either.

The fampa’s family had decided to kill him. If he died, they reasoned, then the creature inside him would also die. His body would belong to him, and to them, again, and could be buried with dignity. But the police seized the boy, and drove him out of Man Ples to a safehouse staffed by the Melanesian Brotherhood.

As the tasiu put holy water and bandages on his wounds and prayed over him, the boy rallied. He stopped barking; the fangs fell out of his mouth like baby teeth. He began to talk calmly, in his own voice, to his captor-saviours. He explained that the league of sorcerers had a secret base, in the jungle north of Port Vila. He said that he and his fellow fampa had burglarised and murdered beyond Man Ples and the other shantytowns: they had roamed the wealthy waterfront district of Port Vila, and the hillside suburbs where expatriate whites lived.

The boy composed a list of the members of the league of sorcerers, a list that included chiefs, civil servants, and a pastor in the Vanuatu Church of Christ. Police utes with metal cages on their decks were seen speeding through Man Ples at dawn. Some of the cages were filled with naked youths. Their skulls thumped against the bars of the cages, as the utes wallowed in the deep potholes of the lanes of Man Ples, and accelerated through flocks of chickens.

The police announced that they had apprehended a number of fampa and other members of the league of sorcerers, and that these people would face trial. A chief from Ambrym had been arrested; he was supposedly a senior member, or even director, of the league. The fampa from Tongoa would not face charges: his girlfriend had consented to his bloodsucking, no evidence could be found for the murders he had claimed and, besides, he had been cured by the tasiu.
The police also announced that they would hold a public meeting in Man Ples, on a piece of open ground where residents often congregated, so that they could share what they had learned about fampa and sorcerers. On the day of the meeting, though, the sky over Port Vila was sealed by black clouds, and inches of rain fell on the city. The meeting was cancelled; the people of Man Ples blamed the league of sorcerers for bewitching the weather.

Today, in the kava circles of Port Vila, stories are still told about fampa. They are still here, residents say in low voices, drinking blood and robbing and murdering. A few may have been punished, but others have joined the gang.

There is a joke that says that the average Melanesian family has seven members – a mother, a father, two boys, two girls, and an anthropologist. In New Guinea, the Solomons, and Vanuatu, scholars from the northern hemisphere have arrived on island after island, holding their notebooks and microphones in the same determined manner that nineteenth century missionaries wielded Bibles.

But where missionaries usually came to destroy the traditional cultures of Melanesia, anthropologists want to study and document those cultures. Any overseas scholar who wants to work in Vanuatu must register with the country’s government, which assigns them an indigenous fieldworker to act as a mentor and a monitor.

Knut Rio is an anthropologist at Bergen University who does his research in Vanuatu. In 2011 he published an essay called ‘Policing the Holy Nation: the State and Righteous Violence in Vanuatu’, in which he tried to make sense of the fampa panic in Port Vila.

Like other Pacific cities, Port Vila is full of stalls and stores selling bootleg DVDs. For the equivalent of a New Zealand dollar, residents can get copies of Hollywood movies and popular television shows. Films about vampires, like the Twilight series, are very popular.
Rio notes that most of the young adults who live in shantytowns like Man Ples are unemployed, and spend their days wandering Port Vila, searching for more fortunate relatives who might give them money. The Bislama phrase ‘stikim nek’ describes the way these youth cadge off their kin.

As they roam their nation’s capital, young ni-Vanuatu see the luxury yachts, hotels, casino, and air-conditioned stores that the city’s elite and its white and Chinese visitors enjoy. The origins of this fantastic wealth and opulence are obscure: the shipyards where yachts and cruise liners are built are far away, and so are the factories that make the goods sold in Port Vila’s stores. It is easy for the young people of the shantytowns to believe that the wealth they see is made with magic. Some of them, Rio suggests, believe that ‘blood is the secret ingredient’ of modern plenty, and that it can be ‘siphoned off’ to ‘sustain and create wealth’. They suspect wealthy foreigners of vampirism.

Sometimes the chiefs of the informal settlements see teenage boys, without rank or jobs, enjoying radios and DVD players and drinking alcohol. The boys are unwilling to explain how they acquired these treasures: they are not about to confess to burglary, and risk a beating and a one-way journey to a remote home island. It is not surprising, Rio suggests, that chiefs sometimes conclude that youths enjoying consumer goods must have resorted to magic to get them – not to magic of their ancestral villages, which helped its users acquire fishes or lovers or a bumper crop of yams, but a new, grisly sort of magic, which has been imported along with the electronics and alcohol the youths crave.

Rio argues that, for ni-Vanuatu attuned to a traditional village life and the values that go with that life, the fampa is a symbol of all that ails Port Vila. The fampa is a ‘monstrosity’, and its ‘blood-letting…risks running wild’.

Knut Rio’s analysis of the fampa is lucid and suggestive. Like the chiefs of Ambrym and Tongoa, the Norwegian anthropologist assumes that the vampire is a creature recently imported to Vanuatu, via movies and television series. But Vanuatu’s involvement in the vampire legend is older and odder than Rio imagines.

In 1857 a young man who would later be known by the name George Sarawia boarded the Anglican missionary ship the Southern Cross, which had anchored off Vanua Lava, one of the Banks Islands in the far north of Vanuatu. Sarawia wanted the steel axes he had seen the white visitors brandish; the Reverend John Patteson wanted the languages of Vanua Lava. At missionary-run schools in Auckland and on Norfolk Island Sarawia became Patteson’s teacher, as well as his pupil, as they worked together on translations of the Bible into Melanesian languages.

A photograph taken after Sarawia’s ordination as a minister survives. With his goatee, tilted chin, and eyes staring into the distance, he looks like a Melanesian Trotsky. Sarawia may have become a Christian clergyman, but he never disavowed the traditions of his peoples. He dressed like a Melanesian, not a British vicar; he became a senior member of the suqe, a secret society whose members sacrificed pigs to please their ancestors. Patteson became fascinated by his friend’s culture, as well as his languages. The missionary who had come to extirpate Melanesian religion began to record its gods, its doctrines, its rites.

Patteson was killed in 1871, but another missionary, Robert Codrington, continued the collaboration with Sarawia. With Sarawia’s assistance, he produced a series of articles, and in 1891 published The Melanesians, a big book crammed with the stories and rituals of the Banks Islands. Codrington’s research was devoured by scholars in Europe. George Fraser quoted it obsessively through the twelve volumes of The Golden Bough, his study of magic and religion. The Golden Bough was in turn read and quoted by many of the twentieth century’s most famous intellectuals and artists, from TS Eliot to Margaret Mead to Jim Morrison.

In one section of The Melanesians, Codrington turns his attention to a ‘belief in the Banks Islands’ of a power ‘like that of Vampires’. Codrington writes that:

The same name talamaur was given to one whose soul was supposed to leave the grave and absorb the lingering vitality of a freshly dead person. There was a woman, some years ago, of whom the story is told that she made no secret of doing this, and that once on the death of a neighbour she gave notice that she would go in the night and eat the vitality. The friends of the deceased therefore kept watch in the house where the corpse lay, and at dead of night heard a scratching at the door, followed by a rustling noise close by the body. One of them threw a stone and seemed to hit the unknown thing; and in the morning the talamaur was found with a bruise on her arm, which she confessed was caused by a stone thrown at her whilst she was eating the vitality.

The work of a couple of twenty-first century scholars complements Codrington’s account of the talamaur.

Alexandre Francois is a French linguist who has sent his career collecting the vocabularies, legends, and poems of Banks Islands languages, and archiving them on the internet. A photograph on Francois’ site shows his sitting in the gloom of a windowless pandanus hut with Maten Womal, one of the three surviving speakers of Olrat, a language of western Vanua Lava. In one of his essays Francois explains that the word ‘tala’ refers, in many Banks languages, to a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ of humans and higher mammals. From the root ‘tala’ many different flowers may grow, including ‘tala-mauri’, which Francois describes as:

[A] magical practice whereby a person endowed with supernatural powers is capable, while their body is asleep, of letting their own soul wander and migrate between worlds, for a few hours, before returning.

Francois notes that sickness is often explained, in the Banks Islands and elsewhere in Vanuatu, by the loss of a sufferer’s soul. A healer may go on a sort of spirit-journey to recover the soul, reunite it with its body, and thereby heal the body.

The German anthropologist Sabine Hess did her PhD on Vanua Lava under the guidance of the local fieldworker and chief Elias Field. In the book she based on her thesis, Hess explains that the people of George Sarawia’s island have largely synthesised Christianity with traditional beliefs, so that many of them now identify heaven and hell with places in their local landscape.

But islanders have not, Hess says, held on to all their old ideas and practices. She reports that some Vanua Lavans were ‘said to have the capacity to leave their body while sleeping’ by creating a ‘second self’ called, in one of their languages, a ‘talme’. Sometimes these sleep-travellers would devour the energy of a recently deceased person. The Anglican church now discourages sleep-travelling, and no one Hess talked with would admit to it.

Elsewhere in her book Hess explains that the souls of the dead are thought, on Vanua Lava, to remain close to their body for five days. A series of rituals acknowledges their presence, and helps them to depart.

Robert Codrington’s account of the talamaur appeared at a time when folklorists and gothic novelists were collecting and retelling stories of bloodsucking creatures from many cultures. When he wrote Dracula Bram Stoker drank from many of these stories. But where Stoker’s vampire was a blood-drinker, Codrington’s fed on something less tangible: a human’s soul, or spirit, or energy.

In 1928 Montague Summers published The Vampire: his kith and kin, a compendium of folklore that became a guide for scholars and an inspiration to Hollywood. Summers was an Anglican vicar until he was accused of groping choirboys. He joined the Catholic church, became a friend of Aleister Crowley, and spent decades writing about ghosts, witches and demons, as well as vampires. For Summers, these creatures were not metaphors or myths: they were real, and they offered proof of the existence of the devil, and therefore, implicitly, of god.

In his book about vampires Summers quotes Codrington’s description of the talamaur, and juxtaposes it with accounts of the asasabonsam, an African ‘monster of human shape’ that ‘sucks the blood of children’ with ‘iron teeth’, and the penangglan, a female vampire from Malaysia that can suck blood with her distended intestines as well as her mouth.

The talamaur leapt from Summers’ tome to dozens of derivative books for popular audiences, and then onto the internet. As its legend spread, the creature’s location became unclear. Some authors placed it in Polynesia; others called it Australian.

By the late nineties self-described vampires were using the internet to socialise and organise. An activist calling himself Merticus X founded a group called the Atlanta Vampire Alliance; similar organisations appeared in other American cities. In an interview with the Guardian in 2015, Merticus X argued that vampires, like homosexuals and transgender people, were an oppressed and marginalised group in America, and demanded the right to drink the blood of consenting adults without persecution or ridicule. In their writings Merticus X and other activists explain that there are many types of vampire. One of these types is the ‘psychic’, or ‘psi’ vampire, which feeds on the ‘energy’ or ‘life force’ of others, either by telepathy or touch. Some psi vampires are tormented by their secret power; others exult in it.

Because the talamaur fed on the intangible parts of humans, it has been adopted as a prototype for the psi vampire. Dozens of individuals around the world use Talamaur as a handle on social media and blogs. A Mexican manufacturer of fangs and other ‘body implants’ calls his business Talamaur, and heavy metal and dark ambient musicians and bands have been inspired by the name.
The ‘vampire’ Robert Codrington encountered in Vanuatu has travelled around the world, been decontextualized and bowdlerised, and entered contemporary Western culture at the very time that images of vampires imported from the West have begun to terrify the people of Port Vila.

Scott Hamilton is an Auckland writer and reviewer. More of Scott’s writing can be found at the Reading the Maps Blog.