Emalus Library Online Documents Collection - Vanuatu

Rambaramps of South Malekula

Source: http://www.tribalsite.com/articles/malekula.htm

Wild and mountainous Malekula is the second largest island in the long chain that comprises the Republic of Vanuatu. Malekula does not appear in travel brochures as a tourist destination; rather, it has a dark and forboding demeanor and its history encompasses blackbirding, cannibalism, and internecine warfare.

The Melanesians of Malekula long ago earned a reputation as being stubborn, conservative and strongly resistant to the Europeans' interference in their lives and his trespass on their lands. Nevertheless, slowly and over time missionaries and colonial government officials nibbled away at the edges, and one by one the coastal villages were penetrated. Introduced diseases also decimated many of the interior groups and today Malekula is home to only a remnant population of missionized coastal villages and a few hundred traditional tribal people referred to as the Big Nambas and Small Nambas, living respectively in the mountainous interiors of the north and south ends of the island.

Ancestor veneration through Rambaramp effigies was known only in some parts of southwest Malekula. The last areas where Rambaramps are made and used are are Toman Island, situated about one mile off the southwestern coast of Malekula, and in three small villages of the Small Nambas tribe (so called because of relatively modest proportions of the penis sheath that is worn). The lives of the Small Nambas are still intimately interwoven with the pursuit of rank and prestige through indigenous grade societies, ancestor worship, and an endless ceremonial cycle, all of which support group cohesion and continuity.


The Nevimbur and Nimangki grade societies provide the opportunity for an ambitious man to pass through a hierarchy of rank, achieved by accumulating wealth and consquently sharing with the community. For each step of an individual's ascendancy, he is obligated to provide feasts, entertainment and commissioned art works.

In death the position that a man had attained in the grade societies is recreated in a commemorative effigy known as a Rambaramp -- a life-size, life-like funeral effigy that is fashioned from tree fern, wood and bamboo, overlaid with a finely ground vegative compost and finally capped with the decapitated and overmodeled skull of the deceased. All of the paraphernalia of rank and prestige that the deceased gained while living are precisely mirrored in his Rambaramp.

Only chiefs and men of high rank were honored after death by the creation of a Rambaramp and its attendant rites. The skull of the deceased was believed to retain his spirit; the constructed figure was to encase and give body and dignity to that spirit.

After the death of a high personage, the body was placed on a platform in the jungle until it had drained. It was then carried into the family house and placed in the ceiling until thoroughly dried and smoked. The remains were transported back and forth between the house and the jungle several times, each move being celebrated by the carving of figures in black palm, by feasting or other rites, all as prescribed by village custom. After a year had passed, the master Rambaramp maker would be summoned. His fee would be negotiated (in food and pigs) and he would set to work in an isolated hut, speaking with no one until he had completed his task. He would create the figure entirely of vegetable matter -- tree resins, cobsebs and natural pigments -- and adorn it with boar's tusks, shells, and occasionally some turtle shell. The construction would take between three and six months, the final step being the placing of the now clean skull atop and overworking it with the same natural materials as composed for the body.

Upon completion of the effigy, a large feast was held, with many prime tusked pigs killed, and the figure was placed in the Amil (custom or men's house) and the spirit was felt to return to the skull, at which point the figure became the true Rambaramp. Ritual feasts and ceremonies attendant to the Rambaramp would then be held every so often over the next twenty years, to strengthen the ancestor's spirit. After the twenty-year cycle was completed, the spirit was felt to depart and the effigy to have lost its power. Only at this time was the Rambaramp removed from the Custom house, and a final ceremony held in its honor.

Although various forms of after-death entitlement were by no means unique in the Pacific it is worthwhile to note that amongst the Small Nambas it has endured to the present, despite missionaries, goverment officialdom and the pressure of the outside world.


Funerary effigies are a component of several tribal cultures in and around Malekula. From the personal experience of this writer and from observation of the few Rambaramps that are to be found in museums and private collections, it is possible to place South Malekula funerary effigies into at least three stylistic categories. While all Rambaramps essentially follow a human form, there are noticable differences between those of the Small Nambas, those of Toman Island, and those from the area of Port Sandwich on the eastern Malekula coast.

A Rambaramp made by the Small Nambas. Generally about six feet tall, with a round narrow body with no discernable waist. The legs are simply finished at the end of the bamboo poles, without feet. Red and yellow paint predominates, with black used to a lesser degree. Heavy spider web is used for hair, which is fastened in place with either trade cloth or a strip of pandanus leaf. As discussed above, Rambaramps are decorated and adorned in a fashion that mirrors the rank of the deceased. For a man of very high rank small overmodeled faces and heads are added to the shoulders, knees, and upper arms and once again placement and number are rigidly determined by the rank of the man who has died.
Toman Island and south coast Rambaramps such as this one are generally much taller and wider. The trunk is more often fashioned as an inverted V, with the shoulders extravagantly broad and narrowing to form a waist before broadening out to the legs. The contours are usually quite flat, often measuring no more than a couple of inches in depth. For high ranking individuals, tall branch-like protrusions rise above the shoulders some three or four feet; these are further overmodeled with various faces and heads and dangling streamers of pandanus fibres. Here more use is made of black and brown coloring and the legs are finished off with carefully worked feet. The Toman Island Amel, or custom men's house, was quite famous in it's day with dozens of Ramaramps stacked up like cordwood along the interior walls. One or two families still follow the old ways on Toman Island, but unfortunately their numbers are insufficent to support the full ceremonial cycle.
Port Sandwich Rambaramp in the National Museum, Melbourne, Australia. This is the only specimen that I know of, although of course there might be others in private collections. This Rambaramp differs significantly from the others shown. The body and legs appear to be fashioned from one piece of wood, while the arms are also plain wood and are seperately attached. There does not appear to be much overmodeling. Fish, made from dried leaves and cane, hang down over the chest. The Temes Malau mask is a very unusual addition. It may or may not have been part of the original figure. Author A. Bernard Deacon, who wrote Malekula, A Vanishing People in the New Hebrides has some questions about the mask, since apparently the two pieces were collected at different times. Unfortunately the Port Sandwich area, which once had a rich and thriving culture, is now greatly depopulated and missionised so information is not readily available.
This is very beautiful and unusual specimen that I've included simply for the reader's enjoyment. I can't place it precisely to any specific location. The photo was taken in a tribal art gallery some years ago, and unfortunately any notes that I might have taken at the time have disappeared. This Rambaramp looks like it might have come from one the islands off Malekula's south coast. If anyone out there has any information about this piece, Tribalsite would like to hear from you.  



Additional Reading

A. Bernard Deacon, author of Malekula, A Vanishing People in the New Hebrides, lived in South-West Bay on Malekula from January 1926 until March 1927, when he died of blackwater fever. His book gives us the first detailed, graphic description of a culture that even then was threatened by the outside world. Although Deacon describes a culture and a people that he thought was fast disappearing, he has been proven wrong! The Malekulans' view of European outsiders has not changed much; they are viewed as ignorant and weak -- soft and feeble beings with poor eyesight, negligible senses of hearing and smell, totally lacking in endurance, and stupid in the ways of the jungle.

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Last Updated on: Monday, 16 July 2007