Emalus Library Online Documents Collection - Vanuatu Rambaramps of South Malekula
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. 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.