Blackbirding and Bislama: language and culture in Vanuatu

Vanuatu is a nation in the South Pacific made up of eight main islands, and 79 further small islands . The islands are a united nation not out of any shared (original) language or culture, but out of shared colonial history: the great European powers in the Pacific, in their infinite wisdom, decided these islands would make a governable grouping based on a map, not on any links between the people.

Bislama in Vanuatu

Crab trails on the beach, Vanuatu

The national language of Vanuatu, and the one language that you can guarantee an Ni Vanau will speak, is bislama. As well as bislama, each Ni Vanau will speak one or more of the 100+ native Melanesian languages (making Vanuatu the most language dense country in the world), and possibly English, or French, or both.

I was first exposed to bislama a year and a half ago, staying in a backpackers in the Hawke’s Bay. A group of young Ni Vanautu men in New Zealand as seasonal workers, picking peaches and nectarines, were also at the backpackers. They were shy and giggly, talking to my sister and I with their heads ducked, turning to each other and talking in bislama, trying to interpret and translate our questions about their country and culture into words both parties would understand.

The problem was not just words: it was worlds. Hawaii and New Zealand are very similar culturally: first world, Western, developed. The kanaka maoli culture of Hawaii and the tangata maori culture of New Zealand are very similar: parallel customs and traditions, each with a single language, with minor dialectical changes based on region (note the similarities in the terms for native people).

Bislama in Vanuatu

Happy piggy, Vanuatu

Vanuatu is a whole different world: third world, multiple languages and customs, undeveloped. Because I’d only seen islands that looked like mine: like Hawaii, like New Zealand, like Samoa and Tonga, I struggled to comprehend a Pacific culture that was so different.

And then, listening to the fruitpickers talk in bislama as they tried to translate our questions, and ask us things in return, I realised that they were speaking English. Well, all their words were English: heavily accented, rearranged, said very quickly, and not always used in a way we would expect, but definitely English.

Because bislama is English: a form of pidgin English: heavily accented, rearranged, said very quickly, and not always used in a way we would expect. And it’s the national language!

A memorial stone in Bislama for Bertha Dobbins, who brought the Baha'i Faith to Vanuatu

A memorial stone in Bislama for Bertha Dobbins, who brought the Baha’i Faith to Vanuatu

In understanding bislama, and what it is, and where it came from, I was finally able to understand Vanuatu a little bit.

Vanuatu’s national language is bislama specifically because there are over 100 native languages, and because the Western colonial powers (England and France, to be precise) shoved a random assortment of islands into one country without regard for any unity of culture, and for one, further, terrible reason: blackbirding.

Blackbirding is essentially slavery in the South Pacific. In the late 19th century different European powers began developing industries in the Pacific that were dependent on large amounts of hard labour.

In Hawaii, these industries were sugar cane and pineapple, and they recruited workers first from the Azores in Portugal, then in huge numbers from China and Japan, and finally from the Philippines.  The descendants of these recruits make up Hawaii’s multicultural population (for a really good introduction to immigrant labour in Hawaii, try to find a film called Picture Bride, about an early 20th century Japanese ‘picture bride’ who comes out to marry a sugar cane worker). In Fiji, the English brought in workers from India. For the sugar cane plantations of Queensland in Australia, and the tin mines of the Solomon islands, as well as for copra plantations and phosphate mining on other Pacific Islands, the mine and plantation owners looked closer to home: to the myriad small islands of Vanuatu and the Solomons.

In the Azores, China, Japan, India & the Philippines, recruits to Pacific islands may have been mislead as to how rosy the prospects would be in their new homeland, but they were (usually) came willingly, of their own accord.

In the Pacific islands most islanders had no desire to leave their idyllic homes, and blackbirders resorted to force. Islanders were tempted on to ships with promises of trade, or, once Christianity had taken hold, called to revival meetings by blackbirders pretending to be missionaries. Sometimes brute force was used to kidnap whole villages.

Those too young, old or weak to work were sometimes tossed overboard too far out to sea to swim back, and conditions onboard the ships were so horrific, so death rates were incredibly high. The fate of those who did survive the initial journey wasn’t much better. Working conditions on sugar cane or copra plantations were hard, and in the tin mines, even worse.

Along with poor housing, poor food, and backbreaking labour, the one thing most places with a conscripted labour force had in common was a mass of people who didn’t speak the same language, and an overseer who almost always spoke English. The result was the beginnings of bislama: the one language all the workers heard, and needed to understand a little of to survive, was English. Picking it up allowed them to communicate with each other, and to follow the orders that were given.

After 3 years of work (depending on the area), a worker who had been blackbirded was supposed to be taken home with whatever they might have earned (usually nothing, as they were charged for food and housing at rates higher than their pay). There was enormous profit for the blackbirders in collecting workers, but none in getting a worker home, so blackbirders weren’t too particular about taking people back to where they had been stolen from in the first place.  In the early years of blackbirding, many workers who had managed to survive the initial trip out, and their years of labour, were killed (and sometimes eaten) because they were dropped on an island where they were a stranger.

Unsurprisingly, once many islanders realised that interactions with outsiders could have horrible aftermaths, they fought back. The next ship to visit an island that had been the victim of blackbirding often found itself under immediate attack: some blackbirders where wiped out this way, but legitimate missionaries and traders also suffered the consequences of the blackbirders duplicity. Once bitten, the Ni Vanautu and other islanders bit first (often literally, because cannibalism was widely practiced in Vanuatu) when it came to Western ships.

Although defensive attacks made it harder, and blackbirders were sometimes charged with murder if they killed too many islanders in a collecting trip, the practice was so lucrative, and so far away from the eyes of most of the Western world that might have condemned it, that it continued up into the early 20th century. It was missionaries who can claim the most credit in ending blackbirding: they campaigned to have it be made illegal almost as zealously as they attempted to convert the islanders.

For those islanders who survived both their years of conscripted labour, and their return home, they took with them the bits of English they had learned, tacked them on to a Pacific language grammar framework and used them to communicate with missionaries and traders, and with anyone in the next village or next island over who spoke a different native language, but now shared a common, if broken, tongue.

Over the years bits of French also got mixed into bislama, because France had joint control over Vanuatu with England for most of the 20th century, and a French-based bislama is spoken in Vanuatu’s neighbor, New Caledonia. In fact the name bislama is French based: it’s a corruption of beche la mer (sea slug).

The final reason bislama is predominantly English based, and the universal language of Vanuatu, is World War II. Thousands of American servicemen (and probably a few women) descended on Vanuatu during the war and used the islands as a launching pad for campaigns in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.

The war is still a huge deal in the islands (where it is still ‘the war’). Tourist attractions in Vanuatu today include a disused landing strip, the offshore wrecks of planes that ran out of fuel before the landing strip, diving the wreck of the USS President Coolidge, and a WII museum with sundry artifacts left behind, plus the cultural attraction of a cargo cult that worships a mythic American serviceman, John Frome (and if you think that is weird, wait until you hear about the one that worships the ‘nambawan bigfella him blong mizzes kween‘ (bonus points if you can sound that out and figure out who it is before googling it)). While they were in Vanuatu the Americans built a road around the main island of Efete, and talked with the locals in basic English, helping to solidify bislama as the lingua franca.

Because most of the words in bislama are English, you can communicate between bislama and most English dialects using the main words, so the servicemen found themselves able to talk to the locals, and vice versa.

Bislama in Vanuatu

Hermit crab, Vanuatu

It doesn’t matter if you say ‘What’s your name?” or “Wot name blong yu?”, as long as you catch the “name” part.

Some of the usages are a little different: tumas (too much) where we would say ‘very much': tank yu tumas, me likem tumas.

Some sound like a cliché of pidgin: yu savvy? (do you know/are you familiar with) from the French save.

Some were very hard for me to say, because through my cultural lense they are unacceptable: pikinini for children, for example.

Some look and sound like a completely foreign language until you think about them: yumi (us, we) from you-me. Yumi likem tumas.

And some are just like Hawaiian pidgin and make me feel at home: where yu stay? (where are you from/where are you); be dere bumbae (I will be there by-and-by).

But instead of saying da kine for good/the best as we do in Hawaii, in Vanuatu they say nambawan (number one).

Bislama in Vanuatu

Piglets and cows, Vanuatu

Rate the Dress: A Lady of Fashion, 1914

Last week I showed you an 1890s Worth dress, to mixed reviews.  Some of you saw Worth, and looked no further, some thought it was quite an off day.  But you’ll have to wait for an add up, as I need to finish a dress, a swimsuit, and a jacket in the next three days!

It’s all go with Katherine Mansfield fashions this week, and I was almost too busy to do a Rate the Dress.

So here is a quick Mansfield inspired one: something 1910s and avant garde, and (as she always overran her clothing allowance), probably quite pricey:

Costume de serge fine garni de petits boutons de corail, plate 157 from Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1914

Costume de serge fine garni de petits boutons de corail, plate 157 from Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1914

What do you think of the hobble-skirt and the layered jacket?  The touch of cobalt in the hat?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10

Clothing the World of Katherine Mansfield

Modernist writer Katherine Mansfield is arguably the most famous Wellingtonian, and, after Sir Edmund Hillary, possibly the most famous New Zealander, of all time.  (Yes, at the moment there are probably more people who know of, say, Peter Jackson, but in a century?).

She was definitely my first introduction to New Zealand.  In high school I read ‘At the Bay’ and ‘The Garden Party’, both set in Wellington, as well as her London based ‘Bliss.’  I enjoyed Mansfield’s short stories: the sense of place and time, the ability to convey personality in just a few words.

It wasn’t until I discovered Mansfield’s poetry that I fell in love with her work though.  The humour of A New Hymn, the magic of Butterfly Laughter, the picture she paints in In The Rangitaki Valley!  Gorgeous!

In addition to being an amazing writer, Mansfield is also fascinating as a person: her life spanned one of the most interesting shifts in societal mores and expectation that history has ever seen.  Fashions, are, in fact, the perfect way to illustrate the shift in Mansfield’s life.  She was raised at a time when women wore layers of fabric and frills: chemises, corsets, petticoats, high necklines and long trains.  She came of age just as the modern woman in practical white blouses and simple skirts began to emerge. As a mature adult she wore the newest, most avant garde fashions, from bright stockings to simple, waistless shift dresses.

So, because I love Mansfield’s writing, and because she, and her clothing, are so interesting, I’m thrilled to be doing a talk in conjunction with the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Museum:


Through the talk I’ll be exploring the way dress shaped society during the author’s life with (of course!) models in reproductions of period garments, from the Victorian constraints of the 1880s to the emancipated silhouettes of the 20s.

And if you can’t be there, of course there will be lots of pictures!

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Meet the Dreamstress

Leimomi Oakes is the Dreamstress, a textile historian, seamstress, designer, speaker and museum professional. Leimomi is available for educational and entertaining presentations, textile and fashion advice, special commissions and events. Click to learn more

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