The Troubled Histories of a Stranger God: Religious Crossing, Sacred Power, and Anglican Colonialism in Vanuatu Academic Article uri icon


  • Ever the trickster, Tagaro appears and multiplies, disappears and reappears, across landscapes past and present in Vanuatu. His ancient adventures, deeds, and follies are deeply inscribed into the northern islands—on Maewo, Ambae, and Pentecost, especially—in rocks, caves, trees, and the shape of hills. In recent decades, Tagaro has journeyed more widely, by way of the conversations and texts of ni-Vanuatu religious scholars and early ethnologists, for the most part within the context of the Melanesian Mission of the Anglican Church. Like all good travelers, he always returns from his journeys transformed, carrying all of the burdens that are implicated in the engagement with otherness that journeying entails. For the Sia Raga of Pentecost Island (Taylor 2008), such fraught Oceanic crossings have split Tagaro into a seemingly contradictory figure. For some he is a benevolent God, for others a maniacal, murderous, axe-wielding foreigner. This radical ambivalence calls to mind Marshall Sahlins' description of those stranger-kings, so prevalent in the histories of neighboring Fiji and beyond, powerful figures who arrive from beyond society and who rule through acting beyond it morally, but in doing so are eventually encompassed by the people, “to the extent that their sovereignty is always problematical and their lives are often at risk” (1981b: 111). It also suggests the Deus absconditus of European Christian historiography: a largely unknown but always potentially dangerous “hidden God” that lies beyond human understanding of the covenant. In this paper I explore the troubled histories of Tagaro for what they tell us of changing local engagements with that ostensibly “Other” stranger, Christianity's God Almighty, and of the dynamics of sacred power within the continuing legacy of colonialism's culture. In doing so it demonstrates the ongoing vitality of indigenous Gods, ancestors, and culture heroes to the people of the Pacific region and beyond, and more especially their importance to understanding and negotiating social, political, and religious relations of power.

publication date

  • April 2010