It is the largest island in Vanuatu’s Tafea province, with a current population of approximately 2,000. Prior to European contact, however, the island supported a population of between 10,000 and 25,000.
Erromango was first known to Europeans in 1774 when Captain James Cook landed briefly on the island. Following a tumultuous period of sustained European contact in the 1800s, Erromango’s population and culture was decimated by introduced diseases like smallpox and measles, as well as bloodshed.
The influence of Christian missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in the almost complete loss of Erromangan material culture, which was either destroyed or taken to overseas museums.
According to linguist Terry Crowley, Erromango has “the dubious honour of having suffered the greatest amount of linguistic devastation in the region of Oceania outside of Australia.” As many as six languages were originally spoken, however only one, Sye, remains in popular use, while the others are either extinct, or spoken only by a handful of elderly speakers.
Erromango possessed an easily accessible resource of sandalwood forests, which was quickly exploited by unscrupulous traders. Once this was depleted in the early 1800s, the island was essentially forgotten.
About 30% of Erromango’s population today live in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, although a recent revived interest in sandalwood has meant that people no longer need to leave the island for income-generating opportunities.
Erromango is mountainous and heavily-forested, and there is only a single (unsealed) road on the island. Prior to the introduction of mobile telephony in 2008, there were just five phones on the entire island. Access to telecommunications has improved with the arrival of mobile networks, however ongoing land disputes over cellular tower sites have limited signal coverage to the villages of Ipota and Williams Bay.
About the Erromango Cultural Association
Originally founded in the early 1970s, the Erromango Cultural Association (ECA) was revived in 2008 after a hiatus by current and former Vanuatu Cultural Centre fieldworkers dedicated to recording and reviving traditional Erromangan culture. Since 2008, the Erromangan community has been involved in a number of (self-funded) cultural promotion activities.
The association’s objectives are:
- to record the culture including the traditional laws and norms of Erromango to ensure it continues to exist;
- to promote Erromangan culture by producing learning materials and holding workshops;
- to protect Erromangan communities by preserving their culture and their identity;
- to carry out any other activity that promotes and protects Erromangan culture.
The ECA works to promote traditional material culture (such as tapa making) both through workshops as well as through major artistic gatherings – all of which have been highly successful events. It has also been involved in an Australian Museum documentary about tapa (in 2008). The association also organises Port Vila-based simanlou (traditional governance) workshops.
Membership of the ECA is open to all people of Erromangan heritage, including those who are married to Erromangans. The ECA is managed by an executive committee endorsed by the Erromango Natmonuk Simanlou Council of Chiefs.
The Erromango Cultural Association was legally registered as a Charitable Association within the Republic of Vanuatu’s jurisdiction on 30 December 2008. The ECA’s Constitution is available here. A statement of assets and liabilities is published yearly.
 Crowley, Terry (1997). ‘What happened to Erromango’s languages?’ In Journal of the Polynesian Society Volume 106, No. 1, pp33-64. Auckland: Auckland University Press. Accessed online at http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document/?wid=4960