Island’s cargo cult celebrates 50 years worshipping the US
by Nick Squires in Lamakara / 16 Feb 2007
As global public opinion sours towards the United States, Americans weary of the relentless negativity can take heart from an exotic corner of the South Pacific. The US’s standing in the world may have plummeted under President George W Bush, but a bizarre cargo cult in the Vanuatu island nation holds America in god-like esteem. The Jon Frum movement celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding yesterday with a lavish feast in which village men dressed up as US soldiers and marched in front of a giant Stars and Stripes flag on a bamboo pole. Miniature American flags festooned trees lining the black sand parade ground which forms the focus of Lamakara village, the headquarters of the cult, on the jungle island of Tanna.
Older men dressed as officers marshalled the crowd of several thousand cult devotees, while 50 young men shouldered their bamboo rifles and came to attention in a perfectly orchestrated drill. The letters USA were daubed across their chests and backs in red paint as they paraded beneath a relentless tropical sun, a drill sergeant barking orders in Bislama, Vanuatu pidgin English. A tin band and small boys with bamboo flutes played The Star Spangled Banner against a background of roars from nearby Mount Yasur, a live volcano in which the spirit of Jon Frum is said to live. “For us, America is very good,” said village chief Isaac Wan, 67, the leader of the cargo cult, barefoot but dressed in a smart American naval officer’s uniform and sitting under a large US flag. “There’s a friendship between Tanna people and America from the war. When they came here looking for people to help them build airstrips and carry their supplies, we gave them 1,000 men.”
The origins of the cult date back to the 1930s, when Britain and France jointly ran what was then the colony of New Hebrides. Tanna’s inhabitants bridled at colonial rule and the missionaries who badgered them to embrace Christianity, stop drinking the mildly narcotic drink kava and abandon other customary ways, known in pidgin English as kastom.
Village elders tell of how a mysterious outsider came to their forbears in a series of apparitions, telling them to go back to their traditional ways. The idea of a messiah-like outsider was given a huge boost during the Second World War, when hundreds of Tannese men were recruited by the Americans to build roads, airstrips and bases. They were impressed by the large amounts of cargo – tanks, weapons, medicine and food – brought by the US military. The shadowy spirit figure they already believed in gradually assumed a name and a nationality – Jon Frum is believed to be a contraction of John From America, a reference perhaps to a soldier who showed particular generosity. The movement was officially founded on Feb 15, 1957, to celebrate the release of cult leaders who had been imprisoned by the ruling Anglo-French authorities. For the last 50 years cultists have clung to the belief that by dressing up as GIs and venerating US symbols they can somehow tempt back the wartime cargo. In a thatched hut in the centre of the village a cult shrine says: Jon Promise America – One Day He’ll Be Returning. Around a fifth of the 30,000 people who live on Tanna are cult believers, with the rest either traditional animists or Christian church-goers.
Cargo cult lives on in South Pacific
by Phil Mercer / Tanna, Vanuatu
At the base of a sacred volcano in an isolated corner of the South Pacific young men play the “Star Spangled Banner” on bamboo flutes. Islanders have celebrated John Frum’s generosity for 50 years. Every February they parade in old US army uniforms with wooden weapons. Others go bare-chested with the letters “USA” painted in bright red letters on their bodies. Nearby, a giant Stars and Stripes flutters in the breeze from the main flagpole. This is the heart of John Frum country on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. Villagers at Sulphur Bay worship a mystical figure who they believe will one day bring them wealth and happiness.
Time of upheaval
“John is our god,” declares village chief Isaac Wan, who beats his fists into the ground to emphasise his words. “One day he will come back,” he says. Believers are convinced that John Frum was an American. The name could well have come from war-time GIs who introduced themselves as “Jon from America.” Devotees say that the ghost of a mystical white man first appeared before tribal elders in the 1930s. It urged them to rebel against the aggressive teachings of Christian missionaries and the influence of Vanuatu’s British and French colonial masters. The apparition told villagers to do all they could to retain their own traditions. Anthropologist Ralph Reganvalu told the BBC that the sect was a “cultural preservation movement” that was born during a time of upheaval. “There was a whole period in history known as Tanna Law where the missionaries put in this series of rules about what people weren’t supposed to do and the movement emerged because of this oppression,” he said.
Homage to the US
World War II and the arrival of US troops on Vanuatu was a defining time for the movement. They had a name for their spiritual deity. He was John Frum. Villagers believe that their messiah was responsible for delivering to
them the munificence of the US military. They were awestruck by the army’s cargo of tanks, weapons, refrigerators, food and medicine. John Frum day is held annually on 15 February. This year’s celebration marks the 50th anniversary of the sect’s formal establishment. It also recognises the day when villagers raised the US flag for the first time. Through this homage to the US, disciples hope their ethereal saviour can be encouraged to return. “It’s a little bit weird but it makes me feel really patriotic,” said Marty Meth, a retired businessman from New York, who had travelled to Tanna to see the festivities. “It’s really nice to see Americans welcome here since in so many places in the world we’re not so welcome these days,” he added.
Waiting and hoping
Sulphur Bay lies in the shadow of Mount Yasur, an active volcano whose roar can be heard far away. Many followers of John Frum believe his spirit lives deep within the volcano. Every few minutes Yasur bellows. Watching and listening from the crater’s edge is both exhilarating and frightening. A deafening growl is followed by the blasting of molten rock high into the sky. These rumblings are a constant reminder for villagers that the spirit of John Frum remains as potent as ever. About 20% of Tanna’s population of 30,000 follow the teachings of one of the world’s last remaining cargo cults. Other islanders can barely disguise their contempt for it. A Christian youth worker told me how he thought the cult was childish. “It’s like a baby playing games,” he insisted. “Those people are holding on to a dream that will never come true,” he said. I put this view to Rutha, who’s married to Chief Isaac’s son. She was unfazed. “I don’t care what they think,” she says gently without a hint of displeasure. “John is our Jesus and he will come back.” The John Frum Movement is still trying to entice another delivery of cargo from its supernatural American god. In the meantime his disciples continue to wait and hope.
John Frum and the Cargo Cults of Tanna Island
There is an island nation in the South Pacific where some cargo cults still exist today. Vanuatu is an archipelago about a thousand miles from Australia, composed of about 82 small islands, one of which is Tanna Island. Tanna is populated by the Melanesian people (who also live on Papua New Guinea). And like Papua New Guinea, Tanna Island is home to a number of cargo cults. The cargo cults of Tanna Island include the Tom Navy cult and the Prince Philip movement, but the biggest one is the cult of John Frum.
When pre-industrial tribal societies come into contact with modern day society, they could very well see its technology as magic. During World War II, people in the Pacific watched lots of manufactured, technologically-superior goods enter the region, courtesy of Japanese and Allied forces. Soldiers would give gratitude to their native hosts by sharing their medicine, clothing, weapons, and other manufactured items with them. But when the war ended, the goods stopped coming. Enter the cargo cults – native peoples who perform rituals and religious practices with the intention of bringing back the material wealth (cargo) so the people can once again prosper. To the cargo cults, manufactured goods do not come from man, but from the gods. Remember the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy? In that film, a simple bushman discovers a Coca-Cola bottle and thinks it a sign from the gods. It exposes his tribe to the concept of “property” which brings the problems associated with a rare good – in this case envy, violence, etc. The bushman determines that the Coke bottle is evil and begins a trek to throw it off the edge of the world.
Cargo cults developed in many places since Western peoples starting arriving a few centuries ago, but most of the ones remaining today are on Papua New Guinea and Tanna. The cargo cults of Tanna Island are particularly interesting. The big one is known as the cult of John Frum. For most of the 20th century, Vanuatu was known as New Hebrides, an English-French colony that lasted from 1906 to 1980. According to legend, a group of elders in the 1930s saw a white man in a vision, named John Frum, who promised that he would rescue them from the foreign missionaries and colonial authorities. Frum said that the people of Tanna Island should reject the ways of the West, reject Christianity, get rid of their money and clothing, and go back to the old customs. There is an alternative explanation that suggests the elders created John Frum as a fight against the Westerners who had taken over the island. A third explanation suggests that John Frum was a real person – actually a native who used the name John Frum (and wore western clothes). (Perhaps the name is as simple as the natives hearing somebody say “John from America”). In any case, the authorities didn’t take kindly to the cult’s rebellious stance and arrested some of its leaders.
In the early 40s, American troops came to New Hebrides and created giant bases with airstrips, hospitals, and bridges. The locals helped out and were handed generous amounts of “cargo.” The sight of white men with such wealth made it appear as if they were in league with the spirits. The islanders were also impressed by the sight of black soldiers living the same way, wearing the same clothing, eating the same foods, etc. The nature of John Frum changed. He was soon taking on the appearance of an African-American soldier.
At the end of WW2, when the troops left, the John Frum followers in Tanna expected his return, and they even made an airstrip in the jungle so that American planes could land and bring with them more precious cargo. Others built control towers from bamboo and rope. When the white man would try to explain modern technology as something that must learned and worked for, he was instead interpreted as refusing to give up the “secret.” By observing and trying to duplicate the white man’s “rituals”, the locals hoped to discover that secret.
Lots of cargo cults have died out but John Frum endures on Tanna Island. Starting in the 50s, the “Tanna Army” organizes parades that take place on February 15th every year, the day of Frum’s expected return (“John Frum Day”). The idea is that if you threw away your money and returned to your old customs, John Frum himself would eventually return with new cargo, providing all the material wealth you could ask for. In the village of Lamakara, hundreds of John Frum believers drink kava, gathering around a ceremonial area, singing hyms about him. Some of them are dressed like G.I.s, with rifles made of bamboo, wearing “USA” painted on their bodies, carrying the American flag. Says one elder:
“John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him. Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.”
John Frum has an offshoot movement. There is a village on Tanna that houses the Yaohnanen tribe. The origins of the Prince Philip movement are unclear, but at some point in the mid 20th century, the Yaohnanen noticed that British authorities were paying significant respect to Queen Elizabeth II, and made a very interesting assumption – that her husband, Prince Philip (Duke of Edinburgh), must be a divine being.
It comes from one of their legends which says a mountain spirit had a son with pale skin, spiritual brother to John Frum, who went away to distant lands and married a powerful woman, but would soon return. The Queen was certainly very powerful, and so the locals probably made the logical leap there. The cult of Prince Philip was believed to have started in the 50s. It grew when the royal couple made a visit to Vanuatu in 1974. When Prince Philip learned about the cult somtime in the late 70s, it was suggested that he send a portrait of himself to the villagers, which he did. The members of the Prince Philip movement then send him a nal-nal club, which is a traditional war/animal-killing club. The prince kindly returned a photograph of him holding it. In 2007, the British TV station channel 4 sponsored a visit of 5 natives from Tanna Island to Britain, where they got to meet Prince Philip and exchange gifts.
Image from “An Idiot Abroad”
Karl Pilkington visited the tribe for a recent episode of An Idiot Abroad. He said:
“He [Prince Philip] came here once. Ever since his visit, problems went away. So they worship him. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, I don’t know if Philip did sort it. I’ve never known him to sort anything.”
Sources: Daily Mail
Tom Navy was apparently an African-American serviceman from WW2 (who most likely introduced himself to the locals as “Tom from the Navy”). He helped the Tanna people during the war. As a result, he is revered among the people, although it is debatable whether the fans of Tom Navy can truly be called a “cargo cult.” Perhaps Tom Navy is more like a legendary hero. On an episode of Meet the Natives: USA from the Travel Channel, five Tanna island tribesmen visit the United States, partly to try to find Tom Navy. Tom Navy is considered to be the head of all prophets and is credited with bringing peace to Tanna.