No planes or soldiers were remotely near the islands of Vanuatu, yet airstrips were appearing like scars through the pristine landscapes. World War II had ended, both the Americans and Japanese had left. Slowly the airstrips multiplied, some came with bamboo and rope control towers. The strips were not for the planes of war, they were rituals for a new religion. The builders, islanders, were waiting for John Frum. He would bring planes, a new future, and precious cargo.
The 80 islands of Vanuatu can seem like a paradise to some, they are fertile; warm, and occasionally volcanic. Those people who chose the Pacific as their home had lived their for thousands of years, growing their own unique and deep culture. This of course included their beliefs or kastom (special customs) which included things such as ceremonial wrappings, polygamy, and the drinking of kava to induce visions. Life went on amongst the islands until the mid-19th Century and the arrival of Christian missionaries. They came with gifts, smiles, and a new culture to replace the current one. It was a bit too much for the islanders to stomach.
Missionaries swarmed in, step by sacred step, yet the islanders consumed with their work, but they were rebuffed. It was a long and drawn out process, many missionaries became consumed by their work, some fled, and other missionaries were simply consumed. It is from Vanuatu that the stereotype of ‘Cannibalistic Islander’ first emerged.
By the 20th Century missionaries ruled many of the islands, squashing the old culture with their own. One such island was Tanna; ruled jointly by British and French, the islanders found their old kastom outlawed, and material wealth enforced. Worshipping their spirits was banned, as was polyamory and kava. They lived in the new world of schools and money, this was not a good time. Then came John Frum.
In the 1930s, John Frum appeared in a vision to the residents of Tanna, and his word spread. He promised a new dawn over Vanuatu. The missionaries would leave forever, the old ways would return, and they would also gain access to the material wealth and supplied of the missionaries. To gain it though, they first had to cast it off. The word of John Frum grew from then.
In 1941 the John Frum movement reached a peak. Hundreds of villagers threw their money into the ocean, pulled their children from schools and slew their pigs. They retreated inland and feasted on the pigs, celebrating the imminent arrival of John Frum.
The Missionaries retaliated by throwing all of the leaders into a jail 100 miles away, making martyrs of them all. While they stayed in prison, the movement grew and the peaceful teachings of John Frum spread further, if slowly. Then America brought the war, and that changed it all.
Heere Be Cargo
World War II moved to the Pacific in May 1942, the Americans flew in like so many metal hawks and abruptly seized the islands they wanted. Bases were set up on Port-Vila and Espíritu Santo, and they set to work with those islanders, but they needed outside help. One thousand men from the surrounding islands of Vanuatu were drafted in, and they met the face of an empire.
America brought in vast amounts of supplies, the scale of the mission and the types of things being brought in were totally foreign to the islanders. Food, weapons and new machinery appeared in such numbers that they defied explanation. Compared to the small area and supplies of Vanuatu, the apparently infinite American supplies were beyond the reach of humans alone. The islanders believed the cargo could only come from access to the spirit world. The Americans must have special rituals to summon cargo from the spirit world, and have it brought to them in planes and ships. With such power before them, the islanders became curious, and so they began to learn American rituals.
It all seemed so possible, because America was different from the missionaries. The Americans had white soldiers, and black soldiers using the cargo. Something that was never seen under the missionaries. John Frum appeared again in 1942, this time he was American, and he had a message.
John Frum, Will Come
Construction work finished and the islanders returned to their islands, spreading John Frum over the many islands of Vanuatu. He, in the white Navy uniform, had promised to return at the end of this war. With him would come planes with endless cargo and a return to the old ways. While material wealth and the old ways seemed contradictory the idea was appealing and spread quickly. Then America took notice, and action.
In 1943 the United States sent over the USS Echo to address the John Frum movement personally. John Frum was a spirit; and a spirit is a spirit, it is not an American. They met with the believers, the followers of John Frum, and explained. The mission was an abject failure, so the Americans left. Then the war ended.
Love, Peace, and Cargo
The John Frum movement was created by the desire for freedom from oppressive missionary rule, by 1945 it had become a ‘cargo cult.’ A cargo cult being a religion that believed it could get material goods from the spirit world through worship and ritual. This they became.
The John Frum movement had its own teachings, prophecies and morals, but the seed for its growth was cargo. That cargo fixation also nearly became its downfall once they put the American secrets into practice.
John Frum, John Fade
As war and Americans left Vanuatu, John Frum was going to be close behind, so the islanders began their American rituals. Islanders hacked out airstrips on their islands, and began to act like soldiers in squadrons. This still happens on February 15th each year, John Frum day.
Every John Frum day on Tanna, you can see the symbolic army. Squadrons of devotees march by Sulphur bay, steps in sync, bamboo bayonets hoisted over their soldiers. Scarlet paint tips the bayonets and is daubed on their chests with the letters USA. The US flag is raised, saluted, then devotees feast. They swap stories of Frum’s prophecies, teachings, and drink kava together. All the rituals, the airstrips and the marching, are in aid of summoning cargo. It hasn’t happened.
In the post World War II fervour many cargo cults dedicated to John Frum and Tom Navy rose up in Vanuatu, airstrips emerged like pale scars on the fertile islands. Slowly, they then faded. After years of waiting, no planes or ships were coming, neither was the cargo. So the people turned away from John Frum, but Tanna still waits, they hold on strong. It is only a matter of time to them, John Frum will come.
It is a small but powerful religion now, with its own political party, elected representatives, and new sects forming with alternate teachings. It has only been 70 years for them. They can wait.
- Smithsonian Article
- Wikipedia Article on Cargo Cults
- TomFulton.com: History of the New Hebrides (Vanuatu)
- nth position article