27th July 2016
In the tiny village of Lamakara on Vanuatu's Tanna Island is one of the last remaining Cargo Cults. A kind of fetishism of capitalistic commodities, these sects practice an almost religious belief that certain ritualistic acts and behaviours will manifest in the appearance of material wealth, particularly desirable Western goods such as 'cargo'. While these cargo cults have been present throughout history, particularly in Melanesia, the John Frum movement in Vanuatu is perhaps one of the most mysterious and enduring.
There are many versions of how the John Frum movement began, but the one oft repeated tells of a white man in military regalia who appeared on the island in the 1930s, telling the Tanna people to cast off the Christian practices bought to the island by missionaries and to reclaim their old traditions and customs. According to legend, this man's name was John Frum, believed to be a misinterpretation of 'John from'. According to most accounts he was but a mere spirit, yet he spoke plainly to them in their native language. He promised that if they reclaimed their traditions, one day America would come and improve their lives with wondrous conveniences such as trucks and radios.
Shortly after the appearance of John Frum, American troops began to arrive from the World War II base on a neighbouring island - bringing with them radios and other 'modern' conveniences. John Frum's words went from prophecy to precision and he was hailed the Messiah. While it may sound strange to us, the people of Tanna Island saw canned food, telephones and other cargo appearing out of crucifixes in the sky and so believed that John Frum had brought the American's generosity to them.
The American soldiers were respectful of the local people. They learned their names, gave them uniforms, trained them and paid them handsomely. They showed the ni-Vanuatu people how American soldiers of all races worked together and were considered equal. The French and British who had colonised New Hebrides (as the area was then known) treated the islanders like rubbish, but the Americans changed the way they thought of themselves and gave them their dignity back. Things on the island changed for good. The locals were good-natured, whistling and singing day and night. Refrigeration and Coca-Cola gave them back their good cheer.
But all too soon, the Americans were gone - taking with them their magic machines, music and men. Still the people of Tanna Island's John Frum movement never forgot. To this day, they proudly fly the American flag and every year on 15 February the natives hold a grand celebration to honour John Frum. They don their meagre versions of American military uniforms, paint their chests with USA and march proudly with bamboo poles, a symbol of the American rifles. All these years on, they still hold out hope that one day John Frum will return.
The islanders of the John Frum movement love America - possibly more than Americans do.