Where: Exclusive to the Vanuatan Island of Tanna in the Pacific Islands.
What’s it about: Believing that Jesus was re-incarnated as a black US army G.I.
How to join in: Bamboo warfare, flag waving, and dress up in army gear. Bringing some elusive Cargo will impress the locals.
The Vanuatan island of Tanna is home to the John Frum Cargo Cult; one of the world’s most intriguing religions. When Presbyterian missionaries came to the Pacific Islands in the late 19th and early 20th century they brought with them western ideals and material goods which began to erode the Vanuatu traditional or ‘kastom’ (custom) way of life.
Around the late 1930s sightings of ‘John Frum’ spread throughout the island – a spirit messiah who had come to change the people back to their traditional ways before corruption from the British missionaries. Exactly who John Frum is, is ambiguous according to the islanders; he is thought to be the son of God who may take the form of a black Melanesian, a white man or even a black American G.I if you believe their stories. They believe he lives in the crater of the Yasur volcano with an army of 20,000 men. The theory goes that if white people were dispelled from the island, their ‘cargo’ of western goods would be diverted – with the help of ancestral spirits – to the people of Tanna.
Towards the end of the period of missionary control during the second world war, an influx of American soldiers, ships and cargo arriving in the area. Approximately 1,000 men were recruited from Tanna to work on the American army base at the neighbouring island of Efate. Not only did the Tannese experience better treatment than they were used to under the British administration, but they saw black American soldiers who also had the same possessions, clothes, and food as the white people.
The Tannese began to reject western ways; they stopped going to church, killed their cattle, and burned their money in the belief that everything they needed would be provided by John Frum. Some began to build landing strips and warehouses in anticipation while others built imitation radio masts out of bamboo in the belief that if it worked for the white men, it would work for them. At first those perceived to be ring leaders were imprisoned without trial, but these men soon became martyrs and their imprisonment served to strengthen the growing religion. So punishment was replaced by education as westerners tried to explain that cargo came not from magic but hard work and technology.
The movement continued to flourish and on February 15th 1957 an American flag was raised in Sulphur Bay to declare the religion of John Frum and it is on this date every year that ‘John Frum day’ is celebrated. During the festivities, the elders march in an imitation army; a kind of military drill mixed with traditional dance. Some carry imitation rifles made of bamboo and wear American army memorabilia such as caps or T-shirts.
Today the movement is still a thriving religion in some parts of the island; celebrated every Friday with drinking and dancing. For others, it has become something of an embarrassment. Either way, it cannot be denied that this is a unbelievable and enduring movement.
Who and What is Jon Frum?
The Jon Frum homepage
By Debbie Fabb