The Cargo Cult of John Frum

The Cargo Cult of John Frum

The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy … and a very correct one.  History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less-developed civilisation, no matter how well-intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous. 

Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek).

On a small island in Vanuatu, local men march back and forth with the letters ‘USA’ painted on their bare backs. They carry red-tipped bamboo poles across their shoulders like guns, and although they don’t wear shoes and their pants are odd colours and frayed, they look serious beneath old flags of the Marine Corps and the state of Georgia.

It is February 15th, the most important day of the year for Tanna: the day that the mythological American G.I. soldier John Frum is prophesised to return, bringing with him refrigerators, chewing gum and other Western products for the devoted. Many of the crowd surrounding the ceremony aren’t looking at the men, who are normally farmers or small business owners, pretending to be soldiers. Rather, they are transfixed beyond the sparse grass huts and thick green forest to the active volcano, Yasur, which rises above 1000 feet, and is said to contain John Frum’s spirit.

Vanuatu was once an isolated island chain in the Pacific which had little contact with the outside world. The locals made axe heads from flints and seashells, and drums from the bark of breadfruit trees. They hunted hawks, cockatoos and pigeons with bows and arrows and spears, and were sheltered from the ebbs of flows of inequality that pervasive agriculture, and the resultant social stratification, had brought to other countries. The country was home to many tribes, each with their own rituals, customs, and languages, which had prospered since early migrations, thousands of years ago.

In the early 1900s, after sporadic visits to the island, the British and French landed in great numbers seeking to convert the population of “uneducated savages” to Christianity. Missionaries flooded the lands by boat, almost immediately creating a provisional government and court system, which illegalised many traditional customs, including dancing, swearing, adultery and polygamy. They banned activities on Sundays and penalised any who fought to keep their indigenous culture alive. A distinct hierarchy was set along race lines: whites ruled and blacks were subjugated, an unjust ranking that was impossible to overcome. The locals were dominated in their own land and thousands were forced into indentured servitude on Australian cane farms and paid little for the pleasure.

It was from this oppression, which had been ravaging the people for 30 years, that a local man named John Frum emerged. His name was a derivative of ‘John from Jesus Christ’ or John the Baptist, and he rallied the islanders to reject European colonialism, regain autonomy and reclaim their cultural traditions. The missionaries, recognising the challenge to their authority, soon forced the new religion inland, where it remained until the next invasion.

One day, during the early 1940s, the skies and seas of Vanuatu turned black with planes and boats as thousands of American soldiers materialised. The Pacific Islands were being established as America’s strategic outpost, and locals were instantly recruited to assist in building hospitals, airstrips, jetties, roads and bridges to prepare for the mass migration of military to the area. Weapons, tools, tents, medicine, canned foods, refrigeration, gramophones and clothes were dropped down in crates from planes, promising luxury beyond the islander’s wildest imaginings.  The locals watched over the shoulders of white men who wrote their desires on a piece of paper, spoke into a box then waited for them to drift down from the sky.

Unlike the British, the Americans shared their bounty, feeding the Venetians imported food, showing them recorded music and teaching them how to drive trucks and tanks and shoot rifles. The racism that pervaded the country for nearly 100 years was challenged as the islanders witnessed black and white Americans eating and working side-by-side. While the British and French colonials referred to all locals as “boy”, and forced them to obey and show deference, the Americans used their names and treated them as equals.

The wartime situation paralleled ancestral lore on the island, which prophesised gods bringing gifts and prosperity. Thus, the Americans were revered and the legend of John Frum resurfaced, evolving into a black G.I. soldier – the leader of an army of black troops sent to relieve the islanders from oppression by the missionaries and provide them with precious cargo.

The war ended as quickly as it had begun. Bases were dismantled and soldiers left in droves taking with them the bounty that many of the locals valued and had grown to rely upon. However, hope was not lost. The people of Vanuatu had learned the secrets of the foreigners, and began imitating their techniques of bringing cargo back to the island.

They cleared large patches of forest for airstrips, constructed piers for ships, and erected watchtowers with bamboo aerials. Workers manned the stations around the clock waiting for the cargo, prosperity and John Frum to return. For years, the islanders created a superficial military zone, understanding from their experience with the Americans that once the foundation was set, that cargo would come.

The movement was emblematic of cargo cults around the world that have a tendency to overlay the materialism of modernity with traditional beliefs. Messengers, their form of priests, communicate directly with the deities, in this case John Frum, who assured the people of Vanuatu that cargo would return, negating the need for money, gardens and food that were either neglected or destroyed.

Currently, with the ubiquity of globalisation, the movement has contracted from its former glory, though it is estimated that 5% of Vanuatu continues to follow the John Frum movement, now celebrated beside the volcano every year. Several Tanna Island members, who are devoted to the religion, are currently sitting in parliament, and as it remains the only indigenous religion left on the island, its endemicity makes it integral to the region.

The purpose of religion in the West seems to be to satisfy some esoteric spiritual need or force us to be nice to one another, whereas John Frum merely provides a totally realistic hope, and although he is yet to pull through, Jesus has been promising a lot more for a lot longer.

Cover via Youtube

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