Vanuatu – a land of sprawling beaches and even wider smiles. A stunning island in the Pacific, Vanuatu is a popular holiday destination thanks to its relaxing tropical vibes and breathtaking natural attractions. Yet there is a stranger side to this island nation, an extraordinary following in a tiny village on the southeast coast of one of Vanuatu’s most populous islands. You won’t find it in any guide books and you certainly won’t be able to join a tour there but in the shadow of the active volcano Mount Yasur in Lamakara on Tanna Island you’ll find one of the last remaining Cargo Cults.
A kind of fetishism of capitalistic commodities, cargo cults are small societies of people that practice an almost religious devotion to certain behaviours and ritualistic acts. They believe these actions will manifest material wealth, in particular desirable Western goods such as ‘cargo’. This usually occurs as a result of contact with commercial networks of colonising societies. Cargo cults typically form under a charismatic leader who may have a dream or ‘vision’ about the future which is often linked to the value of ancestry and the ability to recover customs and culture through a return to traditional morals and practices. Cargo cults have always been present throughout history, with many concentrated in Melanesia. However the John Frum movement of Vanuatu is one of the most enduring and mysterious.
There are a number of theories as to how the John Frum movement began, the one most often told is of a white man who appeared on Tanna Island in the 1930s dressed in full military regalia. He told the native people to let go of the Christian practices missionaries had brought to the island and to reclaim their traditional customs and culture. According to the legend, the man’s name was John Frum, later believed to be a misunderstanding of the words ‘John from’. By most accounts he was nothing but a spirit yet he spoke to them clearly in their native language. He promised that if they reverted back to their own traditions, then one day Americans would come to shower them with wealth and wondrous modern conveniences.
Shortly after John Frum’s appearance, during the height of World War II, American troops in the hundreds and thousands swarmed onto the island from the seas and skies. They brought with them endless supplies of trucks, radios, telephones, refrigerators and even Coca Cola. The people of Tanna Island had no idea where all these modern conveniences came from and so believed that they were summoned from the spirit world, sent by magic. John Frum’s prophecy had proved true and he was hailed their Messiah.
It may sound strange to us, but the local indigenous tribes saw modern technology, canned foods and other cargo falling out of the sky. To them, John Frum had brought to them the generosity of the Americans just as he had promised. Part of Vanuatu’s attraction to the American soldiers was the respect they showed to the local people. The British and French that had colonised Vanuatu (known as New Hebrides at the time) had treated the islanders like rubbish, but the American soldiers gave them their dignity back and changed the way that they thought of themselves. The Americans learned their names, trained them, gave them uniforms and even paid them, quite handsomely too. They showed the local people how Americans of all races worked together. Things changed for good on the island.
Before long, the Americans no longer needed Vanuatu and withdrew from the island, taking with them their men, their music and their magic machines. Still, the people of Tanna never forgot and the John Frum movement continues to this day. Every year on 15 February, the cargo cult proudly flies the American flag and holds a grand celebration in his honour. Donning their modest version of American military uniforms, they paint themselves with the letters USA and proudly march holding bamboo poles as a symbol of the American rifles they still remember so well.
The islanders of the John Frum movement love America - possibly more than Americans do.
All these years later, they still hold out hope that one day John Frum will return.