It’s mid-February, and a troop of men are falling into formation with the letters “U.S.A.” adorning their bodies. They begin to undertake something like an army drill, with the American flag being raised into the sky. But this scene isn’t actually taking place in the United States. On the contrary, all of this is happening on Tanna, an island of the Pacific Ocean nation of Vanuatu.
The island of Tanna lies in the very south of Vanuatu. It’s not a large island, some 20 miles in length and 16 miles across at most. About 28,000 people call the island home. They have a beautiful place to live, with sand stretching across a seafront that gives out onto reefs, backed by luscious, verdant hills.
It’s pretty remote, requiring anyone visiting to make a long drive through a plain before crossing a lake, then dodging potholes on the route down to the village. The settlement looks out on Sulphur Bay, sitting next to a beach of black sand, itself overlooked by Mount Yasur, a smoking volcano.
The nation of Vanuatu is composed of two chains of islands that join into a Y. There are roughly 40 islands and 40 more islets and scraps of rock. Of these, 65 have a population, many of its people clinging to the sides of steep mountains, menaced in some cases by volcanoes that, like Mount Yasur, are active.
The islands sit in the southwest Pacific Ocean. They lie between New Guinea and Fiji, with the Solomon Islands to their north and, distantly, the Australian state of Queensland to their west. If you want to visit Vanuatu, you can take a ship from nearby New Caledonia, Australia and New Zealand, or you can fly in to the two biggest airports, at capital Port Vila and Espíritu Santo Island’s Pekoa.
Once upon a time, a warrior culture ruled in Vanuatu, and cannibalism was practiced in some places. Witchdoctors still have a place in the villages, casting spells with stones that house spirits. Nowadays, there are a quarter million people, mostly living in rural settings, who are almost all ethnic Melanesians.
Melanesians are a type of Austronesian people, who swept across the region from about 1500 B.C. to 1000 B.C. They are believed to have originated in what is now the island of Taiwan. Brilliant sailors, the Melanesian people settled much of the southwest Pacific, perhaps reaching as far as Fiji.
Although the people of Vanuatu speak as many as 100 languages and dialects from the Oceanic group of the Austronesian family, most can also speak the national language, Bislama. Indeed, for one in ten Vanuatuans, mainly younger people who live in the larger towns, Bislama is their native language. It has its origins as an offshoot of Melanesian Pidgin, so it can be understood in New Guinea and other places.
What happened was that large numbers of islanders went to work in plantations in Australia in the late 1800s. Alongside them were people from Fiji. With many languages spoken among these sugar cutters in Queensland, a pidgin came into being to allow them to chat. Over time, this grew into the language spoken in Vanuatu today.
Interestingly, the language’s name comes ultimately from the French word biche de mer. This translates to “sea cucumber,” and it was an appropriate name at the time of the pidgin’s origin. That’s because sea cucumber was caught and dried by locals working with the oversight of visiting English speakers, who called it “Beach-la-Mar.”
The people of Vanuatu have been on the archipelago since about 500 B.C. For a while, it was an outpost of the Tongan Empire, which covered a great deal of the South Pacific. Beginning in the 1600s, there were scattered visits by Europeans, but none stayed long. In 1774 explorer James Cook came across the islands, and he gave them the name that they were known by for two centuries, the New Hebrides.
Some years later, a rescue mission looking for Captain Bligh, famously cast adrift by mutineers on the Bounty, called in. But it wasn’t until the next century that planters and traders from the United Kingdom and France started to settle; they were largely interested in sandalwood, which grew in the islands. Indeed, France and the U.K. jointly ruled over the archipelago from 1906. These new residents also brought with them Christian missionaries.
The colonials were not entirely welcomed by the local people, and after World War Two, conflicts over land arose. The ruling powers agreed to an elected assembly in 1974, but the polling was racked by factional struggles. In the end, Vanuatu became an independent nation in 1980 and took its place as a member of the U.K.’s Commonwealth.
Missionaries have been active in Vanuatu since the 1830s. But the first to arrive got a warm welcome in all the wrong ways: they ended up in the cooking pot. Still, the devout were not put off, and the islands saw many more seeking to convert the natives. By the 1860s several stations existed on the islands.
As the colonial powers took more control in Vanuatu, the missionaries became more oppressive. Ralph Reganvalu, an anthropologist who has studied the culture in the islands, told the BBC, “There was a whole period in history known as Tanna Law where the missionaries put in this series of rules about what people weren’t supposed to do.”
The devout foreigners, largely sternly moralist Scottish Presbyterians, weren’t keen on the local traditions, known in Bislama as kastom. These had been part of life for Vanuatuans for thousands of years, as they practised polygamy, wrapping the penis and dancing. And chief among the customs that the missionaries despised was the drinking of kava by the men.
Kava is a plant in the pepper family, popular across the South Pacific. In the islands it’s used as a narcotic. It’s made from the roots of the plant, usually ground up and made into a tea. Apparently, Tanna Island’s kava is the strongest that you can get; its effects are fairly similar to several stiff drinks.
As well as forbidding kava drinking, the missionaries stamped out other local practices. They wouldn’t allow working on Sundays, and they weren’t keen on swearing. The religious folks also frowned on adultery, a tough stance in a place where polygamy was traditional. With a weak colonial government, the missionaries took it upon themselves to run courts that would punish the guilty with hard labor.
The local people resented the oppressive rule of the missionaries, and perhaps this left them open to the craze for “cargo cults.” These strange religious practices sprang up across the Pacific, fueled particularly by the dislocation caused by the incoming American military during World War Two. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers, seamen and airmen turned up in the ocean’s islands.
Long-time resident of Vanuatu and anthropologist Kirk Huffman explained the cults to Smithsonian magazine in 2006. He said, “You get cargo cults when the outside world, with all its material wealth, suddenly descends on remote, indigenous tribes.” The local people start to believe that the incomers have so much material wealth because of the spirits.
Because the islanders thought that the Americans had been summoned by magic, they tried to lure them back. They made their own piers and plowed airstrips into their land. They sent their prayers for the cargo to return: the magical supplies in the form of Western consumer goods such as radios, washing machines, Spam and candy.
The locals on Tanna Island told Smithsonian that their own cult had begun in the late 1930s. Having heavily imbibed kava, the men encountered a man they called “John Frum.” One told Smithsonian, “He was a white man who spoke our language, but he didn’t tell us then he was an American.”
Frum had come, they believed, to rescue them. Smithsonian’s informant continued, “John told us that all Tanna’s people should stop following the white man’s ways. He said we should throw away their money and clothes, take our children from their schools, stop going to church and go back to living as kastom people. We should drink kava, worship the magic stones and perform our ritual dances.”
No one can say for sure that John Frum wasn’t real – although the men were all very high on kava. But he may well have represented a pushback against colonials who oppressed them. Indeed, administrator Alexander Rentoul noted in 1949 that “frum” is the local pronunciation of “broom.” He wrote that the locals hoped “to sweep (or broom) the white people off the island of Tanna.”
The cult of John Frum gripped the people of Tanna Island. They started to rid themselves of money and prepared massive feasts for their savior. However, the frenzy of the cultists caught the eye of the authorities. Several found themselves in jail for years from 1941 so that they couldn’t rile up the people.
A year after the cult’s leaders were imprisoned, the Americans arrived, building huge bases. To create the infrastructure of a U.S. military establishment, including barracks, airstrips, roads and jetties, they needed labor. So they hired men, including at least a thousand from Tanna, to work on building up the bases.
For men who had before 1942 had a diet based on the yams that they grew, American goods were truly magical. The PXs (post exchanges, a kind of store on a military base) served up what seemed like an infinity of Coke, chocolate and cigarettes. With the 25 cents a day that the laborers earnt, they could afford plenty of this “cargo,” and the military was open-handed with gifts too.
On top of this, the Americans were not just white men. Alongside the whites were black servicemen, who did everything the whites did, including eating in the messes. Huffman explained the significance of this to the Smithsonian. He said, “In kastom , people sit together to eat. The missionaries had angered the Tannese by always eating separately.”
It’s not surprising then that the local people decided that John Frum in fact was an American. And they weren’t fazed by the notion that an American lived in Mount Yasur, John Frum’s home. One told the Smithsonian, “John moves from America to Yasur and back, going down through the volcano and under the sea.”
However, when the war ended, the American forces went away and never returned. As time passed, most cargo cults came to an end, distraught at their abandonment. One even offered U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson a cash reward to come and be their top chief. But the Tanna islanders didn’t give up on John Frum.
One of the island chiefs explained to Smithsonian that the importance of John Frum to the Tannese people ran deeper than a desire for American goods. He said, “John Frum came to help us get back our traditional customs, our kava drinking, our dancing, because the missionaries and colonial government were deliberately destroying our culture.”
When asked how it was that an American could help them return to their traditional ways, the chief had an answer. He said, “John is a spirit. He knows everything.” And indeed, believers considered John Frum to be a strong spirit indeed. The chief continued, “He’s even more powerful than Jesus.”
Each year, on February 15, the people of Tanna celebrate John Frum Day. They come to Lamakara for the ceremony. The devotees don their “uniforms” and march into the center of the village. One has the Stars and Stripes in his hands, bringing it so that it can be raised, to the wild cheers and applause of onlookers.
The ceremony doesn’t end with raising the U.S. flag. The devotees of the cult then perform versions of their traditional dances. Some are modernized, with males wearing kilts of bark carrying replica chainsaws, which they pretend to use. The dancers sing, “We’ve come from America to cut down all the trees. So we can build factories.”
The crowd gets wilder still when the “G.I.s” turn up. A group of more than three dozen men march in two ranks past the chiefs. They carry “rifles” of bamboo, with sharp red tips that they intend to resemble bayonets dripping with blood. Daubed on their bodies, front and back, are the letters “USA.”
When not used in the John Frum Day ceremony, the U.S. flag sits in a special hut, alongside a figure of a bald eagle and a pile of mock uniforms. Above the American paraphernalia hang more traditional totems made out of stone. A chief indicates the strength of the stones’ juju, saying, “Very powerful magic. The gods made them a long time ago.”
Some have suggested that the fervor for things American has been stoked by John Frum himself actually being an American. Perhaps a forerunner of the military had introduced himself as “John from America.” In any case, the devotees raise U.S. flags daily, and the island is festooned with red crosses – a detail believed to have come from first aid tents.
The connection to America remained strong, and the local people hoped to receive a bounty if they kept up the rituals. One told Smithsonian, “John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him. Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.”
However, some believe that John Frum has already fulfilled his promise. After all, there is now an airport and a wharf. And the roads, such as they are, see lots of traffic from the many vehicles on the island. And Frum’s prophecies have come true with islanders now joining the modern world and a party of devotees even taking a seat in parliament.
Still, even some of those who have adopted the missionaries’ religion might keep a flame alight for John Frum. One man, Daniel Yamyam, a keen imbiber of kava, told the Smithsonian that he would not abandon the cult. He said, “I’m now a Christian, but like most people on Tanna, I still have John Frum in my heart. If we keep praying to John, he’ll come back with plenty of cargo.”