The world’s most unique cultures tend to pop up in areas that were isolated for thousands of years. One place where this particularly rings true is in the Pacific Islands. Many of these island nations knew only each other until they were exposed to the rest of the modern world in the past couple of centuries.
For many of those countries, the first contact with outsiders led to justified yet strange reactions from the locals. This is particularly true of the John Frum movement, a sort of religion in Vanuatu. While the religion teaches morality and tradition like many other belief systems, the John Frum movement is unique in its rituals, which draw heavily on the American military, which showed up in the islands during World War Two. One component of this religion is that believers say that their messiah figure, John Frum, will drop wealth and prosperity from the heavens.
This motif of god sending material gifts from above can be seen in many religions. Yet, the idiosyncrasies found within the John Frum movement led anthropologists to label it a cargo cult. At one time, the phrase was used to explain just about every Pacific Island’s spiritual reaction to colonization. Today, though, anthropologists point out that the reality is much more complicated than that. But what exactly is a cargo cult, then? And what are the characteristics of the John Frum movement that make it stand out so much? Let’s explore.
Vanuatu is a small nation of islands in the south pacific, about 2000 kilometers east of Australia. It had a brief stint under joint French-British colonial rule. But travel there today, and you’ll see few references to the former colonial powers. In fact, on the 15th of February each year, on the island Tanna, a portion of the population put on US Army fatigues, raise the American flag, and perform strict military drills. The men fold the flag with the precision and reverence typically reserved for a formal color guard.
Elsewhere on the island, men stand on makeshift landing strips, waving flashlights at no one in particular. There are no working planes at this airport— just a replica made of straw. Other mock-soldiers sit in rickety flight decks with a poorly recreated radio and a set of binoculars. Despite their lack of proper military technology, the men are clearly well-versed in the mechanics of their acts. But it’s not make-believe. It’s a religious ritual of sorts for followers of the John Frum movement.
The John Frum movement’s strong tradition on the isle of Tanna has long held the fascination of outsiders, particularly Americans, due to its mimicry of the US military. Today, the movement has broken into a handful of sects, each with similar beliefs and teachings, yet still vast differences. To understand just how the belief system works today, we must rewind about a hundred years, back to its founding when Vanuatu and the island Tanna were part of the New Hebrides, populated almost entirely by the local Melanesian people.
At that time, the small island nation had recently come under the British and French empires’ joint control. Shortly after the two countries’ navies arrived, Christian missionaries followed. These missionaries forcibly converted the local populations, casting aside the lifestyle and customs that permeated throughout the island chain for hundreds of years, known as kastom in the local language. The Melanesians grew tired of the missionaries trying to control their lifestyle and the colonial rule that brought the preachers there. Under these conditions, the John Frum movement sprouted, though followers disagree today about the exact circumstances.
According to some, a native Melanesian named Manehivi traveled the island dressed in western garb, calling himself John Frum. In other accounts, John Frum was not a man but a spirit that could only be seen when under the influence of kava, a subtly psychoactive root popular throughout the pacific islands for its medicinal and spiritual effects. Outsiders believe that the name came from an American military scout who visited the island in the 1930s, who may have introduced himself as “John, from…America.” No matter the origin story, John Frum promised to bring the people wealth and prosperity if they resisted the onslaught of western colonizers on their island. If they abandoned their western currency, education, and religion, the white colonizers would flee the island, returning wealth and power to the original inhabitants.
In 1941, the people of Tanna followed through on this charge, casting away their money, slaughtering excess animals, and establishing new rituals. The colonial authorities did everything in their power to stop these practices, fearful that they may lose control of the population that they depended on for labor. They banished the movement’s leaders to other islands in the archipelago but with little effect— the events of the following year would push thse John Frum movement to new heights.
The major inciting event was the opening of World War Two’s Pacific Theater. As Imperial Japan pushed southwards into the Pacific islands, the United States countered by taking islands of their own. The intense battles of the next few years would be characterized by island hopping, as each power turned remote islands into full-scale military bases, sometimes with the help of the locals and sometimes to their detriment. For the United States, the New Hebrides was an obvious location for an outpost, given that it was under the control of America’s two closest allies. More than 50,000 troops moved into the island chain, establishing Tanna as a regional base.
In the eyes of many John Frum followers, this was a show of the wealth they could gain by following the words of their spiritual leader. The Americans introduced new technology to the people there, from refrigerators to airplanes and machine guns to radios. American soldiers often interacted with the locals, paying them for work and giving them excess chocolate and Coca-Cola. 10,000 Vanuatu people joined the Vanuatu Labor Corps during the war, serving a critical support role in the American Guadalcanal campaign. This meant that Melanesian people were paid for their service and began to see material wealth, unlike anything they ever imagined. In fact, the technology that the American military utilized was so far beyond that of the locals that they assumed it couldn’t have been made by humans— it must have come from the gods. Therefore, in their eyes, the gods favored these American intruders over the Melanesians.
A couple of years later, when the American military left the island, they took their supplies and goods. So, followers of John Frum did what they believed would restore the material wealth and prosperity of the war years. They mimicked the American troops in as many ways as possible, leading to the modern practices of February 15th, known as John Frum day. In the words of some followers, they mimic the American drills hoping that John Frum will drop wealth from the sky, in the same way that the American military airdropped supplies on their troops.
Around this time, some anthropologists began to identify the John Frum movement as an example of a cargo cult. Cargo cults sprung up throughout the pacific island nations in the late 19th and 20th-centuries, as societies isolated from the rest of the world for millennia first came in contact with outsiders. One defining characteristic of these cargo cults is the synthesis of traditional beliefs with those of the foreigners. In Vanuatu, for example, Melanesian society centered on a “big man” system where individuals gain prestige and power through their giving to others. People who cannot reciprocate the wealth they are given are marked as “rubbish men.”
With the arrival of the American military, even the most distinguished Melanesian big men suddenly became rubbish men. To anthropologists, this is called value dominance, where an outside culture, the Americans, dominates another culture, the Melanesians, in values that both cultures share. The Americans didn’t import consumerism and materialism to Vanuatu— the foundational belief system was already there— but they took it up a notch with their technology and wealth.
In 1957, a leader in the John Frum movement named Nakomaha established the first Tanna Army, a non-violent, ritualistic group that formalized its military parades and drills. Followers would paint USA on their chests in red paint and go about their exercises. As the movement grew, the group’s leader found a contact in the United States who shipped surplus military clothes to the island for use in the ceremony. Now, the Army maneuvers are mostly reserved for February 15th, but the praise of American politicians and culture continues year-round.
In the 1970s, as Vanuatu made a push for independence, the John Frum movement opposed the change, claiming that it would lead to a centralized government that would universalize the country’s culture, wiping out the distinct characteristics of Tanna. In retrospect, this doesn’t seem to have been the case, but this may be in part because the movement formed its own political party to ensure that they’re adequately represented in government.
Nowadays, about twenty percent of Tanna’s population follow John Frum, and the movement’s different sects have branched out further than ever. Several men claim to be prophets, saying they are the only one who speaks to John Frum. One leader claims that his beliefs can be taught in conjunction with Christianity. Others argue that the two belief systems are in direct philosophical conflict. Some teach that Frum’s spirit lives in the island’s volcano, while others say he resides in America. At times, these differences have led to outright clashes between the different factions— 25 men were wounded in a fight several years ago. Similar tensions exist between followers and non-believers, who tire of their neighbor’s worship of America and the outside attention it brings.
While Tanna’s John Frum followers are perhaps the most famous cargo cult, they were by no means the first. The earliest recorded example began in Fiji in 1885 and is known as the Tikka or Tuka Movement. As British authorities moved into Fiji throughout the 19th-century, they brought slaves from their other colonial holdings. Fijian culture began to vanish, but charismatic leaders, headed by a man named Navosavakandua, preached that the locals could overcome their colonizers if they focused on their traditional spiritual beliefs. The gods would favor them and transfer the English wealth into their hands, placing them in power. While the ritualistic practices between the Tuka and John Frum movements are vastly different, both focus on ways to reestablish authority over their territory via the wealth and technology of intruders. The rest of the world’s cargo cults mostly exist in Vanuatu or Papua New Guinea.
The term cargo cult first appeared around 1945 in reference to the John Frum movement and other similar groups in Vanuatu. However, many modern anthropologists question the “cargo cult” label, and not just on Tanna. When the term appeared, anthropologists had a very western-centric view of the rest of the world, and many of the initial labels have not stood the test of time. For instance, the earliest commentators assumed that cargo cults were based entirely on a misunderstanding of technology and capitalism. However, obtaining material wealth is not the only purpose of the belief system. Wealth and prosperity are the rewards for a lifetime of following kastom meant to maintain the island’s tradition and culture. In this way, calling the John Frum movement a cargo cult is like calling Christianity a heaven cult. Diminishing the doctrine to such a narrow portion of its beliefs is reductive.
Others point out that the term oversimplifies a movement based on much more than just spiritual belief. It came from a cultural, political, and economic upheaval, unlike anything Western cultures can genuinely relate to. As such, most modern anthropologists have shunned the term cargo cult in favor of a more nuanced view of the Pacific Islanders’ popular belief systems.
Still, to this day, Tanna is a popular tourist destination for Americans who want to get a look at a unique culture that seems to revere their faraway homeland. Of course, spiritual leaders often receive questions about their religion’s quirks and the point of continuing to believe in John Frum when he hasn’t shown himself after all these years. In the words of one leader, Chief Isaac, “You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth, and you haven’t given up hope.”
What do you think? Is the John Frum movement an absurd belief system? Is it ever appropriate to deem someone’s religion, even a small part of it, as ridiculous? Or must we treat others’ beliefs with the same reverence that most people treat their own?
What does it say about modern religious movements? It feels easy to cast doubt on religions with roots in the 20th-century due to our knowledge of history from that time. Yet, we’re unable to scrutinize ancient beliefs with the same precision. What does this say about our society and the way we view religion? Religions are inherently based more on faith than evidence, yet, why do so many westerners feel justified in criticizing the John Frum movement based on current evidence?