Weird Stuff

John Frum and the Cargo Cults of Tanna Island

posted by Chris Valentine

There is an island nation in the South Pacific where some cargo cults still exist today. Vanuatu is an archipelago about a thousand miles from Australia, composed of about 82 small islands, one of which is Tanna Island. Tanna is populated by the Melanesian people (who also live on Papua New Guinea). And like Papua New Guinea, Tanna Island is home to a number of cargo cults. The cargo cults of Tanna Island include the Tom Navy cult and the Prince Philip movement, but the biggest one is the cult of John Frum.

John Frum Movement - USA

Cargo Cults

When pre-industrial tribal societies come into contact with modern day society, they could very well see its technology as magic. During World War II, people in the Pacific watched lots of manufactured, technologically-superior goods enter the region, courtesy of Japanese and Allied forces. Soldiers would give gratitude to their native hosts by sharing their medicine, clothing, weapons, and other manufactured items with them. But when the war ended, the goods stopped coming. Enter the cargo cults – native peoples who perform rituals and religious practices with the intention of bringing back the material wealth (cargo) so the people can once again prosper. To the cargo cults, manufactured goods do not come from man, but from the gods. Remember the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy? In that film, a simple bushman discovers a Coca-Cola bottle and thinks it a sign from the gods. It exposes his tribe to the concept of “property” which brings the problems associated with a rare good – in this case envy, violence, etc. The bushman determines that the Coke bottle is evil and begins a trek to throw it off the edge of the world.

John Frum

John Frum Day (01)

Cargo cults developed in many places since Western peoples starting arriving a few centuries ago, but most of the ones remaining today are on Papua New Guinea and Tanna. The cargo cults of Tanna Island are particularly interesting. The big one is known as the cult of John Frum. For most of the 20th century, Vanuatu was known as New Hebrides, an English-French colony that lasted from 1906 to 1980. According to legend, a group of elders in the 1930s saw a white man in a vision, named John Frum, who promised that he would rescue them from the foreign missionaries and colonial authorities. Frum said that the people of Tanna Island should reject the ways of the West, reject Christianity, get rid of their money and clothing, and go back to the old customs. There is an alternative explanation that suggests the elders created John Frum as a fight against the Westerners who had taken over the island. A third explanation suggests that John Frum was a real person – actually a native who used the name John Frum (and wore western clothes). (Perhaps the name is as simple as the natives hearing somebody say “John from America”). In any case, the authorities didn’t take kindly to the cult’s rebellious stance and arrested some of its leaders.

John Frum - Man in Uniform

In the early 40s, American troops came to New Hebrides and created giant bases with airstrips, hospitals, and bridges. The locals helped out and were handed generous amounts of “cargo.” The sight of white men with such wealth made it appear as if they were in league with the spirits. The islanders were also impressed by the sight of black soldiers living the same way, wearing the same clothing, eating the same foods, etc. The nature of John Frum changed. He was soon taking on the appearance of an African-American soldier.

At the end of WW2, when the troops left, the John Frum followers in Tanna expected his return, and they even made an airstrip in the jungle so that American planes could land and bring with them more precious cargo. Others built control towers from bamboo and rope. When the white man would try to explain modern technology as something that must learned and worked for, he was instead interpreted as refusing to give up the “secret.” By observing and trying to duplicate the white man’s “rituals”, the locals hoped to discover that secret.

Lots of cargo cults have died out but John Frum endures on Tanna Island. Starting in the 50s, the “Tanna Army” organizes parades that take place on February 15th every year, the day of Frum’s expected return (“John Frum Day”). The idea is that if you threw away your money and returned to your old customs, John Frum himself would eventually return with new cargo, providing all the material wealth you could ask for. In the village of Lamakara, hundreds of John Frum believers drink kava, gathering around a ceremonial area, singing hyms about him. Some of them are dressed like G.I.s, with rifles made of bamboo, wearing “USA” painted on their bodies, carrying the American flag. Says one elder:

“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.”

Sources: Smithsonian, Damn Interesting, Thoughtspot.

Prince Philip Movement

Prince Philip Movement

John Frum has an offshoot movement. There is a village on Tanna that houses the Yaohnanen tribe. The origins of the Prince Philip movement are unclear, but at some point in the mid 20th century, the Yaohnanen noticed that British authorities were paying significant respect to Queen Elizabeth II, and made a very interesting assumption – that her husband, Prince Philip (Duke of Edinburgh), must be a divine being.

It comes from one of their legends which says a mountain spirit had a son with pale skin, spiritual brother to John Frum, who went away to distant lands and married a powerful woman, but would soon return. The Queen was certainly very powerful, and so the locals probably made the logical leap there. The cult of Prince Philip was believed to have started in the 50s. It grew when the royal couple made a visit to Vanuatu in 1974. When Prince Philip learned about the cult somtime in the late 70s, it was suggested that he send a portrait of himself to the villagers, which he did. The members of the Prince Philip movement then send him a nal-nal club, which is a traditional war/animal-killing club. The prince kindly returned a photograph of him holding it. In 2007, the British TV station channel 4 sponsored a visit of 5 natives from Tanna Island to Britain, where they got to meet Prince Philip and exchange gifts.

Prince Philip Photo

Image from "An Idiot Abroad"

Karl Pilkington visited the tribe for a recent episode of An Idiot Abroad. He said:

“He [Prince Philip] came here once. Ever since his visit, problems went away. So they worship him. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, I don’t know if Philip did sort it. I’ve never known him to sort anything.”

Sources: Daily Mail

Tom Navy

Tom Navy was apparently an African-American serviceman from WW2 (who most likely introduced himself to the locals as “Tom from the Navy”). He helped the Tanna people during the war. As a result, he is revered among the people, although it is debatable whether the fans of Tom Navy can truly be called a “cargo cult.” Perhaps Tom Navy is more like a legendary hero.

On an episode of Meet the Natives: USA from the Travel Channel, five Tanna island tribesmen visit the United States, partly to try to find Tom Navy.

Tom Navy is considered to be the head of all prophets and is credited with bringing peace to Tanna.

Sources: Travel Channel FB, Wiki

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