Sunday, June 10, 2012

A god called John Frum

Today's post is a little different. It's not about writing. It's about people and the things they believe. It would make a fantastic story. So maybe it is kind of about writing after all. Maybe everything is. 

A grass plane

I first learned about cargo cults when I was a small child — thanks to living in a part of the world where they existed, and a mother who thought it was important not to be totally ignorant of your surroundings — and I wasn’t that interested. There were heaps of other things to think about, like panning for gold in the overflowing downpipe beside the house, hunting for kiwis up in the squatters’ camp (the kid from New Zealand was sure we’d find some there) and believing that the Toli boy from down the road was a head hunter.

This was in Papua New Guinea. I mentioned that, right? Otherwise this story seems a little odd.

Anyway, cargo cults developed in isolated pockets in the South Pacific during the Second World War. At that time there were groups of people living in the islands whose only contact with the outside world was through planters and missionaries. Some groups had never seen Europeans before.

In the 1930s on the island of Tanna in what is now known as Vanuatu, John Frum appeared to some people in a vision. He told them that they had to reject the Europeans’ way of life: stop working on the copra plantations, stop using money, and return to kastom.

The colonial authorities dealt with it the way that colonial authorities did: arrested a few ringleaders, showed the flag, and waited for the fuss to die down.

Maybe that’s how it would have ended, except suddenly there was a war in their laps.

And suddenly there were American soldiers everywhere.

There were planes, and radios, and — here’s the crux of it — there were supplies that literally dropped out of the sky.

John Frum must have sent them. John Frum must be an American.

After the war, when these things stopped happening, the people developed rituals to try and get the cargo to come again. They drilled like soldiers. They prayed to America. They built decoy planes and landing strips to entice the real thing back again.

On the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, you can visit a cargo cult village. You’ll know it as soon as you arrive: it will have an American flag, and a Red Cross.



John Frum lives in the volcano Yasur on Tanna, where he has an army and a lot of trucks and tanks. He’ll return one year on February the fifteenth, and reward his followers with cargo.  

There are other cargo cults on Tanna as well: one for a man called Tom Navy, probably an American serviceman who recruited local labour on Tanna during the war; and one for Prince Phillip, who just happens to fit all the requirements of John Frum’s brother. He is pale-skinned, he married a powerful woman, and he lives on the other side of the world but one day he’ll return to Tanna. 


I would love to do justice to a John Frum story one day. 
What fires up your imagination? 


  1. That's fascinating. I'd seen photos of those cocoanut headphones, but never knew the full story.

    I found a video on it, and as it explained, the white man never made anything, but simply did what looked like worship - marching rituals, raising towers with antennas, and talking into glowing boxes for what they wanted - and the islanders saw all these brand new gifts come from the sky.

    Kind of reasonable, really.

    1. It's totally reasonable :)

      It always makes me think of Arthur C Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

  2. That's so interesting! Thanks for sharing ^_^



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