Cargo Cult alive in “John Frum Village”

South Pacific, South Pacific Sailing, Vanuatu — By on August 28, 2011 4:34 PM


On the east side of Tanna, at the bottom of the volcanic slopes of Mount Yaser, the last of the cargo cults live awaiting the second coming of an American deity they call John Frum.

From the top of the mountain we could see the “John Frum Village” nestled between the rumbling volcano and the crashing waves at Sulphur Bay. We descended the mountain, struggling to keep pace with two village women walking barefoot carrying large loads of root veggies.

I was intrigued by what we had heard about “cargo cults” and was excited by the possibility of seeing this phenomenon with my own eyes. Upon entering the village looked just like all the others I had visited so far in Vanuatu. However, at a closer glance I notice an abundance of flagpoles we would learn hoist American flags, and a large dusty area where the followers march and dance each Friday night in accordance to John Frum’s orders. It was a shame we were unaware of the weekly day of celebration as we arrived on a Saturday.

The legend goes that in 1936 John Frum, the brother of the god of Mt Tukosmera, came from the sea at Sulfur Bay and told the people there would be an abundance of wealth so long as all Europeans left Tanna.

The cults were founded shortly after in the wake of World War II by Melanesians who came in contact with U.S. soldiers. According to one theory, the islanders who developed these cults saw “giant silver birds” drop crates that floated down to earth with parachutes and burst open when they hit the ground. Most of the military hardware, but sometimes people would find special items like SPAM, which tasted like pork, meat reserved for sacred ceremonies. The islanders concluded the airborn cargo must be gifts from gods.

During this time the Tannese met generous African-Americans who shared their Coca Cola and cigarettes and given the similarity in skin color many thought these guys were surely Tannese in disguese. It is suspected that John Frum must have been an African American soldier.

Another possible explanation is that cargo cults were founded by islanders who worked at American bases and returned to their villages with tales after the war. When the troops and their fancy machines departed as abruptly as they arrived, cults were created to explain the alien invasion and to lure the Americans back with more cargo.

New Guinea, the Solomons and Vanuatu are all said to have had cargo cults. In some places, tribes built landing pads to mark the spot where the Americans should return. Others built fake radio towers and made tin cans into imaginary telephones which they used to chat with “the gods”. Today most of the cults have disappeared, overwhelmed by Christian missionaries or overcome by modern times.

I can attest to the fact that there is still an active cargo cult on the volcanic island of Tanna, and I had the opportunity to meet a few of the followers. The older members of the cult did not speak English and it was difficult to fully understand the teachings and the future of the cult.

If you find yourself in Tanna it would be worth the hike to show up in the village on a Friday night and see the cult in action as  followers from all around Tanna gather to honor John Frum and expedite a return of the Americans.

*Parts of this post are paraphrased from article in “Islands Magazine”

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