Every year on February 15th, natives of Tanna Island in the Republic of Vanuatu hold a grand celebration in honor of an imaginary man named John Frum. Villagers clothe themselves in homemade US Army britches, paint “USA” on their bare chests and backs, and run a replica of Old Glory up the flagpole alongside the Marine Corps Emblem and the state flag of Georgia. Barefoot soldiers then march in perfect step in the shadow of Yasur, the island’s active volcano, with red-tipped bamboo “rifles” slung over their shoulders. February 15th is known as John Frum day on Tanna Island, and these activities are the islanders’ holiest religious service.
The Vanuatu island group lies northeast of Australia and southeast of Malaysia and the Philippines. Prior to contact with Europeans, the people who lived there were primitive tribal societies. Many of history’s stereotypes and legends regarding island cannibals originated from these societies; slain enemies and the occasional missionary were eaten, sometimes in the hopes of gaining magical powers, and other times due to food shortages.
Eventually the New Hebrides islands (as they were then called) were colonized and placed under joint British and French rule. Christian missionaries formed a makeshift government and court system which punished islanders for following many of their long-held customs, such as dancing, swearing, adultery, and polygamy. The colonizers also forbade working and amusement on Sundays. The islanders lived under this oppression for thirty years before a fellow native rallied the people and promised an age of abundance to any who would reject the European ways. He went by the alias “John Frum,” a name possibly derived from the phrase “John from Jesus Christ”— namely John the Baptist. Many islanders joined him, and the cult moved inland to escape the missionaries and return to their old traditions.
One day in the early 1940s, the relatively isolated group of islands was descended upon by hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who arrived by sea and by air. The world was at war, and America had plans to build bases on the Pacific islands. The newcomers recruited the locals’ assistance in constructing hospitals, airstrips, jetties, roads, bridges, and corrugated-steel Quonset huts, all of which were strange and wondrous to the natives. But it was the prodigious amounts of war materiel that were airdropped for the US bases that drastically changed the lifestyle of the islanders. They observed as aircraft descended from the sky and delivered crates full of clothing, tents, weapons, tools, canned foods, and other goods to the island’s new residents, a diversity of riches the likes of which the islanders had never seen. The natives learned that this bounty from the sky was known to the American servicemen as “cargo.”
These new occupiers proved to be far better guests than the British missionaries had been. The islanders were further astonished at the sight of black GIs among the ranks, enjoying all the benefits of cargo that the white soldiers enjoyed— something that the black islanders had been denied with rare exception. The islanders believed that their own dead ancestors continued to influence the communities of the living, and that their ancestors would one day come back to life and distribute to them unimaginable wealth. Therefore they reasoned that the white people must have had connections to their own ancestors, who would logically be the only ones powerful enough to rain down such wondrous riches.
It was during the war that the John Frum legend changed, recasting the religious icon as a black American infantryman. The black GIs were believed to have been John Frum’s own detachment of the US Army, or perhaps the grown children of islanders believed to have been kidnapped by plantation owners long ago. It was said that John Frum lived inside the island’s volcano, called “Yasur”— the native word for “God.”
When the war ended several years later, the Americans departed as suddenly as they had arrived. Military bases were abandoned, and the steady flow of cargo which had altered the islanders’ lives completely dried up. The men and women of Tanna Island had grown to enjoy the radios, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola, canned meat, and candy, so they set into motion a plan to bring back the cargo. They had surreptitiously learned the secrets of summoning the cargo by observing the practices of the American airmen, sailors and soldiers.
The islanders set to work clearing their own kind of landing strips, and they erected their own control towers strung with rope and bamboo aerials. They carved wooden radio headsets with bamboo antennae, and even the occasional wooden air-traffic controller. Day after day, men from the village sat in their towers wearing their replica headsets as others stood on the runways and waved the landing signals to attract cargo-bringing airplanes from the empty sky. More towers were constructed, these with tin cans strung on wires to imitate radio stations so John Frum could communicate with his people. Piers were also erected in an effort to attract ships laden with cargo, and the Red Cross emblem seen on wartime ambulances was taken as the symbol of the resurging religion. Today villages surrounding Yasur Volcano are dotted with little red crosses surrounded by picket fences, silently testifying to the islander’s faith.
The priests and prophets of the John Frum cult, called “messengers,” foretold the return of planes and ships bearing cargo for the people of Tanna escorted by John Frum himself. The movement declared that in addition to returning to their “kastom” [custom] ways, money was to be thrown away, gardens be left untended, and pigs killed since all material wealth will be provided in the end by John Frum. Their god has yet to emerge from his home inside the volcano to bring the promised riches, and at least one visitor’s guide offers this advice: “If you question a local about their beliefs, they will most likely reply that you have been waiting for your messiah to return for over 2000 years – while they have been waiting for only 70.”
Despite gaining their independence and becoming familiar with the workings of the world around them, new beliefs arise on the island regularly. A visit to the village of Yaohnanen in 1974 by Prince Phillip resulted in the formation of a Prince Phillip cult. Its followers believe that Phillip originally came from Tanna, albeit in a different form, and that he will eventually return to rule over them. A recent development is the appearance of the Prophet Fred, an actual person who claims to have raised his wife from the dead in early 2006. He preaches a turn to more mainstream Christianity, and his followers have had violent clashes with those of John Frum.
Vanuatu is not the earliest and far from the only place in Melanesia where cargo cults have existed. The origin of the earliest cargo cults in general can be traced back to 1871, when the Russian explorer Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay landed in Papua New Guinea bearing gifts of goods such as steel axe heads and bolts of cloth. Inevitably, missionaries soon arrived and began distributing goods. Initially all efforts to convert the natives proved useless, but one day the natives suddenly started converting in droves. The men and women of the island had theorized that learning the rituals of the Europeans would allow them to gain the secrets of cargo.
The religions introduced by missionaries were completely inconsistent with islanders’ long-held beliefs, yet the natives could not deny the call of the cargo. The people therefore attempted to reconcile their existing beliefs with the missionaries’ teachings, a practice which led to some strange interpretations. In New Guinea, one resulting version of Christianity described a god named Anus who delivered cargo of canned meat, steel tools, rice, and matches to Adam and Eve. When they discovered sex, Anus ejected them from Eden and struck them with a flood.
On the Island of New Hanover in the Bismarck Archipelago, another cargo cult arose in 1968 claiming that the true secret of cargo was known to only one man: President Lyndon Johnson. The natives of this island revolted against their Australian rulers, saved up $75,000, and sent a letter to Johnson offering to buy him and make him King of New Hanover. Strangely enough, he didn’t accept.
Renowned physicist Richard Feynman coined the phrase “cargo cult science” based on such cults. The term draws a metaphor for research which is polluted by the mind’s tendency to cherry-pick evidence that supports the desired outcome. Though it is tempting to look down on these islanders for their misguided assumptions, they are simply an extreme example of this very human bias. For them it was easier to believe that the control towers, headsets, and runways were the cause of the cargo-carrying airplanes rather than an effect, so they closed their minds to alternative explanations.
Some of these cargo cults continue to operate today, such as the parade-marching pseudo-marines of Vanuatu. So far no black US infantryman have crawled from the volcano to deliver the islanders’ salvation, but every year they confidently hoist their flags and don their uniforms, so they’ll be ready when that glorious day finally arrives. Perhaps one day it will.