Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Cargo Cults and John Frum



Keywords: eschatology, Savior,

John Frum Movement

The John Frum movement appeared for the first time in the 1940s in the New Hebrideans. At that time some 300,000 American troops established themselves in the New Hebrides. The islanders were impressed both by the egalitarianism of the Americans and their obvious wealth and power. This led them to conflate perceived benefactors such as Uncle Sam, Santa Claus and John the Baptist into a mythic figure called John Frum, who would empower the island peoples by giving them cargo wealth.

What became of the 'cargo cults' of Melanesia?
Did any cargo ever arrive?

* CARGO cults survive in a variety of forms throughout Melanesia. My own experience is limited to the John Frum cult. It is generally accepted that the cult developed around the possibly mythical prophet, John Frum, who came to the island of Tanna in Vanuatu in the 1930s. The islanders believed that he was the incarnation of one of their gods. During the second world war the John Frum cult seems to have adopted 'cargo' characteristics, probably from the arrival of the American forces and their vast wealth of goods. It was worked into the cult that John Frum originated from America and that one day he would return bringing great quantities of gifts of cargo.

To keep alive their beliefs the islanders gather on Friday nights in front of wooden red crosses and dance to guitar music. Prior to 1987 I had heard about the John Frum cult and had visited their village of Ipeukel. In February 1987, Tanna was devastated by Cyclone Uma. As part of the relief programme organised by the government of Vanuatu, I was sent to deliver food, tents and other supplies to the stricken areas. These supplies came in two types of packages. One type bore a large red cross explaining its origins. Other packages were labelled 'A Gift from the People of America.'

We delivered these by helicopter and did our best to explain that they were the result of the Vanuatu government working with other nations and that the British Government was in part responsible for this 'miracle'. The villagers said they knew of another cult in Vanuatu where people believed in the benefits that would result from friendship with the Duke of Edinburgh, but their own beliefs were rather better considered. The John Frum people accepted their cargo as a natural course of events and proof of their faith. As they told the French pilot of our helicopter, he had been waiting 2,000 years for his religion to fulfil its promise of 'gifts from heaven' but John Frum had produced the goods in less than 50 years.

David Corscadden, Llanelli, Dyfed.

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