159, 2014 November)
John Frum is a messiah-like figure who would fill the land with "cargo"
(Western material goods), abolish work, and make everyone fabulously
In the 1970s this was the dominant belief on Tanna, an island in the
New Hebrides — now called Republic of Vanuatu — about 600km east of New
Cargo cults flourished in New Guinea and on islands to the east with
the arrival of White traders in the 19th century and again with the
influx of American troops and modern goods in World War II.
Cargo cults are often considered to have their origin in 1871. In that
year Russian explorer Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888) landed in
Papua New Guinea and distributed gifts of steel axe blades, cloth and
other items. Miklouho-Maclay lived in Australia from 1878-1887,
becoming famous for his scientific work in and around Australia, and he
married the daughter of NSW Premier John Robertson.
In 1886 the first Lutheran missionaries left Australia for newly
established German New Guinea, and other denominations also sent
missionaries. Natives learned to associate missionaries and trading
stations with goods such as garden tools, axes and steel knives.
This led to recurring cargo cults when natives expected the miraculous
appearance of all the goods they wanted. With the coming of aviation in
the 20th century the miracle goods were often awaited from the sky.
Some cargo cults believed the arrival of "cargo" depended upon the
acceptance of European ways. This spawned pseudo-Christian groups which
sometimes grew rapidly into thousands of believers, only to fade away
when nothing miraculous eventuated.
Cargo cults arose in New Guinea and for thousands of kilometres
eastwards on the islands of the SW Pacific.
JOHN FRUM — AN ISLAND GOD
The Republic of Vanuatu consists of over 80 inhabited islands of which
Tanna is one of the southern islands.
Kal Muller in National Geographic (1974) reported:
that their savior lives in the United States, they generally refuse to
cooperate with New Hebridean authorities for fear of compromising their
fidelity to Frum. Widespread confidence in Frum's ability to replenish
any shortage once moved Tannese to convulse the island's economy by
slaughtering their pigs, eating up all available food, and casting
hard-earned local currency into the sea.
Captain Cook discovered Tanna in 1774 and in the 19th century trading
ships followed. The foreigners' knives, bright cloth and other goods
convinced the Tannese that the god who created such wealth would give
it to them too. Under joint French and British rule from 1906 to 1980
came missionaries. Many islanders, expecting cargo to materialize,
turned to Christianity.
Christian missionaries governed and ran a court system which punished
islanders for dancing, adultery, polygamy and working on Sundays. The
anticipated wealth didn't materialize, but the anticipation spawned the
John Frum cult.
John Frum was a deity that arose in the 1930s and embodied the hope for
material wealth. To gain this wealth the people had to reject
everything the missionaries had brought and return to traditional
customs. In 1941 the Melanesians abandoned the plantations, schools,
churches and villages and moved inland. It was supposed to be the dawn
of a new era. The authorities tried to suppress the movement and even
arrested and deported a native who presented himself as John Frum
In 1942 the Americans arrived to fight the Japanese Empire. With
300,000 troops stationed in or passing through the New Hebrides,
American ships brought prefabricated housing, jeeps, medicines,
machine-made clothing, Coca-cola, new foods, and all sorts of items.
Many islanders got jobs and money and could buy "cargo" for themselves.
Some Americans were Black — Blacks who seemed to have everything. So
why shouldn't the Tannese have everything too? It seemed the John Frum
millennium had arrived.
With Japan's defeat the goods stopped coming.
The Tannese resumed their vigil. In 1957, a local leader, Nakomaha,
created the "Tanna Army", a non-violent, ritualistic movement which
adopted the Red Cross from American first-aid stations as a symbol.
They built runways in the jungle for cargo airplanes that didn't come,
and control towers out of bamboo, and wooden replicas of the goods they
wanted. They held annual celebrations on February 15 with
military-style parades, in which spears substituted for rifles, and
with "USA" emblazoned on white t-shirts or on bare backs.
In the 1970s most of the island's 12,000 people still believed, and
still waited, and held weekly services to that belief. They expected
John Frum to lead 50,000 soldiers who would emerge out of the crater of
the Island's Yasur Volcano. Many islanders attributed John Frum's delay
to cultural changes having made him angry. They gave up Western
clothing and readopted old practices including costumes, ceremonies,
dances and magic.
Kal Muller concluded his National Geographic article by
wondering whether "Tanna's generation of tomorrow" will continue to
believe in John Frum.
With the dominant John Frum cult failing to produce miraculous cargo,
other cults arose in imitation.
There was a "Tom Navy" cult based on an American who befriended
islanders during WWII and apparently called himself "Tom from the
A visit in 1974 by Prince Philip resulted in the forming of the Prince
Philip movement by the Yaohnanen tribe. Prince Philip sent a portrait
of himself to the tribe and they believed he would return and rule them
and of course bring plenty of cargo. In 2007 Channel 4 in Britain
brought five Tanna natives to England to meet Prince Philip and
In 2006 a "Prophet Fred" claimed to have raised his wife from the dead
and advocated Christianity.
Barbie Dutter (2001) for the Telegraph reported, "John Frum is
given his marching orders".
What happened is that Christianity had returned. A Presbyterian
minister persuaded many islanders to attend church services and permit
their children a Western education. Catholics and Seventh Day
Adventists arrived also.
Tribal chief Isaac Wan, leader of the John Frum movement for 30 years,
resented the Christian invasion and moved his headquarters to another
village. He opposed Western education and maintained that John Frum
would still come:
told the islanders to throw down the Bible and keep kastom – Bislama
pidgin for preserving their traditional ways. Those who heeded his
words would be rewarded with wealth.
With Christianity's re-arrival Tanna modernized — businesses, vehicles,
an airport, a wharf, shops, ships, and tourists.
Community leaders began to stress that goods don't drop from the sky
but are procured by working for money as taught in the Bible. Jesus
Christ was slowly displacing John Frum.
"JOHN FRUM, HE WILL COME"
Cevin Soling (b.1948) is an American author, musician, filmmaker,
graduate of Harvard, and member of Mensa. His films include:
Urine: Good Health (1999);
The War on Drugs (2005);
A Hole in the Head (2008);
The War on Kids (2009).
IN 2010 Soling made the film John Frum, He Will Come which was
shown in American theatres in 2011.
With help from donations Soling bought and assembled supplies of
fishing and gardening tools, cooking pots, knives and other goods and
delivered these in chartered boats and airplanes to the people of Tanna
Soling's film chronicles local culture and his elevation to godhood
when many Tannese equated him with John Frum.
The movement's long-time leader, Chief Isaac Wan, declared the prophecy
Dutter, B. John Frum is given his marching orders, Telegraph, 7
Muller, K. Tanna Awaits the Coming of John Frum, National Geographic,
May 1974, pp 706-714
Rice, E. 1974 John Frum He Come, Doubleday.