Food & Culture

The South Pacific Religion That Worships a WW2 Soldier

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There's an Arthur C. Clarke quote (really the Arthur C. Clarke quote) that goes "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." That might make you think of the Wizard of Oz, who pulled levers behind a curtain in order to look like a sorcerer. Or of any given episode of "Doctor Who." On the South Pacific island of Tanna, this trope is writ onto the real world as a result of the complicated intersection of colonialism and indigenous practices. Meet "John Frum," the mythical WWII G.I. who's become a messiah to thousands.

Ceremonial cross of John Frum cargo cult, Tanna, New Hebrides.

A Myth with Muddy Origins

Here's the basic gist of the John Frum movement: according to the legend, John is an American who appeared to the people of Tanna in the form of a World War II G.I. in the 1940s. He brought with him a wealth of material goods, including chocolate, cola, and wondrous devices such as radios, televisions, and even airplanes. And then he left. Today, Tannese followers of the religion attempt to appease this mythical figure from afar in hopes of enticing him to return. Worship of John Frum involves building airstrips in jungle, practicing military drills with rifles made out of bamboo, and organizing celebratory parades every February 15 — John Frum Day.

If that were the whole story, it would map pretty well onto the colonial views that the West tends to project onto the places it invades. You can see it, right? Natives see their first white man, immediately identify him as a god, and organize their entire lives around him. But as is often the case, reality is a lot more complicated.

In no particular order, here are three major complications in the breezily colonial reading of John Frum. First, the Americans stationed on Tanna during World War II weren't the first Westerners the people had seen. The Portuguese landed on the island in 1606. Second, the religion dates back to at least the 1930s — well before any G.I.s would have been around to take on the messiah role (some sources trace it back as far as the 1910s). Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the religion isn't an embrace of Western modernity. It's a rejection of it.

In the early 20th century, the Tannese were suffering under the thumb of English colonizers. Their religious practices were outlawed, as was the custom of drinking kava, a mild narcotic native to the island. According to some tellings, John first appeared at a clandestine kava meeting, stepping out of the jungle in Western clothes. He expressed his approval of this return to ancient ways, and encouraged the revelers to continue keeping these traditions (collectively known as "kastom") alive. And then things really started to take off.

John Frum (America)

It's difficult to say if this first John Frum was an Englishman, a Tannese man in costume, or, as some hypothesize, some sort of collective hallucination as a result of the drink. But he soon got into trouble.

In the early 1940s, the movement stepped out of the shadows as John Frum issued his first prophecy: if the Tannese rid themselves of Western money, Western clothes, Western schools, and everything else, then the whites would leave the island and John would supply his worshippers with everything they could possibly need. And indeed, in 1941, the faithful rushed the white-controlled settlements with all of the Western money that they had accumulated over the years. They spent extravagantly, and what they couldn't spend, they threw into the sea. A year later, the U.S. military made its presence known on the island. And that's when John Frum took on his American G.I. form.

Unlike the colonizers of previous generations, the military presence on the island included both black and white soldiers. Followers of the movement saw themselves reflected in the dark skin of these new people, and John Frum began to be depicted as a black serviceman. They also brought with them some of the wondrous pieces of technology we mentioned earlier, their identical, mass-produced packaging adding a pseudo-magical flavor to the kinds of materials that John could provide.

The John Frum movement is still going strong, even as its practitioners grow more familiar with the actual workings of modern Western industrialism. And that's the crux of the issue: John Frum shouldn't be seen as a mortal human, but as a spirit or deity. Perhaps more significantly, the material goods, once seen as otherworldly or divine, can be seen instead as a vessel for independence. Indeed, new schisms in the religion have de-emphasized the worldly wealth that John is said to bring. And as religious leader Chief Isaac told Smithsonian Magazine, they're hardly the only faithful to wait patiently for a return. "You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth, and you haven't given up hope."

John Frum Cult in Tanna

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Written by Reuben Westmaas December 7, 2017

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