View Full Version : The Cargo Cults
10-30-2008, 01:37 PM
Hey Chaps n Chappettes. Heres some infomation on the Church of John Frum. The state religion of a south pacific island who wait for their prophet to return in his WW2 Plane, as he promised he would 70 years ago.
In the morning heat on a tropical island halfway across the world from the United States, several dark-skinned men—clad in what look to be U.S. Army uniforms—appear on a mound overlooking a bamboo-hut village. One reverently carries Old Glory, precisely folded to reveal only the stars. On the command of a bearded “drill sergeant,” the flag is raised on a pole hacked from a tall tree trunk. As the huge banner billows in the wind, hundreds of watching villagers clap and cheer.
Chief Isaac Wan, a slight, bearded man in a blue suit and ceremonial sash, leads the uniformed men down to open ground in the middle of the village. Some 40 barefoot "G.I.’s" suddenly emerge from behind the huts to more cheering, marching in perfect step and ranks of two past Chief Isaac. They tote bamboo “rifles” on their shoulders, the scarlet tips sharpened to represent bloody bayonets, and sport the letters “USA,” painted in red on their bare chests and backs.
This is February 15, John Frum Day, on the remote island of Tanna in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. On this holiest of days, devotees have descended on the village of Lamakara from all over the island to honor a ghostly American messiah, John Frum. “John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him,” a village elder tells me as he salutes the Stars and Stripes. “Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.”
The island’s John Frum movement is a classic example of what anthropologists have called a “cargo cult”—many of which sprang up in villages in the South Pacific during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of American troops poured into the islands from the skies and seas. As anthropologist Kirk Huffman, who spent 17 years in Vanuatu, explains: “You get cargo cults when the outside world, with all its material wealth, suddenly descends on remote, indigenous tribes.” The locals don’t know where the foreigners’ endless supplies come from and so suspect they were summoned by magic, sent from the spirit world. To entice the Americans back after the war, islanders throughout the region constructed piers and carved airstrips from their fields. They prayed for ships and planes to once again come out of nowhere, bearing all kinds of treasures: jeeps and washing machines, radios and motorcycles, canned meat and candy.
But the venerated Americans never came back, except as a dribble of tourists and veterans eager to revisit the faraway islands where they went to war in their youth. And although almost all the cargo cults have disappeared over the decades, the John Frum movement has endured, based on the worship of an American god no sober man has ever seen.
Many Americans know Vanuatu from the reality TV series “Survivor,” though the episodes shot there hardly touched on the Melanesian island nation’s spectacular natural wonders and fascinating, age-old cultures. Set between Fiji and New Guinea, Vanuatu is a Y-shaped scattering of more than 80 islands, several of which include active volcanoes. The islands were once home to fierce warriors, among them cannibals. Many inhabitants still revere village sorcerers, who use spirit-possessed stones in magic rituals that can lure a new lover, fatten a pig or kill an enemy.
Americans with longer memories remember Vanuatu as the New Hebrides—its name until its independence from joint British and French colonial rule in 1980. James Michener’s book Tales of the South Pacific, which spawned the musical South Pacific, grew out of his experiences as an American sailor in the New Hebrides in World War II.
My own South Pacific experience, in search of John Frum and his devotees, begins when I board a small plane in Vanuatu’s capital, Port-Vila. Forty minutes later, coral reefs, sandy beaches and green hills announce Tanna Island, about 20 miles long and 16 miles at its widest point, with a population of around 28,000. Climbing into an ancient jeep for the drive to Lamakara, which overlooks Sulphur Bay, I wait while Jessel Niavia, the driver, starts the vehicle by touching together two wires sticking out from a hole under the dashboard.
As the jeep rattles up a steep slope, the narrow trail slicing through the jungle’s dense green weave of trees and bushes, Jessel tells me that he is the brother-in-law of one of the cult’s most important leaders, Prophet Fred—who, he adds proudly, “raised his wife from the dead two weeks ago.”
When we reach the crest of a hill, the land ahead falls away to reveal Yasur, Tanna’s sacred volcano, a few miles to the south, its ash-coated slopes nudging the shoreline at Sulphur Bay. Dark smoke belches from its cone. “‘Yasur’ means God in our language,” Jessel murmurs. “It’s the house of John Frum.”
“If he’s an American, why does he live in your volcano?” I wonder aloud.
“Ask Chief Isaac,” he says. “He knows everything.”
Dotting the dirt road are small villages where women with curly, bubble-shaped hair squat over bundles of mud-coated roots called kava, a species of pepper plant and a middling narcotic that is the South Pacific’s traditional drug of choice. Connoisseurs say that Tanna’s kava is the strongest of all. Jessel buys a bundle of roots for 500 vatu, about $5. “We’ll drink it tonight,” he says with a grin.
For as long as Tanna’s inhabitants can remember, island men have downed kava at sunset each day in a place off-limits to women. Christian missionaries, mostly Presbyterians from Scotland, put a temporary stop to the practice in the early 20th century, also banning other traditional practices, or “kastom,” that locals had followed faithfully for millennia: dancing, penis wrapping and polygamy. The missionaries also forbade working and amusement on Sundays, swearing and adultery. In the absence of a strong colonial administrative presence, they set up their own courts to punish miscreants, sentencing them to forced labor. The Tannese seethed under the missionaries’ rules for three decades. Then, John Frum appeared.
The road drops steeply through more steamy jungle to the shoreline, around the point from Yasur, where I will stay in a hut on the beach. As the sun sets beyond the rain-forest- covered mountains that form Tanna’s spine, Jessel’s brother, Daniel Yamyam, arrives to fetch me. He has the soft-focus eyes and nearly toothless smile of a kava devotee. Daniel was once a member of Vanuatu’s Parliament in Port-Vila, and his constituents included John Frum followers from what was then the movement’s stronghold, Ipikil, on Sulphur Bay. “I’m now a Christian, but like most people on Tanna, I still have John Frum in my heart,” he says. “If we keep praying to John, he’ll come back with plenty of cargo.”
Daniel leads me to his village nakamal, the open ground where the men drink kava. Two young boys bend over the kava roots Jessel had purchased, chewing chunks of them into a stringy pulp. “Only circumcised boys who’ve never touched a girl’s body can make kava,” Daniel tells me. “That ensures that their hands are not dirty.”
Other boys mix water with the pulp and twist the mixture through a cloth, producing a dirty-looking liquid. Daniel hands me a half-coconut shell filled to the brim. “Drink it in one go,” he whispers. It tastes vile, like muddy water. Moments later my mouth and tongue turn numb.
The men split into small groups or sit by themselves, crouching in the darkness, whispering to each other or lost in thought. I toss back a second shell of the muddy mix, and my head tugs at its mooring, seeking to drift away into the night.
Yasur rumbles like distant thunder, a couple of miles over the ridge, and through the trees I glimpse an eerie red glow at its cone. In 1774, Capt. James Cook was lured ashore by that same glow. He was the first European to see the volcano, but local leaders banned him from climbing to the cone because it was taboo. Daniel assures me the taboo is no longer enforced. “Go with Chief Isaac,” he advises. “You can ask him tomorrow.”
After I drink my third shell of kava, Daniel peers into my undoubtedly glazed eyes. “I’d better take you back,” he says. By the seaside at my hut, I dance unsteadily to the rhythm of the waves as I try to pluck the shimmering moon from the sky and kiss it.
The next morning, I head to Lamakara to talk to Chief Isaac. Surrounded by an eerie doomsday moonscape of volcanic ash, Yasur looms behind the village. But at only 1,184 feet high, the sacred volcano has none of the majesty of, say, Mount Fuji; instead, its squat shape reminds me of a pugnacious bulldog standing guard before its master’s house. My driver points at the cone. “Haus blong John Frum,” he says in pidgin English. It’s John Frum’s house.
In the village dozens of cane huts, some with rusting tin roofs, encircle an open ceremonial dancing ground of impacted ash and the mound where the American flag flies each day, flanked by the much smaller flags of Vanuatu, ex-colonial ruler France and the Australian Aborigines, whose push for racial equality the villagers admire. Clearly, John Frum has yet to return with his promised cargo because Lamakara is dirt poor in consumer goods. But island men, wrapped in cloth known as lava-lava, women in large flowered dresses and mostly barefoot children in T-shirts appear healthy and seem happy. That’s no surprise: like many South Pacific coastal villages, it’s a place where coconuts drop by your side as you snooze. Yams, taro, and pineapples and other fruit thrive in the fertile volcanic soil, and plump pigs sniff around the village for scraps. Tasty fruit bats cling upside down in nearby trees.
Chief Isaac, in an open-neck shirt, green slacks and cloth shoes, greets me on the mound and leads me into a hut behind the flagpoles: the John Frum inner sanctum, off-limits to all but the cult’s senior leaders and, it seems, male visitors from abroad. “Office blong me,” he says with a smile as we enter.
The hut is dominated by a round table displaying a small U.S. flag on a pedestal, a carved bald eagle and imitation U.S. military uniforms neatly folded and placed in a circle, ready for use on John Frum Day in a little more than a week. Above, suspended by vine from a beam, hangs a globe, a stone ax and a pair of green stones carved into circles the size of a silver dollar. “Very powerful magic,” the chief says as he points to the stones. “The gods made them a long time ago.”
Written on a pair of blackboards is a plea that John Frum’s followers lead a kastom life and that they refrain from violence against each other. One of the blackboards bears a chalked red cross, probably copied from U.S. military ambulances and now an important symbol for the cult.
“John Frum came to help us get back our traditional customs, our kava drinking, our dancing, because the missionaries and colonial government were deliberately destroying our culture,” Chief Isaac says, his pidgin English translated by Daniel.
“But if John Frum, an American, is going to bring you modern goods, how does that sit with his wish that you lead a kastom life?” I ask.
“John is a spirit. He knows everything,” the chief says, slipping past the contradiction with the poise of a skilled politician. “He’s even more powerful than Jesus.”
“Have you ever seen him?”
“Yes, John comes very often from Yasur to advise me, or I go there to speak with John.”
“What does he look like?”
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10-30-2008, 07:41 PM
That was an...interesting read.Reply
10-30-2008, 10:32 PM
Yup, it gives an insight into how religions can start. It's possible for John Frum, (John FrOm America is still alive. As he left in his plane accending into the heavens with the star of the USAF on his wings, he wouldnt have known the impact of what he had done.Reply
The cult split into many factions, people killed each other over what John was "intending" for them to do, how to worship him, what special words they should pray over their wooden radio's.
Of course since then , they have been taught about the west and a high preist of Frum visited Los Angeles. Reality made no difference, it confirmed their faith and the flight of the high preist is now written in their scripture as a "Weeks Journey" where he conversed with his deities.
It's interesting how the christianity which had already been introduced to them was partially destroyed by John. The Christian communities were fighting to explain about a 2000 year old jew when everyone on the island had seen with theuir own eyes Johns holy bird that decended him from the heavens. The Christian faithful had to mix Frumism with Christianity to survive.
It's also interesting to see the Dogmas. The Bamboo planes that they build to entice him down from the sky, the red cross that was on the medicine packs intermingeling with the cross of christianity. The uniforms of the clergy, the wooden earphones that have to be worn to pray, the Preistess wrapping the copper wire around herself the prescribed amount of times. John would never have wrapped copper wire around himself before radioing his Base or his Carrier, so I wonder where they decided that. Perhaps after one of their opium sessions they were enlightened enough to know what he wanted.
It's a great area for the amatur thologist to study, so many indepth things to learn about religion and what it means to the beleiver.
10-31-2008, 04:49 AM
That's really interesting, lol!Reply
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