Nestled at the foot of the sacred mountain Yasur, on the island of Tanna, sits the village of Lamakara where a very American celebration takes place on February 15. Here men will dress in uniforms that resemble those worn by U.S. soldiers during the Second World War as they march through the streets toting sticks of bamboo that have been shaped to resemble rifles. Men, women, and children cheer and clap wildly as the de facto sergeant at arms proudly raises Old Glory to fly high above the tin-roofed cane huts that make up this tiny village; hoping this is finally the year their prayers are answered for today is John Frum Day.
The small South Pacific nation of Vanuatu is comprised of over 80 islands, many of which harbor ancient traditions that have endured for hundreds of years. In some communities, sorcery and superstition still remain a commonly practiced part of life, with inhabitants routinely visiting mystic elders who use stones possessed by the spirits in rituals designed to do everything from wooing a new lover to killing an enemy.
Life in Vanuatu also consists of drinking copious amount of kava, a beverage made from Piper methysticum known for its intoxicating effects, on a nightly basis. Kava plays an important role in what natives call “kastom,” the Pijin language word for custom. Kastom calls for a very peaceful way of life, where members of various tribes live harmoniously with one another in unity. The tranquilizing effects of drinking kava have often come to symbolize and embody the essence of kastom. The effects of kava and the role of kastom both play a vital role in how John Frum day was developed.
A Little History
Legend states that one night during the late 1930s, a group of village elders had just completed a ritual ceremony where they consumed several coconut shells of kava, the traditional means of serving the beverage, in preparation to receive messages from the spirits. From the darkness emerged a white man who told the elders that the people of Tanna had lost their way, and needed to throw off the trappings of Western culture and return to a life of kastom.
This apparition was given the name John Frum, and the message it carried struck a cord with the native people who began rebelling against colonial settlers that had taken over the nation. Arriving during the early years of the 20th century, missionaries and colonialists, mostly Scottish and British in origin, attempted to bring Christianity to the people of Vanuatu. As was often the case, embracing Christianity meant letting go of traditions that were believed counter to the word of God, such as drinking kava, worshiping mystic stones and living a life of kastom.
Whether they could feel the traditional way of life slipping away or were tired of elevated position the colonialists placed themselves in upon arriving to the islands, the people of Vanuatu mobilized behind the spirit of John Frum, casting their money and material goods into the ocean and moving back towards a simplified way of life.
Military Boosts The Movement
The movement received its biggest boost several years later, when American soldiers began building military bases on Vanuatu to use as a base of operations against the Japanese. The native people marveled at how soldiers of different racial backgrounds worked together, ate together and used the same equipment together, a stark contrast to the way colonialist separated themselves from the native Vanuatuans. This was the true way of kastom.
Of course it didn’t hurt that the American military was very generous to the indigenous people of Vanuatu, offering goods such as cigarettes, chocolate and Coca-Cola. The military also paid villagers who aided in the war effort 25 cents a day, a fortune to the sustenance farmers of the islands. It was during this time that the legend of John Frum became tied to the American military. John Frum would often appear again to village elders who had consumed much kava, but this time he would be dressed as a member of the U.S. Navy.
Once the war was over, the people of Tanna tried luring back the U.S. military and the spirit of John Frum by carving crude landing strips into the countryside. It was believed that once these stripes were completed, riches would once again return from the sky, as promised by the spirit of John Frum himself.
Frum’s Lasting Impact
Still to this day, segments of the Vanuatu still pray to the spirit of John Frum, hoping that he will return with the riches he promised long ago. Despite his failing to reappear, John Frum made a lasting impact on the people of Vanuatu. Scholars of the region point out that “Frum” is the Pijin pronunciation of the word broom. Frum did indeed help to sweep out the influence colonial authorities had on Vanuatu, which nearly caused kastom to die out among the native population.
Since the country gained its independence from the British and French in 1980, kastom has enjoyed a renaissance, which means many nights are spent drinking kava while looking into the dark awaiting the spirit of John Frum to reappear.