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.
They gather together in hope and with purpose. Despite their prayers having gone unanswered in the past, they remain determined in their belief that this could finally be the year, for today is John Frum Day.
Vanuatu – A Land of Myth and Mystery
The small South Pacific nation of Vanuatu encompasses 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 smiting an enemy.
Life in Vanuatu also consists of drinking copious amounts 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.
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 in preparation of receiving 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 chord with the native people who had started to rebel against colonial settlers that had taken over the nation.
Colonialism Comes to Vanuatu
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.
When the people of Vanuatu pushed back against the colonialists’ vision of how they should preserve their culture, punishment was often swift and brutal. After village elders led a movement to reject the colonialists by throwing their money and material goods into the ocean in 1941, mass arrests were made by colonial authorities and many of the movement’s leaders were imprisoned on the capital island of Port-Villa for years.
Unfortunately for the colonialists, this show of force only reinforced the belief many of the islanders held in John Frum. With the imprisoned leaders now viewed as martyrs of the John Frum crusade, Vanuatuans were primed to fully reembrace the traditional ideals held by kastom.
It would only take a year for the John Frum movement to receive a sign that prosperity was just ahead when Uncle Sam came calling.
When the U.S. Military Came Marching In
The movement received a huge boost when American soldiers began building military installations on Vanuatu to use as a base of operations against the Japanese during the Pacific War.
In addition to building hospitals, airstrips, and structures with corrugated-steel roofs, the American military brought mountains of valuable cargo. Jeeps, surdy building supplies, and advanced engines transformed every aspect of how Vanutuans’ lived, worked, and fished. A seemingly endless supply of chocolate, cigarettes, Coca-Cola, and other luxuries that the servicemen shared willinging with the islanders generated tremendous goodwill.
The military also paid villagers who aided in the war effort 25 cents a day, a fortune to the sustenance farmers of the islands.
The native people marveled at how soldiers of different racial backgrounds worked together, ate together, and used the same equipment together. This type of unity stood in sharp contrast to the way colonialists separated themselves from the native Vanuatuans.
The westerners who had shown up on the shores of Vanuatu 40 years prior thought themselves as superior to a culture they viewed as primitive and lacking in the word of God. Stark cultural lines were drawn, with the colonialists placing themselves in unearned positions of power and privilege. To see soldiers from different ethnic backgrounds work and live as one was a true expression of kastom.
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. Control towers built from bamboo and rope were erected to help guide the American plans safely to the ground. It was believed that once these strips and structures were completed, riches would once again return from the sky, as promised by the spirit of John Frum himself.
Frum’s Lasting Impact
Cultural anthropologists refer to myths like John Frum as part of what’s called a “cargo cult,” a phenomenon commonly seen when agrarian societies meet industrialized nations.
To villagers who sustain themselves from what the land and ocean provides, the type of endless cargo brought to Vanuatu by American soldiers defied explanation. That a person could have so much excess was previously unthinkable. That the cargo never ran out was surely a sign that it was magic in origin.
In some ways, John Frum remains a contradiction. A ghostly vision that heralded the return to kastom and the casting off of Western ideals transformed into a promise of Western riches. Today, believers in John Frum’s return don’t pray for a return to the honored traditions and the preservation of cultural ideas. Instead, they turn toward the sky in hopes of seeing the return of the treasure they’ve long been promised.
Despite his failing to reappear, John Frum made a lasting impact on the people of Vanuatu. Some believe “John Frum” comes from “John Frum America”. 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. Nakamals have reestablished their position as where the men of the village meet on a nightly basis to drink kava and stare out into the dark. Hoping that the spirit of John Frum will reappear once again.