In John They Trust- page 4 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Villagers on the island of Tanna dance in John Frum's honor each February 15. Clan leaders first saw their Yankee Messiah in the late 1930s. He later appeared to them during WWII, dressed in white like the unidentified navy seaman. (Paul Raffaele)

In John They Trust

South Pacific villagers worship a mysterious American they call John Frum - believing he'll one day shower their remote island with riches

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“What does he look like?”

“An American!”

“Then why does he live in Yasur?”

“John moves from America to Yasur and back, going down through the volcano and under the sea.”
When I mention Prophet Fred, anger flares in Chief Isaac’s eyes. “He’s a devil,” he snarls. “I won’t talk about him.”

What about your visit to the United States in 1995? I ask. What did you think of your religion’s heaven on earth? He raises his hands apologetically. “I have much to do today. I’ll tell you about it another time.” On the way back to my hut, it occurs to me that I forgot to ask him to take me to the volcano.

Chief Isaac and other local leaders say that John Frum first appeared one night in the late 1930s, after a group of elders had downed many shells of kava as a prelude to receiving messages from the spirit world. “He was a white man who spoke our language, but he didn’t tell us then he was an American,” says Chief Kahuwya, leader of Yakel village. John Frum told them he had come to rescue them from the missionaries and colonial officials. “John told us that all Tanna’s people should stop following the white man’s ways,” Chief Kahuwya says. “He said we should throw away their money and clothes, take our children from their schools, stop going to church and go back to living as kastom people. We should drink kava, worship the magic stones and perform our ritual dances.”

Perhaps the chieftains in their kava reveries actually experienced a spontaneous vision of John Frum. Or perhaps the apparition has more practical roots. It’s possible that local leaders conceived of John Frum as a powerful white-skinned ally in the fight against the colonials, who were attempting to crush much of the islanders’ culture and prod them into Christianity. In fact, that view of the origins of the cult gained credence in 1949, when the island administrator, Alexander Rentoul, noting that “frum” is the Tannese pronunciation of “broom,” wrote that the object of the John Frum movement “was to sweep (or broom) the white people off the island of Tanna.”

Whatever the truth, John Frum’s message struck a chord. Villagers on Tanna began throwing their money into the sea and killing their pigs for grand feasts to welcome their new messiah. Colonial authorities eventually struck back, arresting the movement’s leaders—including Chief Isaac’s father, Chief Nikiau. They were shipped to a prison at Port-Vila in 1941, their subsequent years behind bars earning them status as the John Frum movement’s first martyrs.

The cult got its biggest boost the following year, when American troops by the thousands were dispatched to the New Hebrides, where they built large military bases at Port-Vila and on the island of Espíritu Santo. The bases included hospitals, airstrips, jetties, roads, bridges and corrugated-steel Quonset huts, many erected with the help of more than a thousand men recruited as laborers from Tanna and other parts of the New Hebrides—among them Chief Kahuwya.

Where the U.S. armed forces go, so go the legendary PXs, with their seemingly endless supply of chocolate, cigarettes and Coca-Cola. For men who lived in huts and farmed yams, the Americans’ wealth was a revelation. The troops paid them 25 cents a day for their work and handed out generous amounts of goodies.

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