Who Is John Frum?


One day in 1900 or 1940, or at some point in between, a man whose name was John Frum—although he might not have been a man, and his name might not have been John Frum—arrived on Tanna island, in an archipelago that was then called the New Hebrides but is now called the Republic of Vanuatu.

He came, someone told me, in a plane that could somehow land in the bush without needing an airstrip, but I also heard that he simply walked up from the sea, and that he appeared, mysteriously, in a village one day. His home might be on Tanna’s tallest mountain; or nearby, inside of the island’s active volcano, which shoots lava and smoke into the sky every night; or in my own country, the United States, thousands of miles away. He may have appeared first as a tiger, although Tanna is deep in the South Pacific, where no tigers live. Then again, that may have been only a dream, and the tiger also could also have been only a cat, and John might have appeared first as a black man with a mustache, before finally returning in his final form, that of a white man who could magically speak the native languages of the island.

Anyway, he came, and that much almost everybody agrees on.

The first person known to write down the name “John Frum” was British district agent James Nicol, the local representative of a colonial government that, because the British and French couldn’t agree who ought to control a group of islands two oceans away, was run by both. (The archipelago became independent in 1980 and, as the Republic of Vanuatu, encompasses 83 islands.) It was November of 1940, and Nicol was trying to figure out why goats kept disappearing from the herds of some Seventh-day Adventist converts. Over the course of his investigation, the agent heard that the goats were being cooked to many people were convening, night after night, at a nakamal—a sacred area beneath a banyan tree, where village leaders make decisions and people drink an intoxicating beverage made from the kava root—at a region on the Tanna coast known as Green Point. There, writes the anthropologist Lamont Lindstrom, in his 1993 book Cargo Cults: Strange Stories of Desire from Melanesia and Beyond, people gathered and “listened to the words of a shadowy figure who named himself John Frum.” The people were eager to hear what John had to tell them: A message of rebellion against the colonizers, with their missions and their schools and their restrictive laws, and promised that, if people instead kept up their own traditions, John would reward them with all the livestock and money they needed.

I’m quoting Lindstrom and not Nicol here because the latter’s original report, along with four more years of his dispatches about the early days of the movement that arose around John, are now gone. They mysteriously disappeared in the decades after World War II. Our only knowledge of what the original documents contained is gleaned from what others later wrote about them. The confusion feels like an appropriate beginning to the complicated mythology of John Frum. Even the primary sources are really tertiary at best. They are rumors, compiled by a foreigner, then filtered through the layered agendas of those who read them.There would soon be quite a lot of people reading, and writing, and rewriting, the story of John Frum. First were the white missionaries and colonialists who’d descended on Tanna the century before he appeared, and who saw in John an obvious threat to their authority; they sought to blame each other for his rise. Next there were the anthropologists, who flocked to a prime example of a fashionable new concept in their field: the “cargo cult,” a unique sort of social movement that developed on the islands of Melanesia during and after the Second World War. (The term was first used in an Australian news magazine in 1945, in reference to a movement in Papua New Guinea that was also known by colonial authorities as the “Vailala Madness”: people were neglecting their crops and livestock because they believed they would soon receive ships loaded with cargo.) The common explanation for the phenomenon went like this: after the military apparatus of World War II flooded the sparsely developed region with ships, planes, soldiers, and all the various supplies—cargo—necessary to support them, local people began to develop odd beliefs about how they might summon such spectacular wealth for themselves. Sometimes they built replicas of airplanes from wood or reeds, or cut landing strips in the jungle, or invested their hopes in specific Western figures (Lyndon B. Johnson, who was predicted to arrive atop a mountain in Papua New Guinea; Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who is, in a separate belief system in one Tannese village, considered a divine being; the mysterious John Frum himself). “Cargo cults develop when primitive societies are exposed to the overpowering material wealth of the outside industrialized world,” read a typical summary, published in the Los Angeles Times in 1984. “Not knowing where the foreigners’ plentiful supplies come from, the natives believe they were sent from the spirit world … The faithful still expect the Americans to arrive soon, bringing them lots of chocolate, radios, and motorcycles.” Read more.