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Culture clash in the South Seas [Cargo Cult War]
BBC News ^ | Published: 2004/05/20 10:12:52 GMT | By Nick Squires

Posted on 05/30/2004 11:02:11 PM PDT by Russian Sage

Culture clash in the South Seas

By Nick Squires
BBC correspondent in Sydney

The mysterious John Frum movement has existed peacefully on an island in the South Pacific for decades; but a violent feud has now broken out between its followers and a new Christian movement.

Sitting beneath a tattered Stars and Stripes flag hanging limply from a bamboo pole, Jack Yahlu recalls the bloody jungle battle which shattered the peace of this little known corner of the South Pacific.

"They wanted to kill us and we wanted to kill them," 27-year-old Yahlu told me.

"We used slingshots, axes, bows and arrows. Many people were cut with knives."

The fight he is referring to happened last month on Tanna, an island of about 20,000 people in the archipelago of Vanuatu.

The confrontation was between the members of a long-established cargo cult called the John Frum movement, and a breakaway faction which wants to move with the times and embrace Christianity.

Shadowy figure

The John Frum cult first emerged in Vanuatu in the 1930s, when the island was jointly ruled by Britain and France as the New Hebrides.

Rebelling against the influence of Presbyterian missionaries, dozens of villages on Tanna put their faith in the shadowy figure of John Frum, variously described as either a real person or a spirit.

They believed he would drive out their colonial masters and re-establish their traditional ways.

There are now dozens of these so-called John Frum villages on Tanna.

The cult was reinforced during the Second World War, when the US military arrived with huge amounts of cargo, such as tanks, ships, weapons, medicine and food.

Islanders were stunned to see black and white troops working and living together, in contrast with the French and British officials who had treated them as colonial subjects.

Mysterious saviour

The Americans' wealth and racial co-operation seemed to dove-tail perfectly with their own beliefs. So they became convinced that John Frum, their mysterious saviour, was an American.

Since then, the villagers have spent the last six decades dressing up in home-made US army uniforms, drilling with bamboo rifles and parading beneath the Stars and Stripes in the hope of enticing a delivery of cargo once again.

They dream of the arrival of cars and refrigerators, roads and medicines.

They have even hacked air strips out of the jungle and built crude wooden aircraft to tempt the speedy return of American generosity.

A thatched hut in Tanna's main John Frum village contains a shrine with a sign painted on an old school black board. "John Promise America," it reads. "One day, He will be returning."

But now a split in the movement has brought violence to this island of black sand beaches, dense jungles and rough dirt roads.

'Prophet Fred'

Thousands of islanders have renounced their old beliefs and put their faith in Fred Nasse, a softly-spoken villager who calls himself Prophet Fred and preaches Christianity.

The two sides glower at each other from their respective villages, crouched in the shadow of Mount Yasur, an active volcano which regularly belches great clouds of sulphurous smoke over the surrounding jungle.

Villagers say that Prophet Fred convinced them to turn to the Church by foreseeing a number of natural events.

He predicted that a lake at the base of Mt Yasur would be swept into the ocean. Five months later the lake burst its banks and drained into the sea.

Now all that remains is a black volcanic plain covered in grass, where horsemen ride and cattle graze.

"In the past we believed in John Frum but now we believe in Jesus," said one of Fred's followers. "The John Frum people do not go to church and they do not send their children to school," he said. "They are heathens."

Bloody fight

Last month's clash between the rival groups involved about 400 men. It was a brief but bloody fight which has had lasting repercussions on this normally quiet island.

Half a dozen houses and a thatched Presbyterian church were burned down.

As 25 seriously injured villagers were taken to hospital on the other side of the island, armed police were rushed from Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila.

Since then, the two sides have come together in a reconciliation ceremony, in which pigs and promises of goodwill were exchanged in front of chiefs who had gathered from all over Tanna.

But few on either side of the divide believe the feud is at an end, and there are dark forebodings of further violence.

"Perhaps we will eventually have peace," said Maliwan Taroai, a bearded, barefoot Presbyterian minister who supports Prophet Fred, "but it will not be for 1000 years."

Mount Yasur roared in the distance, sending piglets and chickens skittering into the bush.

The John Frum cult may be one of the most intriguing cultural movements in the South Pacific, but its days could be numbered.

The Christians may yet have the final say.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Foreign Affairs
KEYWORDS: cargo; johnfrum; prophetfred
More info from Pilot:

The Vanuatan island of Tanna is home to the John Frum Cargo Cult; one of the world’s most intriguing religions. When Presbyterian missionaries came to the Pacific Islands in the late 19th and early 20th century they brought with them western ideals and material goods which began to erode the Vanuatu traditional or ‘kastom’ (custom) way of life.

Around the late 1930s sightings of ‘John Frum’ spread throughout the island - a spirit messiah who had come to change the people back to their traditional ways before corruption from the British missionaries. Exactly who John Frum is, is ambiguous according to the islanders; he is thought to be the son of God who may take the form of a black Melanesian, a white man or even a black American G.I if you believe their stories. They believe he lives in the crater of the Yasur volcano with an army of 20,000 men. The theory goes that if white people were dispelled from the island, their ‘cargo’ of western goods would be diverted - with the help of ancestral spirits - to the people of Tanna.

Towards the end of the period of missionary control during the second world war, an influx of American soldiers, ships and cargo arriving in the area. Approximately 1,000 men were recruited from Tanna to work on the American army base at the neighbouring island of Efate. Not only did the Tannese experience better treatment than they were used to under the British administration, but they saw black American soldiers who also had the same possessions, clothes, and food as the white people.
The Tannese began to reject western ways; they stopped going to church, killed their cattle, and burned their money in the belief that everything they needed would be provided by John Frum. Some began to build landing strips and warehouses in anticipation while others built imitation radio masts out of bamboo in the belief that if it worked for the white men, it would work for them. At first those perceived to be ring leaders were imprisoned without trial, but these men soon became martyrs and their imprisonment served to strengthen the growing religion. So punishment was replaced by education as westerners tried to explain that cargo came not from magic but hard work and technology.

The movement continued to flourish and on February 15th 1957 an American flag was raised in Sulphur Bay to declare the religion of John Frum and it is on this date every year that ‘John Frum day’ is celebrated. During the festivities, the elders march in an imitation army; a kind of military drill mixed with traditional dance. Some carry imitation rifles made of bamboo and wear American army memorabilia such as caps or T-shirts.

Today the movement is still a thriving religion in some parts of the island; celebrated every Friday with drinking and dancing. For others, it has become something of an embarrassment. Either way, it cannot be denied that this is a fascinating and enduring movement that has risen out of complex historical situation.

1 posted on 05/30/2004 11:02:12 PM PDT by Russian Sage
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To: Russian Sage

Fascinating indeed--have never heard of this cult.

2 posted on 05/30/2004 11:38:20 PM PDT by skr (Tired of Tirkut Teddy and Najaf Nancy)
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To: skr


3 posted on 05/30/2004 11:42:18 PM PDT by VOA
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To: Russian Sage
Since then, the villagers have spent the last six decades dressing up in home-made US army uniforms, drilling with bamboo rifles and parading beneath the Stars and Stripes in the hope of enticing a delivery of cargo once again.

Sound like the Democrats, invoking the spirit of the Viet Nam War to regain the Cargo and Manna of the oval office.

4 posted on 05/30/2004 11:53:02 PM PDT by Mike Darancette (NEOCON NOW)
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To: Russian Sage
So they became convinced that John Frum, their mysterious saviour, was an American.

Well, at least someone is greatful to the US, even if these particular people have only a slight reason to be, AFAICT.

Doesn't quite balance out the millions of spiteful French, Germans, etc though really.
5 posted on 05/31/2004 12:22:44 AM PDT by swilhelm73
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To: skr

Well, we have a "festus pole" in our home. Hubby would make a great cargo culter.

6 posted on 05/31/2004 1:00:33 AM PDT by jocon307 (The dems don't get it, the American people do.)
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