Cargo Cult Mystery


By: Medha K.

Vanuatu is a beautiful country, north east of Australia, less than double the area of Prince Edward Island in Canada. Vanuatu is known for its active volcanoes, coral filled beaches and forests. It is also known for its immense culture and its related mysteries. Its diminutiveness often causes it to be overlooked as a vacation destination. For this reason, it is not as known or talked about as other islands. Let us explore the mystery of Vanuatu.
Vanuatu consists of 83 sub islands and 24 volcanoes. ­­­­One of these islands is the island of Tanna. Tanna is most known for its volcanoes and the great population of Melanesian tribal people. The Melanesian tribal people, also known as ni-vanuatu people comprise 98.5% of Vanuatu’s population. The Melanesian tribes have profound faith in the power of nature and peace. However, 10% of the ni-vanuatu people in the island of Tanna are part of the cargo cult and the John Frum movement.
The Cargo cult is a religion adopted by the ni-vanuatu people. The cargo cult states that any cargo or resources given to the tribal people have ancestral spirits within them and are given from the Gods. They believe that their worship is directly proportionate to the blessings from the Gods in terms of cargo and resources. The date of the discovery of the cargo cult is still unknown however the beliefs began in the late 19th century. After worshipping their cargo, they would also have different ritualistic acts that they believe would help to gain more cargo. For example, they had ritualistic acts of building an airplane runway to attract more cargo and resources.
The general idea of the cargo cult is based on their belief that more resources and wealth gives greater respect and prestige to the person. The god of the cargo cult and whom the ni-vanuatu people believe are in charge of their resources is, John Frum!
John Frum is a fictional figure of their imagination and folklore. There is no proof of his existence, there is no history or back story of John Frum and there is no idea or understanding of what he really looks like, if ever there was one. This causes the most controversy as no one knows the truth about who John Frum is and how he has made the ni-vanuatu people believe the things John Frum has promised them.
The ni-vanuatu people follow John Frum because they believe that he has promised to give resources such as houses, transportation and food when he visits. He has also promised that he will start a new age when white people will visit and leave their resources and cargo for the ni-vanuatu people to keep and benefit from. However, his promises come at a cost; he has stated that the ni-vanuatu people must abandon their European methods for John Frum to fulfill his promises. Thus, the ni-vanuatu people have abandoned the money, transportation and other economic systems and resorted to their Bislama traditions as a form of respect to John Frum. The ni-vanuatu people believe in John Frum’s promises and therefore support and worship him.
John Frum is believed to be from the United States of America which has lead to a great obsession with the USA for the natives as they want to support their god and where he comes from. John Frum is depicted to be a World War II serviceman who is most often described as a white man and at times as a black man. This baffles most people as it is not clear why John Frum is believed to be from America rather than being from Vanuatu and specifically why they have chosen the United States of America which has not assisted Vanuatu in any way unlike Australia.
 The cult followers believe that John Frum will return one day to fulfill his promises. Every year on February 15th they host a   big celebration called “John Frum day” on which day they celebrate John Frum and America. Their obsession with America is most shown on this day as they paint “T-A USA” on their chests, which stands for Tanna Army, United States of America. They also have the flag of the United States of America which they plant on their ground. They raise their ceremonial flags with the flag of the USA as a representation of their unity. Every John Frum day, they have feasts, celebrations, dances, rituals and military-style parades simply to praise America and John Frum.
The movement of John Frum has become so serious that there is even a John Frum political party which is currently run by Song Keaspai. The obsession with America and John Frum has spread to other tribes in the island of Tanna as well that the cargo cult holds great significance and has become a lifestyle for the ni-vanuatu people.
As they do not know specifically what John Frum would look like, they have a ceremonial red cross on their land which they pray and worship to as their idol for John Frum. However, the cross has no relation with Christianity and only represents the cargo cult, America and John Frum.
They believe that when John Frum first visited, he had introduced the cargo cult to the ni-vanuatu people to spread to the future generations.
As John Frum is a figment of their imagination, it is easy to deduct that the cargo cult was formed by the ni-vanuatu people themselves. The main mystery of the cargo cult is that if John Frum was not real, and it was John Frum who was believed to have sparked their obsession with America, how did their obsession and passion towards the United States of America get ignited? There is no specific or fully justified answer as there is no real data; however there are many theories and hypotheses on what could have lead to their adoration of John Frum and the USA.
Instead of thinking of America as having done nothing, for them, they view America as having done nothing to, harm them. The most commonly known theory is that during the Second World War 300,000 American troops were stationed in Vanuatu. Therefore, some residue or left over resources or cargo that they had brought with them could have been found by ni-vanuatu people and thought of as gifts from American army troops which would explain their obsession with America and why John From is portrayed as a world war 2 serviceman. Other theories explain that racist influences could have made them believe in the racial superiority of the white skin over black.
Ni-vanuatu people strongly dislike French and British people by the amount of destruction they caused during their colonization. This may have lead to the decision to make their God a white man from America instead of from France or Britain as they are also not familiar with other countries with white population, being so globally isolated. There are also other theories that pieces of cargo could have fallen out of American cargo ships and floated to the ni-vanuatu people making them believe that American gods are gifting them with cargo.  America is often associated with wealth and resources. Therefore, the ni-vanuatu people could have simply associated their god of riches and wealth, with America.
Kava is a drug that is commonly drank by tribal leaders whom all ni-vanuatu people believe and respect. John Frum and his grand arrival could have simply been the result of a hallucination by a tribal leader when he was totally inebriated.  In 1997, America had given almost 3 million dollars to Vanuatu to help in the development of indigenous plantation. This greatly helped Vanuatu’s economy and agricultural sector. Although this was much after the cargo cult had been discovered, this would have greatly enhanced their belief in the cargo cult.

These were simply a few of the theories and possibilities of how the obsession with America may have come about, but the mystery remains. The mystery of how John Frum came, if he was actually real and what sparked their obsession with America. Vanuatu remains a beautiful and mysterious country with mystical nature and culture galore but at risk at the present time because of the effects of global warming.



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