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Frum Here to Eternity

By Bertil Lintner

He looked like a human being, but his skin was white. He was dressed in khaki and wore a hat." Isaac Navy, a man in his 70s, insists that he has seen John Frum. "It was in 1941. He came to our village and told us that when we're free, we'll also have trucks and airplanes, just like in America." Who is, or was, John Frum? No one knows for certain, but the people of Tanna still worship him as a Messiah. Tanna is one of the remotest islands in the West Pacific republic of Vanuatu--the former Anglo-French condominium of the New Hebrides.

Every Friday, villagers flock to Sulphur Bay to honour John Frum. Boys and men sing and play guitars; women dance around them in the eerie light of kerosene lamps. They evoke the power of the cowboy spirits, which will help them communicate with John Frum: Cowboy Billy, Cowboy Jimmy and Cowboy Steven.

In the background, the Yasur volcano rumbles periodically and spits out cascades of glowing lava, lighting up the night sky. Devotees say that John Frum lives inside that volcano. One day he will emerge from the crater, riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle. Accompanied by 5,000 soldiers, he will liberate Tanna from poverty and backwardness. He will also bring sackfuls of gifts to the people who have awaited him over the decades. On special occasions, the villagers in Sulphur Bay hoist the American flag and young men with "USA" emblazoned in red paint across their chests parade through the village brandishing bamboo guns. Once, the villagers even cleared the nearby jungle to make an airfield--complete with control towers of bamboo--for John Frum to land his plane.

According to foreign anthropologists, Frum is supposed to have been a medic who came to Tanna with the United States army during World War II and distributed medicines to the local people. He may have said "Hi! I'm John from America"--and the myth was born, of a man who descended from heaven--which the U.S. troops, of course, did--and shared his wealth with the poor islanders.

The arrival of outsiders triggered a slew of troubles for locals: the onslaught of new diseases, and the introduction of Christianity and slave labour. Ron Brunton, an Australian anthropologist who has done extensive research in Vanuatu, argues that the John Frum movement arose to deal with these problems, which "could only be solved by a resort to the supernatural." Karl Walderback, a Swede who lives in Vanuatu, explains that nowhere in the world did colonialism have such a devastating impact as it had in the Pacific: "The population of some of the islands almost died out as a result of new diseases which the white men introduced."

Thousands of islanders were also "blackbirded"--a euphemism for kidnapped--to work in sugar plantations in Queensland. Even the missionaries were heavy-handed: Local regulations stated that villagers "who did not attend the Presbyterian service be bound hand and foot and whipped in public."

In the midst of all this misery and suffering, a man called John Frum appeared. He was first sighted on Tanna in 1939, according to several anthropologists, including Frenchman Joel Bonnemaison, who wrote about the movement in his book, The Tree and the Canoe: History and Ethnography of Tanna. This initial sighting, however, came well before the Pacific war--which kills the notion that he was an American medic. And he did not talk about cowboys and airplanes. His message was that the people should defend their own traditions--kastam, in the local Pidgin--and not listen to the outsiders. Old institutions such as drinking kava, a local brew with a narcotic effect, and dancing had to be preserved.

But then came the war--and thousands of U.S. soldiers arrived on the main islands of Espiritu Santo and Efate. Many Tannanese went to work there--and saw blacks among the foreign troops, surely Tannanese in disguise. Until then, John Frum had been of indeterminate nationality. But now, Bonnemaison writes, the Tannanese were sure he was American. Watching the arrival of the U.S. army, the cult got its own paraphernalia: the American flag, the Red Cross--and the desire to possess trucks and airplanes.

In 1957, an American warship, the Yankee, called at Tanna. At the request of the local authorities, the commander tried to explain to the crowds that there was no person with the name John Frum in the U.S. According to Bonnemaison, the locals dismissed the commander as "a false American." In a way they were right. The commander had missed the point: The John Frum movement is not primarily about worshipping an unknown American--it is, as Brunton explains, a kind of Pagan revivalist movement, which has copied the rigid organization of the hated church as well as rituals from Christianity. "These people are not crazy," says Robert, a Tannanese who is not a follower of the movement. "People admire them and their organization."

But why wait for someone who never seems to come? David Attenborough--one of the first foreigners to "discover" the John Frum movement, and brother of filmmaker Richard Attenborough of Gandhi fame--asked the Tannanese that question when he visited the island in the early 1960s. "Is 19 years a long time to wait?" one of the islanders reportedly replied, adding, "You have been waiting for 2,000 years for Jesus Christ."

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, May 29, 1997

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