A Tourist Litmus Test - John Frum on Tanna Island.


It’s hard to come to grips with what tourists really think about Melanesian Cargo Cults and "John Frum" provides a “litmus test” regarding the true nature of travellers and tourists. More than ever, visitors to other countries, cultures and communities view themselves as having a genuine interest in the places visited, empathy with the people, their customs and traditions. But is that reality or merely a mask that is put on to elevate ourselves above that disparaging categorisation of “tourist”.

Travel Hypocrisy Feeds an Attitude of Visitor Entitlement.

Spectators and Participants waiting for there turn to dance at a John Frum celebration on Tanna

Tannese from the John Frum cult doing mock military drills with lengths of bamboo fashioned as rifles  in Vanuatu

How often has a conversation about travel proceeded along a theme where someone says “ … yes, we saw that, it was pretty amazing, and really gave insights to how the people lived … “. Statements of a similar nature abound, and attached to them is an implication that the conversationalist has at least a passing interest or knowledge about the subject. Significant travel hypocrisy is committed, is not easily rebuffed or exposed in social situations, and is now so accepted that it is increasingly ravaging the tourism space. The accumulated harm caused to host communities further down the track is never considered, rarely seen, nor acknowledged by tourists because often they never go back.

Increasingly, tourists demand to be taken into the places that no other tourists go, invading the more private parts of resident and host population lives ….. To go backstage in Goffman’s analogy of staged/unstaged tourism production (Goffman, 1956). In many ways tourist feel an entitlement, especially if they feel they have come a long way to see what is important about a remote island.

The Ongoing and Increasing Harm of Un-Empathetic Travellers.

Children organised  in a group ready to sing at a John Frum festival in middlebush, Tanna Island

Melanesians are generally affable people who will go to some lengths to accommodate outsider demands, even when they surround private societal customs (kastom’s). On Tanna, John Frum is a central societal pivot that few Tannese would consider appropriate to be paraded as a tourist attraction or generally be the source of tourism payments. Although belief in its precepts is mixed amongst Tannese, there is no doubt that it forms a strong characteristic of the island's identity.

As a general observation, tourist concentration is thin, interest cursory at best, and understanding superficial. In fact, interaction is largely confined to “selfies” and personal publicity. As a consequence much that lands in the public domain is lopsided, often ridiculing the culture and treating people with disrespect. With today’s technology island, people are made aware of the attitudes of outsiders, resulting in spiralling cultural dissonance amongst local communities.

The Mystic and Intrigue Associated with the John Frum Cult.

A parade of hundreds of Tannese walking to a John Frum festival for the King of Tanna in Middlebush in the central highlands of Tanna Island

Melanesian Cargo Cults are seen as one of those unique cultural quirks that public displays and manifestations engender interest across a broad range of traveller typologies. They were prolific around the early days of contact with Europeans, and occurred throughout Papuan New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. In more recent times their popularity has waned and few remain. Perhaps the best known today is the “John Frum Cult” domiciled on Tanna Island which has gone through a number of reincarnations in respect to its purpose and presentation. Interest has continued as a consequence of such television programs such as “Survivor – Vanuatu”, “Meet the Natives”, and more recently the film “Tanna” all which highlight various aspects of Ni-Vanuatu Kastom. Imagery associating aspects of local culture with the fiery Mt Yasur Volcano help to portray an almost mythical civilisation set in a past era.

So what is the John Frum Cult? There is a huge disparity between truth and publicity that is both disingenuous and discriminatory towards Ni-Vanuatu and Tannese people in particular.

local Tannese woman dressed up in kastom (custom dress) to take part in a special john Frum celebration in honour of the king of Tanna


John Frum | The Popular Fairy Tale.


The popular folk law version tells of an isolated island people coming into sudden and stark contact with American forces during the second world, that both amazed and bewildered them. John from ………… an affable American GI predicated amongst many others things, that roads would ring the island, aircraft would arrive with amazing goods, and vehicles would abound. As a part of the build-up of American forces in the Pacific, a tremendous array of aircraft, heavy machinery, armoured vehicles, and a vast assemblage of associated goods accumulated on Tanna. The fact that these things subsequently became true elevated John as a God, a predictor of the future. As quickly as they arrived, the Americans departed and left a bewildered island trying to make sense of it all. In awe, the people decided that they should worship John, mimic and re-enact the actions of the American armed forces that they observed, and wait for John to return again with all these fabulous goods to distribute to the people.

Observation is often pervasive, and the outward displays included within ceremonies and celebrations including the use of American flags, copying of military parades, and eulogizing the events associated with the coming of John give the appearance of legitimising the narrative. Such “caught on camera” moments are immediately posted on Facebook, Google Plus, or other social media and serve to bolster the mana or social standing of the photographer. For the “bucket-lister” this is simply another tick or badge to be proudly displayed, and subsequently focus moves onto the next thing on the List.

A footnote to this is the ease at which the John Frum Cult is dismissed as being absurd, and a notion that perhaps is typical of a much less developed society. Perhaps this is put into perspective by a conversation noted between Raffalele and Chief Isaac Wan, one of the leading John Frum Leaders, regarding faith (Raffaele, 2006) :

As we look down into John Frum's fiery Tanna home (Mt Yasur Volcano), I remind him that not only does he not have an outboard motor from America, but that all the devotees' other prayers have been, so far, in vain. "John promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago, and none has come," I point out. "So why do you keep faith with him? Why do you still believe in him?

Chief Isaac shoots me an amused look. "You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth," he says, "and you haven't given up hope.

So what is the John Frum Cult? There is a huge disparity between truth and publicity that is both disingenuous and discriminatory towards Ni-Vanuatu and Tannese people in particular.

The John Frum Reality | A Cultural Reaction to Imposed Change on Tanna.

Local Tannese Ni-Vanuatu man on horseback outside of a John Frum meeting sponsored by the "Four Corners" sect that is located in Imanaka village, Tanna Island.

The reality is that the sudden appearance of Melanesian Cargo Cults stemmed from the indigenous reaction to the social upheaval and repression that was to become associated with the colonisation of Melanesia by Europeans (Ton, 2009). John Frum reportedly commenced his manifestation in the early 1930’s (Tabani, 2010), well before the Second World War, and was likely conceived many years before this due to the harsh conditions of “Tanna Law” imposed by Presbyterian missionaries in collusion with colonial governors at the end of the 19th century. Tanna is renowned as a bastion of “kastom”, where traditional beliefs, identity, and way of life is particularly strong. Tanna law was an attempt by the missionaries to eradicate all of the beliefs, institutions, dances, rituals and ceremonies associated with Tannese kastom, so that the local society could be restructured on Christian principles alone.

It is reported that while dissent amongst local Tannese had manifested itself in several ways prior, John Frum’s spirit first appeared to groups of men at Nakamal’s at Green Point, a remote area of south-west Tanna. It is unlikely that he was known as John Frum at that time ( but went instead by the name of Manehevi), but appeared to be of mixed race, dressed in European clothing, but spoke in the area’s local language (Guiart, 1952; Raffaele, 2006; Tabani, 2010). At this time a number of Millenarian prophecies took hold with the following tenets :

  • The Missionaries and Europeans would be driven out of the Island.
  • This would transform the World and he (John Frum) would return.
  • On his return the Tannese would be bestowed with prosperity and Abundance.
  • With Europeans being driven out, “Man-Tanna” would return to true kastom ( which has subsequently had a number of interpretations).
  • hat until John Frum returned, Tannese should reject all goods that came from white men ( noting that this was not necessarily western goods that have been implied by popular tale).

The politico-religious nature of the movement was largely formed out of the enforced acceptance of both a foreign religion and foreign governance. It gained a general popularity due to the fact that one of its prophecies predicted the outbreak of the war in the Pacific and the arrival of the Americans. The Americanisation of the cult came later after the return of workers from Port Vila who had been employed within U.S. military bases. While strongly based on attitudes to material goods or cargo associated with the unheard of amount of goods, wealth, and machinery associated with the Americans, much also centred around the way in which they acted together and to others. In particular, the troop's general generosity, along with the fact that black Americans ate and socialised with their white counterparts was in stark contrast to the authoritarian and repressive ways in which locals felt they were treated. In many ways, coming into contact with non-colonial whites opened many Tannese eyes to alternative ways which society could be organised.

Is that all there is about the Tannese John Frum Cult?

Female Tannese women participating in traditional cultural dancing as a part of a prominent  John Frum celebration in middlebusg, Tanna island.

The simple answer is “Hell No !” The actual history of the John Frum movement is extensive and illustrative to critical aspects of kastom and Tannese identity. Critically, much is relevant to the essence of Ni-Vanuatu culture, and a number of academics have carried out extensive research around the political and social impacts of the cult. This article only touches on certain aspects of an intricate and complicated social phenomenon. Since its inception the John Frum movement has split into three main groupings, the original cult group, Unity, and Four Corners ; each with its own distinct philosophies and rituals.

What Public Displays are Associated with John Frum?

Tannese men, bare chested and painted with mock military insignia, carry out saluting and pretend military drills as a part of a John Frum celebration and exhibition for Ni-vanuatu in Vanuatu.

During the first appearances of John Frum, his actions centred around the promotion of dancing and kava drinking, to encourage communal work in village gardens, to denounce the idle, and to give advice on matters concerning collective
Action (Guiart, 1952). Music and Dancing form a significant part of John Frum socialisation and is perhaps the glue that holds the various groups together in modern times. John Frum celebrations are renowned for the number of people that attend which more often or not surround the enjoyment, parading, dancing and singing. At more formal occasions requiring pomp and ceremony much is made of military uniforms, military parades, and flag raising. While its relevance can be questioned, such pageants and processions serve to reinforce philosophies and to cement bonds amongst followers who may not necessarily be from connected villages, or tribes. Stated simply, they serve to create the sense of collective belonging in the same way that national anthems and flags promote a feeling of nationhood across the world.

Flag raising is an important part of John Frum cortege, helping to cement and reinforce the cults identity and purpose

Raised flags at a John frum celebration of which the United states Flag has a pride of place due to the association  of the cult with US military during the Second Wourld War.

So as Travellers - Why should we care about Cargo Cults?

Tannese girls in middlebush getting ready with face painting for  celebrations  where dancing and singing always forms an important part

Actually, travellers should care a lot because Cargo Cults go along way to explaining how a people with a distinct and rich culture handled the political, economic and social changes that was unleashed on them. It's easy to write off Cargo Cults as being manifestations of primitive societies that have little relevance to ourselves or our past …… to glibly regard them as a joke and to treat them purely as entertainment.

Various historical moments have developed mechanisms that reacted to societal upheaval and Melanesian Cargo Cults have parallels to various Millenarian movements that sprang up in Europe during the late medieval times (Ton, 2009). At this time much of Europe was going through rapid industrialisation, and significant sections of affected populations felt disempowered and increasingly disadvantaged over time. More often than not followers of Millenarian movements were peasants without land, journeymen, and unskilled workers who in desperation over their plight were willing to follow local prophets who provided hope and a projected pathway to “Eldorado”. Historically, they were prevalent in Flanders, northern France, Bohemia, Holland and parts of north-western Germany, at various times between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. The central theme of Millenarian movements is that while they were not always religious, they often invoked biblical images of the apocalypse in order to create social change that would ultimately bring a new Utopia to followers. In Europe desperation of disposed and marginalised peoples sometimes led to violence and revolutionary zeal.

Over time many rebellions and uprisings have occurred worldwide due to reaction to the imposition of outside influence and governance, with such rebellions as the “Boxer revolution against outsiders in China, the Acaxee against the Spanish. Today it can be argued that mainstream movements have organised themselves into structures that conform to recognised institutions, are more subdued, but still perform rituals to bring on societal change. Armageddon is a significant theme within the Christian Book of Revelation, and the Jehovah’s Witness and LDS Church’s are strong believers in the Armageddon with a subsequence cleansing of evil. The Rastafari movement sprang out amongst impoverished and disenfranchised communities in Jamacia in the 1930’s.

Singing group practicing in preparation for their turn in the itinerary of a major John Frum celebration

Tannese women along with little children dressed in traditional costume ready and waiting for their turn to dance in a John Frum celebration

Article References

Goffman, E. (1956). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.

Guiart, J. (1952). John Frum movement in Tanna. Oceania, 22(No. 3).

Raffaele, P. (2006). In John they trust (John Frum) (Vol. 36, pp. 70). Smithsonian.

Tabani, M. (2010). The Carnival of Custom: Land Dives, Millenarian Parades and Other Spectacular Ritualizations in Vanuatu. Oceania(3), 309.

Ton, O. (2009). What Happened to Cargo Cults? Material Religions in Melanesia and the West. Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice(1), 82.

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