Feb 152019

Today is John Frum Day in Vanuatu, the day when he is supposed to return bringing cargo. The religion generally known as cargo cult centering on John Frum arose in the late 1930s, when Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides, although there was a claim in 1949 that it had started in the 1910s. The movement was heavily influenced by existing religious practice in the Sulphur Bay area of Tanna, particularly the worship of Keraperamun, a god associated with Mount Tukosmera. In some versions of the story, a native man named Manehivi, using the alias “John Frum”, began appearing among the indigenous people of Tanna dressed in a Western-style coat and assuring the people he would bring them houses, clothes, food and transport.

Others contend that John Frum was a kava-induced spirit vision, said to be a manifestation of Keraperamun. This John Frum promised the dawn of a new age in which all white people, including missionaries, would depart the New Hebrides, leaving behind their goods and property for the indigenous Melanesians. For this to happen, however, the people of Tanna had to reject all aspects of European society including money, Western education, Christianity, and work on copra plantations, plus they had to return to traditional kastom (the Bislama language word for customs).

In 1941, followers of John Frum rid themselves of their money in a frenzy of spending, left the missionary churches, schools, villages and plantations, and moved inland to participate in traditional feasts, dances and rituals. European colonial authorities sought to suppress the movement, at one point arresting a Tannese man who was calling himself John Frum, humiliating him publicly, imprisoning and ultimately exiling him along with other leaders of the cult to another island in the archipelago.

Despite this effort, the movement gained popularity in the early 1940s, when 300,000 US troops were stationed in New Hebrides during World War II, bringing with them an enormous amount of supplies (“cargo”). After the war and the departure of the US troops, followers of John Frum built symbolic landing strips to encourage American airplanes to land and bring them “cargo”. Versions of the cult that emphasize the US connection interpret “John Frum” as a corruption of “John from (America)” (though it could mean John from anywhere), and credit the presence of African American soldiers for the idea that John Frum may be black.

In 1957, a leader of the John Frum movement, Nakomaha, created the “Tanna Army”, a non-violent, ritualistic society that organized military-style parades of men whose faces were painted ritual colors and who wore white T-shirts with the letters “T-A USA” (Tanna Army USA). This parade takes place every year on February 15th, the date on which followers believe John Frum will return, and which is observed as “John Frum Day” in Vanuatu.

In the late 1970s, John Frum followers opposed the imminent creation of an independent, united nation of Vanuatu. They objected to a centralized government they feared would favor Western modernity and Christianity that would be detrimental to local customs. However, the John Frum movement has its own political party, led by Song Keaspai. The party celebrated its 50th anniversary on February 15, 2007. Chief Isaak Wan Nikiau, its leader, was quoted by the BBC from years past as saying that John Frum was “our God, our Jesus,” and would eventually return.

I gave a recipe for lap lap, the national dish of Vanuatu, here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/independence-day-vanuatu/  Here’s another popular dish. You can cook it on the stovetop or in a casserole in the oven.

Vanuatu Banana Chicken


4 bananas, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
1 small pumpkin, peeled and cut in long strips
1 chicken
2 green onions, chopped
1½ tsp salt
1 bell pepper, cut in strips
1 can coconut milk


Put the bananas in the bottom of a saucepan (for stovetop) or casserole (for oven). Put the chicken on top of the bananas. Layer the onion, bell pepper, and pumpkin on top of the chicken and season with salt. Pour the coconut milk on top. Cover and simmer 1 hour on the stove top, or cover and bake at 350°F in the oven. Serve with plain boiled rice.

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