I followed our guide down the precariously narrow path over muddied and marred roots, as he tried to beat back the disobedient vegetation with his rusty bush-knife. It was not the sight of the jungle that was enrapturing me; it was the sound of singing and clapping which slowly toned out the noise of the dancing foliage and the chirr of crickets that had been with us for the last two hours. We were heading to Ipëkël, Sulphur Bay; the headquarters of a religion that had shunned Christianity for 70 years in the belief that a mystical figure called Jon Frum would return and shower the faithful islanders of Tanna in riches and unlimited prosperity.
As we arrived, we were greeted by a small dust storm, kicked up by raw-boned children dancing to the sound of their elders’ singing and clapping. It was Wednesday, the cult’s equivalent of the Sabbath. I immediately became transfixed on an elderly woman, maybe of around 60 years of age. Time after time, this woman flung herself to the floor before staggering to her feet and repeating the same action. As I looked more closely, I could see that she was crying and clearly in pain. As she climbed to her feet, she again attempted her spinning dance, which almost resembled a game children play in order to make themselves dizzy. Before too long she was on the floor again, this time at the feet of a man, a man who barely acknowledged that she was even there. He signalled to us to come over and meet him. This man was Chief Isaac Wan’s right hand man, Robert. Isaac Wan was the leader of the Cult and the man I had come to meet. Robert led us over to a small clearing where the leader sat. Chief Isaac was just how I had imagined him to be, a senescent man with a long white beard, his eyes were tired and deep set and many of his bones were visible in the dimmest of light. He was naked apart from a single piece of orange material wrapped around his midriff. He opened his crusty lips to reveal a set of yellow misplaced teeth that had been hiding behind a damp curtain of worn whiskers and greeted us in the language native to Vanuatu, Bislama.
We were given a guided tour around the village which consisted of around fifty dilapidated huts, constructed from bamboo and the leaves from the natangora tree. We finally settled in a small clearing away from the Wednesday morning worship. Before too long, four small boys had joined me, my guide and my two friends, Will and Tom. In each of the boys’ hands was a root which they started to chew. This had been taken from the kava plant, I had previously tried the kava drink on the other islands of Vanuatu, but it is hard to prepare for the ritual that is kava on the island of Tanna. The pre-pubescent boys placed the freshly dug roots into the back of their mouths and started to grind them on their molars. Once the root had formed a mushy gunk within their mouths, they spat the remnants onto a large leaf before filtering the mush through coconut fibres and adding water. The pungent, muddy water is not appealing to the nose or the eyes and its’ texture reminded me of lumpy school rice pudding. As I struggled to down the liquid, I found it important not to think about the preparation process and just focus on finishing the hollowed-out halved coconut shell. After two shells, the effects started to occur. My lips became numb, my limbs heavy and the heat of the midday sun became intrusive. This exclusively male activity normally occurs every evening in a designated ‘Nakamal’ for all the local men. This hut, similar in concept to the western pub, also hosts kava ceremonies to welcome visitors, seal alliances and most importantly in the case of our hosts, to carry out the wishes of Jon Frum.
Whilst I was teaching on the northern island of Pentecost in the archipelago of Vanuatu, many of the islanders told me of the ‘kastom’ or traditions of Tanna island, located in the South of Vanuatu. They told me of a mystical tribe that have worshipped an American serviceman ever since his arrival in the South Pacific just before the outbreak of World War II. As the story goes, Jon Frum arrived on the island and announced himself to some kava drinkers. The locals believed the white man to be the brother of the god of Mt Tukosmere and he stated that all the islanders must remove their western ways and revert back to true kastom. If they achieved this task and removed all Europeans from Tanna, they would receive an abundance of wealth. Men from all over the island came to listen to Frum secretly preach. He advised his followers to promote community work, ritual, kava drinking and to remove themselves from any contact with money. Frum disappeared at the end of the war, many believing he returned to the volcano of Yassur from which he was thought to have arrived frm. During the 17th century, the western Presbyterian missionaries had asserted a hugely overbearing grasp over Tanese society. They introduced their own forms of traditional marriage systems as well as prohibiting ritual, the use of kava and almost anything that was kastom to Tanna. This repression of traditional life and expression continued right though until 1930s and the arrival of Jon Frum.
In 1943, with the Americans fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific, many US troops based themselves on the islands of Efate and Espiratu Santo, north of Tanna. Numerous Tanese islanders were recruited to these islands to provide labour for the Americans, and it was here they witnessed black soldiers in striking uniforms with huge quantities of cigarettes, Coca-Cola and radios. The islanders were stunned at the vast amounts of machinery the US Navy would unload from their mammoth vessels, guns, trucks, aircraft and tanks. They concluded that Jon Frum had come from America, and they adopted the stars and stripes as their cross.
Intrigue had got the better of me, I would return to Vanuatu. This time I would venture south, right into the heart of the Jon Frum movement. I wanted to meet these, almost Biblical figures I had read so much about. I had examined many articles on the cult from a western viewpoint, the opinion of outsiders. I wanted my own understanding not the patronising, almost pitiful commentaries that the media in the west had generated. If there was anything I had learned from my time living in the South Pacific, it was that kastom needs to be respected. It is a way of life and in many cases us money-orientated westerners could learn one or two things from the simple, yet happy lives these communities live.
When the war against Japan had concluded in 1945, the US forces headed home, but a new spiritual mindset had been left behind unintentionally. The late 1940s saw the islanders fashion airfields with mock-up aircraft in order to entice planes from the US Air Force down from the skies. It was believed that these planes had been sent by Jon Frum. The islanders had studied the US military closely and adopted their customs, their forms of worship- and they used the acts of marching, saluting and the raising of the US flag as their ritual. The leaders of the cult donned makeshift military uniforms in the belief that if it was working for the Americans, it would appease Jon Frum and work for them. There were also reports of tin-can radio transmitters and red-crosses dotted all over Tanna, since to the Americans; this meant ‘free medical treatment.’
We made our way back to the centre of the village where Chief Isaac instructed us to sit under a small natangora canopy. I sat quietly and gazed up at Mount Yassur, Tanna’s active volcano. It was Yassur that was responsible for the baron, desert-like wastelands that surround Sulphur Bay. This lunar landscape, an expanse of lifeless, serene, unbroken terrain was fringed on all sides by the lush verdant life of the jungle, a truly mind-blowing contrast. The volcano did not faze the islanders whatsoever; each minor eruption was ignored casually, although it certainly kept my friends and I on the edge of our seats. Chief Isaac finally sat down opposite me and starred at me expectantly. I started by reading him the small chapter on the ‘Cargo Cult’ of Jon Frum from my guide book, just to gauge his reaction. “Jon Frum, i no wan man blong America,” he said calmly. I wondered if I had made a mistake in my translation. The chief repeated himself, “ Hem i wan man blong Tanna, no wan man blong America!” I quizzed Isaac on this for a few moments, he had stated before that he had become disillusioned with Western journalists and now I could see why. There has been an incredible amount of nonsense written about the Cult of Jon Frum over the years by journalists and tourism agents who have been copying off each other and incorporating their own ideas into the story. Isaac continued to tell me his account from the beginning. Jon Frum had appeared on the island, but he was not American. He was however a white man, who could speak all the languages of the natives. Whilst visiting the other islands of Vanuatu, I noted a huge number of people suffering from albinism and I have since concluded that perhaps this is the most rational explanation for this. The secret meetings did occur and the missionaries and colonial administration knew nothing of this until the end of 1940. The local government had noticed a sharp increase in the sacrificing of animals and kava drinking, which at this time had become an anti-Christian symbol of resistance. Isaac recalled his father and Jon Frum being taken from Green Hill and imprisoned by the colonial administration. They were seen as gaining too much influence and power as well as stifling the Christian message. This story seemed to have remarkable parallels with the story of Jesus Christ. Jon Frum was described by the Chief as ‘a spirit in human form’ and it is believed that one day he would return. It was at this point of the story a new name was thrown into the equation, Tom Navy , no prizes for guessing what his occupation was. There is evidence for the existence of Tom Navy, although he went by the name of Thomas Beattie. Beattie headed a recruitment sector of the US navy and took many Tanese men to the island of Efate to work. Beattie preached a message of peace to the inhabitants of Tanna and Isaac Wan credited him for the release of Frum and his father from imprisonment after persuading the local administration to free them. It is for this reason that the stars and stripes are raised every day in Sulphur Bay. It is a symbol of peace, and the message that Jon Frum and Tom Navy brought with them, it is not a symbol representing the nationality of Jon Frum as many believe. Only recently, a delegation of Tom Navy followers from Tanna visited the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell to verify that the spirit of Tom Navy lives on in current president Barack Obama.
Chief Isaac explained how there had been a divide in his following. In 2001, Sulphur Bay was the centre of an ideological rift between himself and a man named Fred Nasse. Nasse , known on Tanna as Prophet Fred, was responsible for taking half the Jon Frum movement and converting them to Christianity. He correctly predicted that a lake at the foot of Mt Yasur would be swept into the sea after he had spoken with God whilst out fishing. The breakaway erupted in violence with tradition weapons such as arrows and spears being used between the rival movements. 25 were seriously injured during the bloody encounter and many were evacuated to Port Vila for medical treatment whilst 12 houses and a thatched Presbyterian church were burnt down during a battle which involved 400 islanders. Followers of Prophet Fred believe that the Jon Frum message is dated and that their rituals do not apply in the modern age. I wondered if Nasse had become disillusioned with life within the Jon Frum community and started his own form of westernization but it was hard to tell.
So how had this story become so distorted? I wondered whether it may have been down to the cult wanting to increase tourism in their village for financial reasons, but it dawned on me that these people were not motivated by money, and this was how Jon Frum told them to live their lives. As with Christianity, there are several variants of the religion, however most writers do not acknowledge this. There was a variant called ‘the Cult of Kastom Jon’ in Northern Tanna that was credited with the construction of airfields and mock aeroplanes, however this religion has since died out. All these types of movement charge rapidly as new ideas are introduced and new variants spring up, but this is how the movement stands at the moment. It struck me that the spiritual movement was not a ‘Cargo Cult’ as the western media portrays it to be, but a visionary movement for peace and the protection of a kastom . The Cult does not want Jon Frum to return and shower them in riches and material goods, they want him to return and give them spiritual serenity. The Jon Frum ‘Cargo Cult’ is dead, all that remain is an ideology for kastom. So the blame for distortion must lie with the tourism agents and the journalists looking for a good story.
I left Tanna very confused, the results of the expedition were hugely different to anything I had expected. I returned to the Ni-Vanuatu capital city, Port Vila to catch out flight home to London. In Port Vila, other side of the coin immediately became apparent. The poverty was substantial. Although these people had more money and possessions than the men and women of the Jon Frum movement, I doubted their lives would have been as happy and richly fulfilled as them. I wondered around the streets of Vila, being December the western image of Father Christmas littered every window of every shop and over-weight Ni-Vans sat in fast food joints stuffing themselves with southern-fried chicken and lager. On Tanna, there was no need for money, the movement was self-sufficient and everyone lived happily away from material goods, greed and envy. The villagers lived a near idyllic existence, tending gardens of taro, mangos and bananas, fishing in dug-out canoes and hunting wild pigs and fruit bats in the forest. The role of money was nothing but peripheral. Kirk Huffman, an anthropologist who lived in Vanuatu for 17 years, said: “Nobody knows who John Frum was, though it is irrelevant whether he was a real person or a spirit. Movements like these were a way for traditional people to come to terms with colonialism and Christianity. Vanuatu’s culture would have been entirely squashed if it wasn’t for cults like John Frum.” The contrast between Kastom and Western culture had hit me hard, but I came away from the South Pacific being glad that two men, Jon Frum and Tom Navy, whoever they were, really did make a difference.