Islanders have faith their messiah
will one day bring material wealth
SULPHUR BAY, Vanuatu - He is John The Obscure.
Jon Frum is his name. Or John Frumme. Possibly, if he ever existed at all, a man who described
himself as John-From-America, an introduction that has now been abbreviated to a proper name.
- Part man, part god, part messiah.
- He lives in the nearby Mt. Yafur[sic] volcano. He lives in America.
- He was a pilot, a marine, a navy seaman.
- He came in a dream. He came in the flesh.
- But most of all, he will return.
This is the American god who is worshipped and ritualized in the primitive Jon Frum villages on the island of Tanna, in the Vanuatu archipelago, in the South Pacific. This is the god for whom the Jon Frummers have built crude airplane runways cut out of the forest, and jerry-rigged boat wharves along the rugged coastline.
Jon Frum might come by plane, he might come by sea. But he will bring lots and lots of material goods - refrigerators and stoves, generators, television sets, trucks and automobiles. All the modern toys and conveniences that currently don't exist in Sulphur Bay, where the lone lawnmower, a decrepit old manual thing, has been broken so long no one can recall when it was last used.
There are 26 tiny Jon Frum settlements on Tanna, all worshipping the red cross that is the symbol of their faith - and the symbol, of course, of the International Red Cross, which provided so many services and amenities to servicemen and Tannese during the war.
But the centre of the cult, their holy sepulchre, is right here in Sulphur Bay, along the blackened silt shore where naked children are swimming in the surf, digging for crabs and playing hide-and-seek in the beached outrigger canoe.
One stretch of the strand is marked by stakes and closed off to trespassers, to the villagers themselves. This is sacred ground. It is here, the faithful believe, that Jon Frum will reappear. Because he said he would.
"Why should we not believe it?" asked Roial Kilma who, as the best English speaker among his people, a village of 500 residents, has been acting as guide and tutor for a couple of visiting Canadians.
"We have been waiting only 60 years for Jon Frum to come back. Christians have been waiting 2000 years for Jesus Christ. Why are we the ones who are thought of as strange?"
Put in that context, the Jon Frummers have a point. And the tribal gospels are really not so different from Christian scriptures of death and resurrection and salvation, of a Holy Spirit, of a New Jerusalem on Earth.
But this is still a most peculiar messianic sect, one that has held firm and obstinate through the second half of the 20th century. Indeed, the movement has befuddled anthropologists and defied Christian proselytizers, gaining more active adherents over the decades, rather than trickling away into mythology.
The spiritual leader of the Jon Frum village at Sulphur Bay, Isaac Kwan, chuckles at the mystification of others.
He is a very old man, a very wise man. Unlike almost everyone else in his village, he has travelled far and wide. He has lectured to the white man in America and met President Bill Clinton. He is the one who travels into Lenakel, the dusty capital of Tanna, every few years to send a fax to Washington, requesting a new Stars-and-Stripes flag to replace the old one that had become tattered.
When I meet Kwan, he had been out in the bush with a group of young men, gathering firewood. Kwan, bearded and wisened, squats by the side of the road to tell his tale. The other men sheath their machetes and bolos, sitting around Kwan in a circle as he speaks, rhapsodized as always by his narrative.
"Jon is like the same as Jesus," he begins. "He came to us as a man, but he is a spirit. He had brown skin, like us. But he came from America.
"The year was 1930. Jon came out of the bush and he appeared to my father. At that time, the missionaries wanted us to give up all our customs. And traditions. They did not want us to drink the kava anymore." (Kava is a narcotic brew strained from the sap of the pepper plant.)
"They did not want us to sing and dance. They wanted us only to pray. Pray, pray, pray, all the time.
"Jon told my father that we should continue with our customs, that we should make the Europeans go away. But he also taught my father many things about the spirit world.
"For nine years, Jon lived in my father's house and the Europeans, the missionaries, they did not know about it. Then, in 1939, he left. He went back to America. He said he would return to us some day, but not in the flesh. He will reappear in the spirit and then we would all be blessed. We would all be happy together again."
Kwan studies his visitors for their reaction. He has told this story so many times, he knows how skeptical white people can be, how mocking. Their incredulity entertains him, rather than provoking rancour.
"Maybe Jon Frum is already here," he says at last. "Maybe he is already among us, but we don't know it. That's why we worship him, so that we can prepare ourselves for his coming, so we can open our spirits to him.
"But he will come again."
At one time, the Jon Frum movement was considered merely one more of the bizarre, if rather fascinating and seductive, cargo cults that thrived all through the South Pacific islands in World War II.
Cargo cults developed among native people who had never before been exposed to the overpowering material wealth of the outside world - and who suddenly witnessed with their own eyes the plentiful supplies of the Allied forces as they dug in to repel the Japanese, creating airfields and naval bases out of rock and undergrowth.
The Americans, most particularly, arrived with their ships and planes and generators and radios and refrigerators: a cornucopia of wonders never seen before. Not knowing where or how this horn of plenty originated, the islanders believed these materials must have sprung from a spirit world.
Some of them, even after the Americans dismantled their operations and left, hung on to that belief.
The cargo story, as some anthropologists have noted, is one of endless yearning. From that perspective, it is not so different from material yearnings of Western consumerist society, where the moral connections between hard work and material success have also blurred. We are just as eager for the big score, the something for nothing deal, the jackpot. Hence the popularity of lotteries and bingo parlours and sweepstakes and television game shows and gambling meccas.
It is commodity fetishism, only intellectually removed from the Jon Frum villages of Tanna.
Most cargo cults also included a heavy strain of indolence - the natives have merely to wait for their benefactor to bring them riches.
But when nothing happened, the cargo cult phenomenon disappeared as quickly as it had arisen.
But Jon Frum was different. This movement was specific, detailed and tenacious. It also offered a messiah, with a name and a history, somebody who had actually been seen, allegedly, by some of their own people. Many natives who had been converted and baptized abruptly rejected their recent Christianity, embracing the Jon Frum movement even more fervently.
In the annals of Tanna history, the logs and diaries kept by British and French administrators - Vanuatu, then known as the New Hebrides, was jointly ruled by England and France until independence in 1980 - the name Jon Frum first appeared in colonial administrative reports in 1940.
The administrators were worried that the Jon Frum movement was a front for political rabble-rousing, intended to foment a tide of nationalism leading to independence, and aimed at removing the white presence.
Island men in the 1940s formed a regiment and drilled daily, carrying bamboo shoots as rifles because they were not allowed to bear arms.
At Sulphur Bay, the men still drill regularly and still don't bear arms.
Kwan indicates that the movement has dropped much of its quasi-military trappings. These days, he no longer even presents the original Frum as an American serviceman, perhaps trying to avoid ridicule. But there are photographs of ceremonies showing a younger Kwan in military fatigues, his chest covered with faux metal made from bottle caps and service coins.
Kwan insists Jon Frum worship is spiritual, not jingoistic and not materialistic. But this belies the comments made by others at Sulphur Bay, who talk about the riches they will receive.
Kilma, the translator, points out that many of Frum's predictions of future wealth have come true. There is the new international airport near Lenakel, opened only last year. Surely, this is a sign of Frum's imminent return. And there's a new Japanese-financed wharf, not even opened yet.
The Jon Frum sabbath is on Friday, and prayer is followed by day-long and night-long dancing, singing, guitar playing and Tanna drinking - all activities condemned by the missionaries but encouraged by Jon Frum to Kwan's father.
And once a year, on Feb. 15, all the villagers celebrate Jon Frum Day. In an eerie passion play, men take turns carrying the huge red cross up the slope of Mount Yafur, where they plant it at the lip of the volcano's crater.
The Jon Frum cult grows stronger and more confident every day, a tribal indictment of the missionaries and the colonialists and the anthropologists. The believers live in their primitive villages, without electricity or gadgetry. They refuse to pay taxes, or send their children to state-run schools. They take care of themselves, almost like the survivalist cults in North America, for whom big government is the major enemy, Satan personified.
The Jon Frum believers have already seen the devil.
He carried a Bible. Or he carried a gun. And he was white.