Strange Stories of John Frum
Anthropologists fostered the cargo cult, but they were by no means the only ones feeding the
discourse. Cargoism as a genre of writing comprises several subtypes. Administrators,
missionaries, adventurers, journalists, and others also have had reasons to write about
Melanesian social movements. Their several interests, not surprisingly, tinted their writing.
The cargo cult of a colonial administrator, concerned to oversee and control, differed from that
of the anthropologist (concerned, roughly, to understand), the missionary (concerned to combat),
or the adventurer and journalist (concerned to instruct, amaze, and entertain).
All these figures and more have written about certain events and conversations that took place
on Tanna Island, Vanuatu (an archipelago which, until national independence on 30 July 1980, was
thecolonial New Hebrides). Tannese words and deeds, in this writing, have come to be known as the
"John Frum movement." The name John Frum first appears, on paper, in 1940. The writers who
herald John's advent, as text, are British colonial District Agent James M. Nicol, Presbyterian
missionary H. M. (Jock) Bell, and local "police boy" Joe Nalpin. Over the last half century, John
Frum texts have multiplied and inflated as more and more people have written about the movement.
This literature is sizable. The Story of John Frum, could all its chapters and verses be
collated, would outweigh a Bible.
The discourse of cargoism makes unlikely heroes. Thanks to five decades of cargoist writing, John
Frum is famous. He began diffusely as a "one fellow something" (O'Reilly 1949,194) - A man? A
spirit? A spook? - but quickly triumphed as a star and leading light of the cargo-cult circuit.
Written cargoism captured a dim murmuring from obscure and peripheral island conversations, and
broadcast this to the world ... John Frum texts have traveled thousands of miles beyond the oral
universe of island conversation out of which the hero first emerged.
In the world of cargo cults, "the celebrated John Frum" (Eliade 1965,136) is a luminary. Nowadays,
he is even a classic: "a 'classic example'of cargo cultism in Melanesia" (Trompf 1984, 43). "The
Jon Frum Movement has become a touchstone for determination of characteristics of cargo cults"
(Calvert 1978, 212; see Burridge 1993, 282). Moreover, Tanna itself has become known abroad,
insofar as the island is known, as the home of John Frum. Its culture is now cargo-cult culture.
Paul Theroux wanted most of all to visit Tanna because he "had heard that a cargo cult, the Jon
Frum Movement, flourished on the island" (1992, 187), Tanna is "the oddest outside-time island in
Vanuatu" (1992, 213). With strange propriety, Tanna's nearest neighbors, Polynesian speakers who
live on Futuna, a volcanic plug 70 kilometers away call the island that they see on their western
horizon gauta, a word that also means "cargo" (Janet Keller, pers comm; .1992).
This chapter reads through the prolix John Frum literature to delineate varieties of the
cargo-cult story. An assortment of writers with different interests and perspectives have
produced John Frum texts. The various subgenres of cargoism are most distinct immediately after
the war. By the 1960s and 1970s, the several perspectives on John Frum to a large extent have
blurred together. The story lines become more uniform. The tone of the writing settles down into
either a sort of mock amusement or earnest admiration. There is now a canonical John Frum story
line replete with stock motifs.
Although early accounts of the John Frum movement are stylistically distinctive in important ways,
from the beginnin the various cargoist subgenres borrowed cult stories and interpretation from
one another. Cross-fertilization among John Frum stories occurred as various secondary accounts
all cited the same, limited primary sources. Blurring also occurred where writers assumed dual
perspectives. Some missionaries wrote like anthropologists. Some anthropologists borrowed the
point of view of colonial administrators.
The several subtypes of John Frum writing begin (and end) in different years, and
cross-fertilization among the several sub genres is affected by the dates of their appearance and
disappearance over time. Colonial administrators began writing John Frum reports in 1940 and
stopped writing in 1980 upon Vanuatu's independence (although little of this material was
published). Missionaries began writing in 1941. Their work, too, mostly disappeared by the mid
1980s when Europeans withdrew from or were forced from pastoral roles on the island. The American
military produced a brief spurt of John Frum surveillance in 1943. Anthropologists only
discovered John Frum in 1949, but their John Frum texts continue to flow. Adventurers and
explorers first described John Frum in 1960, although their accounts are irregular until the
1970s, when they flourish. Newspaper reporters and tourist writers both found John Frum in 1968.
Finally, local academics and politicians of soon-to-be independent Vanuatu produced occasional
John Frum commentary starting in the late 1970s.
Ironically, at the very moment of its discursive triumph, anthropology now denies its own
achievement. Having written up John Frum as a cargo cult; anthropology now wishes it could erase
those early, overly enthusiastic statements that, in the Iight of more and more and more
anthropological understanding of Tanna, appear painfully crude and inaccurate. Anthropology's
recent message is that John Frum is no cargo cult. Once it may have seemed so, but we now know
far too much about Tannese culture and mentality to be able to apply the simplistic cargo-cult
label with any measure of intellectual or political comfort.
But it is too late. Everyone already knows that John Frum is a cargo cult. The stock motifs of
cargoist writing reproduce this knowledge each time Tanna is described. If cargo cult is
anthropology's monster, then the discipline's good Dr Frankensteins may find themselves engaged
in a mortal pursuit across the globe, from steamy Melanesia to icebound Arctic seas, in a vain
attempt to obliterate their own adopted creation. Like the monster, cargo cult has escaped and
is on the run.