book review

The Happy Isles of Oceania, Paddling the Pacific
by Paul Theroux
ISBN 0-399-13726-2

A dialogue of the travels and kayaking ventures throughout the Pacific Islands of Meganesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Paul Theroux brings a familiar perspective to the serious voyager. Neither jaded nor enthralled, his views reflect a mix of opinion, observation and narrative description. Here are a few passages commenting on Jon Frum and cargo cults. Thanks to this, we all probably now know more about Spam's culinary attractions and flavour than we could ever wish ...

pg. 187
I had found circumstantial evidence for cannibalism -the liking in Vanuatu (and it had been the case in the Solomons too) for Spam. lt was a theory of mine that former cannibals of Oceania now feasted on Spam because Spam came the nearest to approximating the porky taste of human flesh. "Long pig" as they called a cooked human being in much of Melanesia. It was a fact that the people-eaters of the Pacific had all evolved, or perhaps degenerated, into Spam-eaters. And in the absence of Spam they settled for corned beef, which also had a corpsy flavor.

But cannibalism was less interesting to me than cargo cults. Most of all I wanted to visit Tanna because l had heard that a cargo cult, the Jon Frum Movement, flourished on the island. The villagers in this, movement worshipped an obscure, perhaps mythical American named Jon Frum who was supposed to have come to Tanna in the l930s. He appeared from nowhere and promised the people an earthly paradise. All they had to do was reject Christian missionaries and go back to their old ways. This they did with enthusiasm - booting out the Presbyterians. Jon Frum had not so far returned. The Jon Frum villages displayed a wooden red cross, trying to lure him - and his cargo of free goods - to the island. This iconography of the cross was not Christian, but rather derived from the war, from the era of free food and Red Cross vehicles.

The Oddest Island in Vanuatu

pgs. 197-201.
... Imanaka, wreathed in smoke from cooking fires, was in the woods, on a stoney hillside, behind a broken fence, at the end of a muddy track. It was easy to see how such a hard-up village would take to the idea of deliverance and develop faith in the idea that one day an immense amount of material goods would come their way, courtesy of Jon Frum, only if they believed in him and danced and sang his praises. But it was also an article of faith that Jon Frum villages had to neglect their gardens and throw their money away: when Jon Frum returned he would provide everything.

I had no idea what kind of reception I would get. I was watched from a distance by a group of dusty women, and the first men I met spoke neither English nor Bislama - which was simply a version of Pidgin (the word Bislama being a corruption of bêche-de-mer - it had started as a trader's language).

It occurred to me that this visit might be and error of judgement. I was alone. It was obviously a poverty-stricken village. Hungry people can behave unpredictably. Who knows - they might get it into their head to kill me and eat my shoes. [Author is referring to the previous chapter.] Smoke swirled around the village and the smoke alone, the way it straggled this way then that, gave the village a profound look of dereliction.

Men came forward and stared at me. One was clearly a mental case. He giggled in bewilderment. Another had a rag tied around his head. There were six more. They carried sticks and bush knives. Behind them were the women. Every one of them looked very dirty. Still I wondered: Is this a mistake?

"Yupela savvy tok Bislama?" I asked, and when they shook their heads and grinned, I asked, "Yupela savvy tok-tok? Chief bilong yupela I stap we?"
One boy stepped forward and said, "Parlez-vous, français, monsieur?"
"Je parle un peu," I said. What was this, a French-speaking village? "Les gens en ce village parlent français?"

He said some of them did and others didn't. The chief didn't for example. He would be joining us soon, the boy said, but in the meantime perhaps I would like to sit on this log in the shade of this thatched shelter.

I did so, and while we waited he asked me whether I had news of the war in the Gulf. I bumblingly explained what I had heard that morning - that there were diplomatic missions flying back and forth in the hope of averting war.

The chief, whose name was Yobas, shambled over to the shelter. He was old and feeble, carrying a stick that was smooth where his hand gripped it. He wore a torn undershirt and a dirty cloth tied like a sarong, and he had the oppressed and wincing expression of a chief who was probably blamed by everyone, including his own people, for presiding over such a miserable village.

"Yu savvy tok Inglis?"
Incredibly, he nodded: yes, he did.

I greeted him by making an insincere speech saying what a delightful village it was and how happy I was to be in it, and I hoped that his would put all thoughts of killing me out of their minds.

"So this is a Jon Frum Village?"
"Yiss, All dis. Jon Frum>" And he motioned with his stick.
"The village dances for Jon Frum?"
"We dance here" -- it seemed we were sitting in the open-sided dance hall. "For Jon Frum. Also sing-sing. For Jon Frum."
"Sometimes do you see Jon Frum?"
"Nuh. But the old fella they see him."
What does Jon Frum look like? Is he black or white?"
"White like you. From America. He is a beeg man -- very fat! He strong!"
"What does he wear?"
"He wear clothes. He wear everything. He wear hat."
I was wearing a baseball hat. I said, "Like this?"
"Nuh. Big hat. Like a missionary."

I took out my notebook and drew a picture of a wide-brimmed hat. He said, Yes that's the one. And when he spoke the other men and the children crowded around me and jostled for a look at the notebook page.

Later, when I had spoken to more Jon Frum adherents, I discovered that I might have confused the chief with my questions, because he seemed to be describing a Jon Frum emissary who was know as "Tom Navy." This Floridian was a Seabee who had turned up on Tanna in 1945 and briefly had the island at his feet. Another Jon Frum had appeared in 1943 and proclaimed himself "King of America and Tanna" - and an airfield was cleared on the north of the island, so that when his cargo planes arrived they would have a place to land.

I wondered about the prayer houses, in which certain Jon Frum prophets, called "messengers," knelt and had visions of their benefactor. I asked the chief about this. "Old fella talk to him," he said, "but me no talk."

The critical question - crucial for the Vanuatu government, at any rate - was the extent to which the Jon Frum Movement displayed American paraphernalia. The most egregious aspect, from the government's point of view, was whether these villages flew the American flag. The notion is that since Jon Frum was an American, the cargo would come from America, and mixed up in the iconography of the red cross and the mysterious vanishing American was the Stars and Stripes. In some villages the American Flag was flown often; in others, every February. The Vanuatu government frequently lost patience with the Jon Frum people and actively persecuted them, jailing them or confiscating their American paraphernalia.

I decided to be blunt. "Do you have an American Flag?"

Chief Yobas hesitated for awhile, but finally made a sheepish face and nodded. I asked him why the flag was necessary.

"during the war he come again and he give an American flag to an old fella."
"Do you raise the flag on a pole?"
This was too much for him. He said, "You go to Sulphur Bay. See Chief Mellis. Issac One. He tell you everyting."

I pretended not to hear him. I smiled at the men with knives and sticks who hovered around me. It was about five in the afternoon. The sun was just low enough to slant through the thin tree trunks and it seemed to be much hotter at this hour than it had been at noon. I was reminded of how dreary such a village could seem, and this was - dusty and fly-blown and poor, clinging to the belief in Jon Frum - sadder than most I had seen. It was silent, except for the clucking of chickens and the crowing of an occasional rooster. Gesturing at the thatched shelter in which we sate, I said, "you sing-sing here?"

"Yiss. We sing-sing."
"Please. Sing-sing for me."

The old chief considered this, and then hitched himself forward and in a whispering voice that rustled and hissed like tissue paper he began to sing.

Jon Frum
He mus come
Look at old fellas
Give us some big presents
Give us some good tok-tok

He wheezed and riffed, sounding a good deal like the groaning blues singer he much resembled - John Lee Hooker came to mind - an he continued.

Jon Frum
He mus come
Mus stap long kastom
Mus keep kastom

He looked at me squarely and rolled his head and whispered again,

Jon Frum
He mus come.

... "They were lying to you," Chief Tom told me that night. "Jon Frum was not fat. He was small, very slight. A small man. This is the truth. If you write this down I will not tell you anything. He could speak all the languages. He saw one man and spoke that man's language. He saw another man and spoke to him in his own language. And so on."

"How do you know this?"
"you promise not to write it? You promise not to steal my magic?"
"I could never steal your magic, chief."
"My grandfather met him and shook his hand. This was my mother's father - he was prominent in the Jon Frum Movement. My father's father was a Presbyterian minister." ...

... "How did Jon Frum get to Tanna?"
"In a plane. There was no airstrip. He landed his plane in the tops of trees."
"Where was this?"
"At Green Point." ...

pgs. 202-203.
... The man's name was Esrick - at least that was what it sounded like. He was a teacher at one of the schools on Tanna. He was presently on vacation. He said he neither believed nor disbelieved in Jon Frum.
"I think he was one of our old speerits appearing in the shape of an American white man."

"Why would one of your spirits want to come back and visit you?" I asked.

"Because at that time Presbyterianism was very strong. So he appeared at the right time, because the foreign missionaries had banned kava drinking, magic stones, and dancing. Jon Frum said, 'Destroy what the missionaries gave you. I will give you goods.'"

It was a fortuitous visitation. Just when Protestantism had taken hold of the islanders and the missionaries had begun to write their Cannibalism Conquered and Cannibals Won for Christ memoirs, the strange little man with piercing eyes had popped up at Green Point and said: Lose those Bibles. He urged the people to revive the important traditions - kava-drinking, dancing, and the swapping of women for sexual purposes. About three years after Jon Frum's first appearance in 1938, half the island had abandoned Christianity.

"They forsook Christianity," Esrick said. "Because he said he would be back with plenty of goods if they went back to their old ways."
I said, "So when do you think this will happen?"
He laughed at me. "It has already happened! In spirit! Jon Frum's spirit is everywhere. He is in every village."
"But you said you didn't believe in him."

He accused me of being literal-minded, without using that expression.

"You see," Esrick explained, as though speaking to a moron, or one of his schoolkids, "he has come back in the form of development and progress. We have goods now. Go to the shops. Go to Vila. You will see that we have what we want. We have kava. We have dancing. He is back in spirit. He knows he won!"

Was Jon Frum a friendly American pilot who brought supplies here and shared them around? And perhaps he had said, I am John from America. And then had the war convinced the villagers on Tanna how wealthy America was?

It hardly mattered now. The dogma of the movement seemed to suggest that Jon Frum was some sort of John the Baptist, preceding the saviour, who was a redeemer in the form of cargo - every nice and useful object imaginable. And the important aspect was that it had come to the island directly, without the help of missionaries or interpreters. No money, no tithing was involved; no Ten Commandments, no Heaven or Hell. No priests, nor any imperialism. It was a Second Coming, but it enabled the villagers to rid themselves of missionaries and live their lives as they had before. It seemed to me a wonderfully foxy way of doing exactly as they pleased.

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