book review

Lonely Planet Vanuatu (1999), 3rd edition
by Denis O'Byrne
Lonely Planet Publications
ISBN: 0864426607

A guidebook of the first rate. This reference delves deeply into the small archipelago nation of Vanuatu. Full of facts and detail, it is a premier guide for the traveller. There is quite a bit of information detailed on Jon Frum and the Jon Frum movement in this guide. Unfortunately, the compilation of this material has a "word of mouth" feel to it, and there are discrepancies and contradictions in the printed material which alludes to a heavily edited final product, possibly from multiple sources. [After all the publication is a travellers reference on Vanuatu, and details of Jon Frum is information of Tanna's history and only in passing.] The references to sources are in the From the Author section, remarking three individuals from Tanna, Ray Sanders, Joe Sel and Sero Kuautonga.

pgs. 154-156 [2nd ed.]
By the 1900s, Presbyterian missionaries dominated Tanna's religious and political life. The church people had their own courts, with Christian offenders having to perform menial tasks for the missionaries as punishment.

There were official moves against Tanna's Presbyterian theocracy in 1912, with attempts by the Condominium staff to restrict its excesses. But after WWI, Presbyterianism again flourished, leaving custom worshippers numbering only 25% of the island's population.

By the late 1930s villagers were feeling cheated. Europeans, whether church people or planters, seemed to have everything they wanted. Islanders had only their pigs and gardens.

A home-grown cargo cult, called the Jon Frum movement, emerged on Tanna in 1940, blossoming during the Pacific war. By the end of WWII there were three major parties on Tanna; Presbyterians, custom people and Jon Frum worshippers.

In the early 1970s as the call for national independence grew louder, Tanna became highly politicised. Jon Frum supporters and a Tannese custom group called Kapiel allied themselves in 1979 with the secessionist Nagriamel group in Santo and the Modérés in the rest of Vanuatu. The Modérés were especially active after the late 1979 election. They alleged electoral fraud when their party narrowly missed winning the majority in Tanna by 2% of the votes.

Galvanised into action by the Santo rebellion of late May, Tannese Modérés struck. They seized two British government staff, who were freed by police action two days later. Although many Modérés were arrested, many Protestant islanders, fearing a civil war, hid in caves, or in Tanna's thick bush.

On 10 June 1980, 300 Modérés attacked Isangel where their friends were being held prisoner. In the ensuing shoot-out a Modéré leader was killed. Arrests were made and the Tannese insurrection fizzled out soon afterwards.

The Jon Frum Movement From the 1850s onwards, Tannese people were fascinated by the local Europeans' varied and seemingly endless supply of possessions. The missionaries attributed this wealth to regular prayer and the renouncing of traditional customs, such as kava drinking, dancing, sorcery and the wearing of penis sheaths. So most islanders became Christians.

Yet the planters and traders seemed much more prosperous than the church people, though they seldom bothered about prayer. They claimed it was all due to hard work. So the Tannese went to work for the planters.

The Jon Frum Movement During the 1930s considerable resentment had built up among Tannese people over the arrogance of European planters and the rigid rules of the local Presbyterian church. In 1936, people in western Tanna began talking about a mysterious person called Jon Frum (or Frumm). He was claimed to be the brother of the god of Mt Tukosmera.

The story said Jon Frum had come from the sea at Green Point and had announced himself to some kava drinkers there. He told them there would be an abundance of wealth and no more of the epidemics that had killed so many people. However, all Europeans had to leave the island before this would happen.

The Pacific War Soon after, US troops, including Blacks, landed in Efate and Santo and many Tannese went to work for them, including a number of Jon Frum worshippers. They saw that the troops had hugh quanities of steel ships, jeeps, aircraft, refrigerators and radios as well as endless supplies of Coca-Cola and cigarettes. But most of all, the Tannese saw how generous the US Servicemen were, especially Blacks, who were surely Tannese in disguise. Jon Frum must certainly be from the USA.

Shortly after WWII, dozens of small red crosses were erected all over Tanna. To the islanders, the red-cross sign in WWII meant expert medical treatment ant, free of charge. So villagers began putting up red-crosses, hoping this would bring free medical attention to their island too. Nowadays red crosses remain a feature in Jon Frum villages.

Europeans and Americans explained there was no Jon Frum. This was interpreted on the island to mean that foreigners were still trying to deprive the Tannese of their rightful wealth.

For a long time after the Pacific war, cultists would examine any plane they saw, in case Jon Frum was inside. Any Americans they met were asked if they had any messages from him.

Jon Frum Prophets Several people have claimed to be Jon Frum's prophet or even Jon Frum himself. To justify their claim, they've recited details of dreams they've had about their god, their revalations often leading to a fresh revival of the faith. At times these testimonies have produced an alternative interpretation of the religon's basic principals, yet this has been no obstacle for it's many belivers.

The movement has at times been virgoursly opposed by missionaries and officials. Even now, cultists won't pay any taxes or use government schools.

Waiting For Jon Frum Over the years, some JF supporters, keen to hear his latest message, have made imitationradio aerials out of tin cans and wire. Others have built an airfield in the bush and constructed wooden replica aircraft to entice his planes full of cargo to land on Tanna. A third group has erected wharves where his ships can berth.

Some cultists recommend a return to a totally traditional lifestyle, including wearing nambas. Others continue to wear European clothes, feeling this will be more to their messiah's liking and therefore hasten his arrival.

When will he come? His followers have waited since the early 1940's and nothing has happened yet. 'How long have Christians waited?' they ask. 'Nearly 2000 years, yet we've waited only 50!'

Jon Frum's Name Who was Jon Frum, anyway? No-one knows for sure, but there are at least six possible explanations.

The first says the name stand for 'John from America'. The second claims that a US medical corps member called John, with a red cross on his sleeve, laned on Tanna during WWII and handed out large amounts of free medicine.

A third tells how Nampus, and early Jon Frum leader, returned from prison in 1951 wearing a US medical aide's discarded jacket with red crosses on it's sleeves. He apparantly told villagers that Jon Frum had told him that this was to be the cult's insignia.

Some cultists say Jon Frum is a mispronunciation of Jon Broom. He is the broom that will sweep Tanna clean of Europeans and their influences.

A fifth story claims that either wartime Black US troops or pre war abolitionists told the Tannese about John Brown's fight against slavery in the USA in the 19th century. Some cult members claim that John Brown visited Tanna prior to the US Civil War in the early 1860s.

Lastly, it's said that Jon Frum stands for John the Baptist, the baptiser of Jesus Christ. Jon Frum people respect Jesus, but John the Baptist was clearly senior to him., so that's why they worship Jon Frum, or John the Baptist instead.

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