Each February 15, John Frum Day, the people on Tana Island in the Republic of Vanuatu hold a giant celebration. As they keep an eye out for a person named John Frum, others put on crude US Army pants, paint “USA” on their backs and fly a copy of the American flag up the bamboo flagpole right beside the flags of the US Marine Corps and the American state of Georgia.
“Soldiers” march barefoot in unison as Yassur, the island’s active volcano, casts a shadow over the parade ground. Carrying bamboo “rifles” with the muzzle end painted in red, they are celebrating “John Frum Day,” the islands highest holy day.
The Vanuatu island chain is northeast of Australia in the general region of Malaysia and the Philippines. Before Europeans showed up, the people who lived there formed primitive societies. Many of the stereotypes of island “savages” originated with the people of the South Pacific island chain. Enemies, and the sporadic missionary, were killed and eaten, sometimes as part of a religious practice and other times for the food.
After the missionaries started showing up, the islands were colonized by England and France. More Christian missionaries arrived and set up an improvised administration and judicial order. The traditional observances of the islanders were now forbidden. “Crimes” like dancing, cursing and multiple marriages were dealt with swiftly by the courts.
For three decades the islanders tolerated the despotism. Soon one of their own, a fellow islander, got fed up and rallied the islanders. Promising an era of plenty to everyone that would join him in rejecting the European style, he was called “John Frum.” Some scholars believe that the name was derived from the phrase “John from Jesus Christ’, meaning John the Baptist. Whatever the origin of the alias, many inhabitants joined his cause and the group moved further inland to get away from the missionaries and go back to old traditions.
World War II Comes
In the 1940s, the cloistered archipelago was invaded by thousands of American military troops who came by ship and plane. World War II had started and America had goals to build stations throughout the Pacific islands. Recognizing cheap labor, the troops enlisted the help of the islanders in building hospitals, airstrips, roads and bridges. The locals were amazed by all of the material supplies they saw.
What really got their attention was the huge quantity of war supplies that were air dropped for the American posts. The islanders stood back and watched as plane load after plane load dropped from the sky and brought crates loaded with uniforms, portable housing, tents, guns, tools and canned foods. The islanders had never eyeballed such wealth before. The natives quickly learned that the supplies and material from the air was called “cargo” by the American troops.
The new visitors to the islands were better visitors than the missionaries from Britain. Besides the abundance of cargo, the visitors brought something the islanders had never seen before, black GIs. When they witnessed the black GIs enjoying the cargo along with the whites, the locals believed their deceased ancestors continued to influence the land of the living. The islanders figured that the black and white troops must have some type of connection to their own ancestors and that is why the abundance was being delivered.
The Legend Changes
It was during hostilities in the Pacific that the John Frum legend began to change and John Frum Day celebrations began in earnest. The religious icon was now seen as a black American infantryman. The black GIs the islanders saw were thought to be John Frum’s own detachment of the US Army.
The War’s End
After the war came to an end, the Americans left as quickly as they had shown up. Bases were closed and the constant stream of cargo, which changed the islander’s lives, had dried up. The people of Tana Island had gotten accustomed to the vehicles, watches, Coca-Cola and canned meat. They got busy setting about making plans to summon back the men, the planes and the cargo. While the troops had been busy, the islanders had been busy also. Watching carefully, the islanders had learned the secret of conjuring up the cargo.
Bring Back the Cargo
Getting busy, the islanders cleared the land for airfields and erected their own control towers. Using rope and bamboo for antennas, they made wooden headsets for the wooden radios which they would use to beckon the skyward deliveries. Every day the men from the hamlet would set in the towers wearing their headphones. Other men would stand on the runway and wave landing signals in an attempt to attract the cargo-carrying planes. Additional towers were eventually constructed and these were rigged with cans hung from wire to copy receiver stations so John Frum could speak with his followers.
Docks were built in the lagoons so the ships bringing supplies would have somewhere to tie up and the Red Cross emblem was becoming the symbol of the revived religion. Even today, villages surrounding Yasur Volcano have little red crosses as a symbol of the islanders belief.
The prophets of the John Frum movement, called “messengers” told islanders about the return of aircraft bearing gifts for the people of the islands. The religion’s leaders told the natives to return to their “kastom”, customary, ways and throw money away. Believing that John Frum would be returning and bringing all the material wealth that was needed, the cult leaders told the islanders to leave gardens untended and kill all the pigs. One day soon, John Frum would leave his abode inside the volcano to bring the promised goodies. Even today, at least one visitor’s guide reminds travelers that if asked about their beliefs, islanders will likely point out that Europeans have been waiting for Jesus’ return for over 2000 years while the islanders have only been waiting 70.”
A central part of the John Frum Day celebration as well as a key part of island life is kava. Kava has been available in America for over one hundred years. In the early 20th century, kava extract was even sold through Sears Roebuck as a “temperance wine.” Buyers who bought kava was given a complimentary tea set from the company.
Captain Cook was probably the first European to be given kava. The plant’s root is ground and blended with water before being strained into a hollowed out coconut and drunk. The results are quick and good. The compounds found in kava relax tense muscles. The only mention of kava in Captain Cook’s journal was a brief line that the drink looked “…unappealing.”
“Kava time” is in very early evening and is a prominent ingredient in the life of islanders. Its use tracks back at least 30 centuries. Looking like muddy water and without any alcohol, kava has been used by natives as an agent of peace. Kava time is a regular ritual where people gather, enjoy kava and share their day with each other; not unlike Americans who gather over beverages at the end of the day.
In 2001, Duke University Medical Center performed research on kava. Their research indicated that kava is safe and is as effective for treating anxiety as the benzodiazepine (Xanax, Valium) class of drugs without the dangers caused by those pharmaceuticals.
The center of kava culture is Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Vanuatu has vast plantations with many workers and traders who ship the power world-wide.
With more than 100 varieties of kava, large plantations of “noble” kava have appeared. Kava extraction has also advanced and a larger variety of kava products is beginning to show on the American market.
This evening islanders will finish up the celebration of John Frum Day as they set around the village sipping kava and hoping this might be the year the bounty from the sky returns.
By Jerry Nelson
Sydney Morning Herald