John Frum, Part One: The Tell of Captain Walker.

“This ain’t one body’s story. It’s the story of us all.
We got it mouth-to-mouth. You got to listen it and ‘member.
‘Cause what you hears today you got to tell the birthed tomorrow.
I’m looking behind us now. . . .across the count of time. . . .down the long haul, into history back.
I sees the end what were the start. It’s Pox-Eclipse, full of pain!
And out of it were birthed crackling dust and fearsome time.
It were full-on winter. . .and Mr. Dead chasing them all. But one he couldn’t catch.
That were Captain Walker.

He gathers up a gang, takes to the air and flies to the sky!
So they left their homes, said bidey-bye to the high-scrapers. . .and what were left of the knowing, they left behind.
Some say the wind just stoppered. Others reckon it were a gang called Turbulence. And after the wreck. . .some had been jumped by Mr. Dead. . .
but some had got the luck, and it leads them here.
One look and they’s got the hots for it. They word it “Planet Earth. ” And they says, “We don’t need the knowing. We can live here. “

(all)”We don’t need the knowing. We can live here. “

Time counts and keeps counting. They gets missing what they had.
They get so lonely for the high-scrapers and the video.
And they does the pictures so they’d ‘member all the knowing that they lost.
‘Member this? (Holds a viewfinder toy to Max’s eyes- picture of a city scape)

(all) Tomorrow-morrow Land!
‘Member this? (time lapse picture of a motorway at night)
(all) The River of Light!
‘Member this? (picture of an aircraft)
(all) Skyraft!
‘Member this? (a pilot)
(all) Captain Walker!
‘Member this? (a burlesque dancer)
(all) Mrs. Walker!

The Tell of Captain Walker – from Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome (1985)


I may be the only one thinks of Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome when I think Cargo Cults, but hey I was 9 when the film was released, and maybe 10 or 11 when I first saw it, it is one of those silly, formative things which has stuck with me forever at this stage. This week, and the week following’s Tale of History and Imagination involves a group which would look strangely familiar to Savannah Nix and her Cargo Cult of Captain Walker.

On 15th February every year a fascinating ritual takes place on the Island of Tanna, Vanuatu (known for the longest time as the New Hebrides). It is the holiest of holy days on the island. Large groups of locals – Google advises me referred to as ‘Ni Vanuatu’ gather. Some are stripped down to just a pair of jeans or cargo pants, the letters ‘USA’ painted on their chests, others in full military uniform. Many somewhere in between. Large groups of the men gather, wielding long bamboo poles made to look vaguely like rifles. In the shadow of Mount Yasur they get into formation and make the march to a set of three abandoned flag poles, hoisting first the Stars and Stripes, the insignia of the US Marine corps, then the state flag for the (American) state of Georgia. Having paid observance for another year they then depart, hopeful that this is the year their messiah returns, bringing with him a new era of unbelievable wealth and prosperity. Who is their saviour you may ask, Jesus, Muhammad, Siddhartha Gautama?

The man whose return will usher on an era of unrivalled happiness is a, fictitious, American soldier they call John Frum. His is a story from World War Two, but with roots far earlier. It is a story that to me goes some way to explain religion (FYI I am an antitheist), but also gives some insight to folk tales told by repressed peoples from Robin Hood, to William Tell, to depression era bank robbers like John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde. The first many folk would have seen of the cult of John Frum would have been a 1960 documentary from Sir David Attenborough called “The People of Paradise”. Attenborough is on the island and asks one of the locals to describe Frum, the local replies…

“E look like you. E got white face. E tall man. E live long in South America”

This week I want to lay out a little of the background of Vanuatu, and why they might need another hero, their own Captain Walker. Next week I’m concentrating on what happened as a result of the cargo cult. So without further ado.

Origins.

As an extremely short history of the archipelago now known as Vanuatu, and for centuries up till their freedom from Western rule in 1980, the new Hebrides, you have to start with the true first discoverers of the islands. The Ni Vanuatu, Melanesian travellers, first arrived at the islands from around 3,300 years ago. This is based on the archaeological evidence built up over time. One has to presume they were happy to be there as all indications are they stayed put, and thrived. In 1606 a Portuguese explorer called Pedro Fernandes de Queiros landed on the archipelago, claiming the chain for his employers at the time, Spain. He did establish a small colony, which did not last for long, then sailed away. The Spanish forgot where the islands were, leaving them free to be claimed by the French, when Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville came across them in 1768. Captain James Cook also jotted down the archipelago in 1774, naming them the New Hebrides – after the Scottish Island chain mentioned earlier in my Tale of history and imagination about the lighthouse keepers of Eilean Mor. For the better part of a century they were, more or less, left to their own devices after these strange, pale faced visitors, however colonialism was coming. One might say theirs was not the worst story compared to other parts of the world, but, being totally honest it was more than bad enough.

The first encroachment came in the mid 19th century when Europeans discovered sandalwood on the island of Erromango. European traders landed large crews of Polynesian workers from other nations to cut down the trees, leading to violent skirmishes between the groups. In 1862 a practice which came to be known as ‘Blackbirding’ came to the island chain. Blackbirding is a name given to the indentured, long term servitude of tribal peoples. This would sometimes come in the form of tricking the locals into signing contracts promising work, with horribly unfair terms and extremely long terms. Sometimes it involved kidnapping locals and forcing them to work. It was slavery, far from home, with a pittance of a wage. In 1862 an Irishman called J.C Byrne was prowling the pacific ocean looking for cheap labour for the plantations of Peru. Unfortunately for Vanuatu in 1862 a blight had killed off much of their supply of coconuts and there was a famine – a large number of locals jumped at the work. After word got out Byrne had easily conned 253 of the islanders to work in Peru many others got in on the racket – between September 1862 and April 1863 over 30 European ships were in the area looking for wage slaves for the plantations. At it’s height some of the islands in Vanuatu had lost over half of their male populations to blackbirding, and to this day it is believed the population has not fully bounced back.
Soon after, with less locals there to defend their lands, white settlers began to arrive on the archipelago, to establish their own plantations – first to plant cotton, then later bananas and coconuts, among other tropical fruits.

This was also around the time God had to show his face; both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries arriving to spread the word, and battle for souls, who prior to the arrivals, and blackbirding, no doubt did not feel they needed their souls saving from anyone. By the 1880s an insidious takeover had well and truly occured. The British were offloading more and more, mostly Australian, settlers. The French were arriving 2 to 1 to the British numbers. Rather than come to blows they made a decision to jointly rule the island chain – first by gentleman’s agreement in the 1880s, then a written joint agreement in 1906, then the Anglo-French protocol of 1914, then finally a formal ratification in 1922. If at this point you are looking at the tale of the people of Vanuatu and thinking that before the arrival of the Europeans they must have been happy there- they hadn’t left. They no -doubt have this groove happening, and these greedy snolligosters, colonists, casuists, and greedy aristocrats have ruined the place, taken their birth right, and relegated their beliefs to the trash can of history- then you are well attuned to my thought processes on this. Do they need another hero? A handsome stranger with a strange accent to swoop in , deus ex-machina, to save them? Too bloody right they do. We will look at this in part two next week.
Don’t forget to share the page round folks. Like, comment. I can see you’re reading and I thank you for the likes and things to my personal page. I’d love to get more bums on seats though, so every share and new like YOU are my John Frum!

Till next week…

This Tale is part one of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.

Originally posted 4th April 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow… except for the Mad Max bit…

1 thought on “John Frum, Part One: The Tell of Captain Walker.

  1. Pingback: John Frum Part Two: He came to them with thunder and lightning… | Tales of History and Imagination

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