“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indestinguishable from magic”
Arthur C Clarke – Hazards of Prophecy: The failure of imagination.
“He came to them with thunder and lightning, you know- and they had never seen anything like it”
Joseph Conrad- Heart of Darkness.
Hey everyone welcome back to part two of the legend of John Frum. In part one I attempted to sketch out how ‘civilisation’ had encroached upon the lives of the Islanders of Vanuatu, in the form of colonialism. Blackbirders co-opted their men into lowly paid work overseas. Plantation owners arrived, stole their land, and created lowly paying work on the islands. Missionaries arrived and invalidated their long held practices in favour of either a protestant or a catholic version of Christianity. Leaving the Mad Max metaphor behind I would like to propose that, blinded by science and sick of the bullshit of the British and French, they found their Max Rockatansky, their own Mad Max, but it was all down to them that they shook off their manacles. It is, however, worthwhile stopping and thinking a while on the above quotes, the first generally referred to as Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law, the latter from a conversation in Heart of Darkness where Mr Kurtz’s Russian acolyte explains to Marlow how Kurtz had taken over the tribe – probably not too far off the truth with thuggish real life Congolese agents like Leon Rom, the archetype of Kurtz.
Think for a second on the conquistador Hernan Cortes, conquerer of Montezuma’s Aztecs, whose modern technologies convinced the Aztecs he was their god Quetzacoatl. He used this to his advantage when savaging the Aztecs. Captain James Cook was mistaken for the ghosts of their ancestors by the Australian Aborigines when he arrived on the Endeavor on his first voyage. On his final voyage, this time on the Resolution, he was thought a god by the people of Hawaii. Unfortunately for Cook gods, like mortals, can outwear their welcome and he was stabbed to death and dismembered.
My favourite example from history, where an advanced person used technology to seem magical is from 585BC, where the philosopher Thales of Miletus, having calculated an upcoming eclipse, managed to convince the warring Medes and Lydians the eclipse was an omen from the gods that they must cease warring immediately. When the world went dark, everyone stopped fighting and signed a truce.
Back to Vanuatu we pick up the tale in the late 1930s. With a world on the verge of war, and a, then neutral USA looking out for its interests in the pacific all the same, some new people arrived on Vanuatu – American soldiers bringing technology sufficiently advanced to the people of Vanuatu for it to seem like magic. Unlike the plantation owners or missionaries these new people, with their cargo full of wonders, never seemed to work… at least not in a way understandable to the people of Tanna as being work. When something broke for the plantation owner, they had to fix it. When something broke for the soldiers, new things just appeared, dropped off by giant iron birds. The Americans went to their magic box with the poles, and long wires and asked their gods for a replacement. The magic box, with it’s glowing lights, talked back to them in strange voices. Record players semed magic. Cameras seemed so. their food seemed magic, as they never had to harvest it.
The islanders observed their radio masts and saw some totem to the gods. They saw their uniforms, and marching, and drills as rituals to please their gods. Their radio operators were like priests. And the cargo, dropped from magical giant birds (planes), was manna from heaven. The islanders began to ask how they were to imitate these rituals, and if they did, would manna fall from the heavens for them too?
Around 1940 legands began to form around the magic Americans, and the first recorded instances of John Frum appears. Some of the villagers begin to tell tales of a white visitor appearing to them, telling them he is one of the former blackbirds, a local called Manehivi, who has taken on this new look, and name. He promises some of them cargo if they follow him. To others he claims he was a manifestation of their old, abandoned god, Keraperamun, here to give them the island back, and bring forth a golden age. To all he promised a better, less miserable future.
In 1941 the villagers of Tanna finally act. Frum has spoken and told them if they quit the schools and churches, down tools and walk away from the plantations, rid themselves of all their old money in a giant spending spree, and go back to their old ways he would return and bring forth a golden age – so they did. When the missionaries and plantation owners realized, they went to the colonial administrators to kick up a fuss. The colonial office sent out some officers to force the islanders back. They found them inland, feasting, dancing, and practicing their old rituals as they best remembered them. They were refusing to go back to the way things were. The office did arrest the ringleaders, and having nothing else they could do, exiled them to another island in the archipelago, but things were too far gone. The people of Tanna had turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Over time some equalibrium would return, but they would never be beholden to the colonizers in quite the same way again.
After World War Two the Americans left. The villagers took over what was left of the base, and rebuilt the runway. Often they would try to flag passing planes down, in the hope they would land, carrying John Frum and laden with cargo. In 1957, under the command of one Nakomaha, they would form the ‘Tanna Army’, who regularly marched and drilled in uniform, in the hope of winning back the favour of John Frum. In the 1970’s, as independance from the colonizers beckoned, members of the religion of John Frum worried that an independant Vanuatu would be a Christian Vanuatu, so they formed a political party to make their interests heard. In 2011 they had their first female leader of their religion, a Vietnamese born lady called Thitam Goiset. for a short time Ms Goiset was Vanuatu’s ambassador to Russia.
To this day the people of Tanna believe their messiah, the American soldier John Frum, will return, He has not forgotten them. Every February 15th they march, raise the flag, and wait.
See you all next week guys. Please share, like comment.
This Tale is part two of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.
Originally posted 17th April 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow