“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)
‘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 who 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 the film. It is one of those silly, formative things which has stuck with me forever. This Tale of History and Imagination involves a group who 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 ‘Ni Vanuatu’, the people of Vanuatu gather beside a home-made landing strip. Some are stripped down to just a pair of jeans or cargo pants; the letters ‘USA’ painted on their chests, others are in full military uniform. In the shadow of Mount Yasur – bamboo ‘guns’ in hand – they get into formation and drill before their gods. The sacred hoisting of the flags follows – first the Stars and Stripes, then the US Marine corps insignia, then finally the state flag for the American state of Georgia. Having paid observance for another year they depart, hopeful this year their messiah returns, bringing on a golden age.
Who is their saviour you may ask? Jesus? Muhammad? Siddhartha Gautama?
Their saviour is an American soldier named John Frum. He first appeared during the second world war. The first many folk would have seen of the cult of John Frum would be a 1960 documentary by 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”
The tale of John Frum has fascinated me for years. It is an insight into how a religion can form, the significance of folk heroes, and the need for ‘noble myths’ to bring people together for a greater good. To understand this tale, first we needs must discuss the history of the Ni Vanuatu.
The Melanesian adventurers we now call Ni Vanuatu first came to the islands by boat around 3,300 years ago. Archaeological evidence confirms this approximate timeline. All indications are once arrived they stayed put, and thrived. In 1606 the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros landed on the archipelago, and claimed the chain for his employers, Spain. He established a small, short lived colony, who gave up and decided to sail for home. The Spanish forgot the location of Vanuatu, leaving them free to be claimed by the French admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville in 1768. Captain James Cook came across the archipelago in 1774, naming them the New Hebrides – after the Scottish Island chain the mystery of Eilean Mor was set on. For the better part of the following century they were left to their own devices by these strange, pale visitors, however colonization would wreak havoc on the Ni Vanuatu soon after.
The first encroachment came in the mid 19th century, after Europeans discovered sandalwood on the island of Erromango. European traders landed large crews of Polynesians from other island chains to cut down the trees. This led to violent skirmishes between the groups.
In 1862 a practice known as ‘Blackbirding’ also came to the island chain. Blackbirding was a name given to the indentured, long term servitude of tribal peoples. This sometimes came in the form of conning tribes into signing predatory contracts with horrendously bad terms. Sometimes it involved kidnapping locals and forcing them to work. It was slavery by another name, occasionally with a pittance of a wage which would disappear in the cost of the victim’s keep. The first blackbirder to find them was an Irishman named J.C Byrne, who was on the prowl 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 men jumped voluntarily at the work. Once word got out Byrne had so easily conned 253 Ni Vanuatu to work in Peru, many other ships arrived. Between September 1862 and April 1863 over 30 European ships arrived, looking for wage slaves for South and Central American plantations. At it’s height several Vanuatuan islands had lost over half their male populations to blackbirding. To this day their population numbers have not fully bounced back.
Soon after, with less locals to defend the islands, white settlers settled on the archipelago. They established their own plantations – first to plant cotton, then later bananas, coconuts, and other tropical fruit.
This was also around the time God arrived. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries arriving to spread the gospel. By the 1880s an insidious takeover had well and truly occured. The British were offloading more and more, mostly Australian, settlers. The French, reminded he who the spiky bougainvillea is named after found the archipelago earlier, were now arriving 2 to 1 to every British settler. Rather than come to blows, Britain and France decided 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. The Ni Vanuatu were suddenly overrun, told what to think, where they can and cannot go. Only marginally less slaves than the men Blackbirded away decades earlier. Did they need another hero? A handsome stranger with an odd accent to descend, deus ex-machina, to save them? Too bloody right they did. We will look at this in part two next week.
[Edit: for reposting purposes I rewrote this post as a one parter. Simone]
Part Two: He came to them with thunder and lightning…
“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 sketched out for colonization encroached upon the lives of the Ni Vanuatu. Leaving the Mad Max metaphor behind I would like to propose that, blinded by science, they would find their own Captain Walker, but the heroic struggle to break the manacles of oppression was all on them. I would also invite you all to re-read the quotes directly above; the first generally referred to as Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law, the latter from a conversation in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where Mr Kurtz’s Russian acolyte explains to Marlow how Kurtz took over the tribe – fairly accurately portraying the tactics of the likes of Leon Rom – who Kurtz is believed to be based on. No doubt the British and French came with requisite thunder and lightning – though in the Ni Vanuatu’s case, thunder and lightning would also be their salvation.
Think for a second on the conquistador Hernan Cortes, conquerer of Montezuma’s Aztecs. He used modern weapons to convinc the Aztecs he was their god Quetzacoatl. Captain James Cook and the crew of the Endeavor were mistaken for the ghost of the ancestors by the Australian Aborigines when he arrived 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 in 585BC; where the philosopher Thales of Miletus, had calculated an eclipse, and managed to convince the warring Medes and Lydians the event signified the gods were displeased with the war. When the world went dark, fighting stopped and a truce was signed.
Back to Vanuatu, we pick up the tale in the late 1930s. With a world on the verge of war, the USA decided it may need a military presence looking after their Pacific interests. They sent soldiers to Tanna Island, Vanuatu – brandishing technology sufficiently advanced that to the people of Vanuatu, it did seem like magic. Unlike plantation owners or missionaries these new people, with their magical wonders, never worked … at least not in a way understood by the people of Tanna as work. When something broke for the plantation owner, it had to be fixed. When something broke for the soldiers, new things just appeared; dropped out of the sky by giant iron birds. The Americans prayed to the magic box with the poles, and long wires. The magic box, with it’s glowing lights, spoke back to them in strange voices. Record players seemed magic. Cameras seemed so. Their food was magic, as they never needed to harvest it.
The Ni Vanuatu saw the radio masts as a totem to their gods. They saw their uniforms, and marching, and drills as rituals to please their gods. Their radio operators were the priests. And the cargo, dropped by magical giant birds, was manna from heaven. The Ni Vanuatu began to ask if they were to imitate these rituals, would the gods be so kind to them too?
Around 1940 a legend began to spread of the messianic American soldier. The first recorded ‘sightings’ of John Frum occur. Some of the villagers tell tales of a white visitor appearing to them, stating he used to be called Manehivi, before he was blackbirded to South America. Now he had come back with a new look, and name, to save them. Follow me and you will have more cargo than you know what to do with. To others he claims to be a manifestation of their old, abandoned god, Keraperamun; returned to take the island back, and usher in a golden age. To all Frum promises a better, happier future.
In 1941 the villagers of Tanna act. Frum has spoken, telling them to quit the schools and churches. Down tools and walk away from the plantations. Rid themselves of the white man’s money, and go back to their old ways. He was coming to save them – so they did. The missionaries and plantation owners went to the colonial administrators to kick up a fuss. The colonial office sent some soldiers in to force the people back to the fields, churches and classrooms. They found them inland; feasting, dancing, and practicing the old rituals as they best remembered them. They refused to leave. The officers did arrest the ringleaders, and exiled them to another island in the archipelago, but this had no effect on the Ni Vanuatu of Tanna. The people of Tanna had turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Over time some equalibrium would return; some would pick up some work in the plantations, but they would never be beholden to the colonizers and their ways 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 one would land – carrying John Frum – laden with cargo. In 1957, under the command of a priest called Nakomaha, they formed the ‘Tanna Army’, to march and drill in uniform,- hoping this would bring John Frum home. In the 1970’s, as legal independance beckoned; members of the religion of John Frum worried an independant Vanuatu would be a Christian Vanuatu. They formed a political party to safeguard their interests. In 2011 they had their first female leader of the religion of Frum; a Vietnamese born lady named Thi Tam Goiset. For a short time Ms Goiset was Vanuatu’s ambassador to Russia, though her appointment would end in scandal in 2013.
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. Their messiah shall come again.
Originally posted 17th and 24th April 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Reedited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow