In the Pacific, there is a small unassuming island called Tanna. Like many natives scattered across these islands, the Tannese people have a history of Western colonisation and their culture is a mix of both tribal and modern influence. However, the spiritual beliefs of the Tannese are a little different – they await the return of their white-American saviour, John Frum, who it is said will bless them with gifts of technology, medicine, and military power. This belief may appear primal at first, but what I will argue is that the curious religious beliefs of the Tannese are not so different from our own.
The Legend of John Frum
The story of Tanna for the past 250 years has been one of religious and cultural repression on behalf of the Western world – particularly British colonists. The island was formally discovered by James Cook in 1774 and Christian missionaries quickly moved in to claim the land and the souls of its people. Centuries before the arrival of the legendary John Frum, the Tannese had experienced a plethora of unwelcome attention from white men. So what made John Frum different from his predecessors?
Local legend has it that the man who would come to be known as John Frum visited village elders late one night in the 1930’s. His white skin, tall stature, and military uniform made him clearly stand out among the natives, but it is what he said – not what he did – that brought attention from the locals.
John Frum encouraged the Tannese to resist the oppression of the settlers and return to their true, tribal ways. Most strangely of all, it is believed that John Frum spoke to the men and women in their own language; a rare dialect, nearly impossible to learn at that time for a Western civilian. John Frum instructed that should the natives place their trust and loyalty in him, then he would return with an army, gifts, medicine, technology, and clothing.
As this legend gained prevalence across the island, local colonial authorities actively quelled the cult with dire consequences. However, the Tannese persisted in their faith to John Frum and with the breakout of the Second World War, their loyalty was rewarded.
Islands like Tanna were utilised by Allied Forces during the early 1940’s in the war effort against the Japanese Empire. Soon, huge influxes of American military men were frequenting Tanna, arriving in their mysterious planes and bringing with them modern medicine, technology, clothing, and food. This, for the natives, was the promises of John Frum fulfilled. Unlike the previous British settlers, the Americans were mostly kind, and often gave gifts of thanks to the Tannese for their prowess as guides and hosts.
With the conclusion of the War, American forces returned to the mainland. However, they left behind much of their technology and modern luxuries which quickly became tokens of worship for the Tannese. Strong militaristic and patriotic themes persisted over the following decades. The people of Tanna would complete military rituals in an attempt to emulate their heroes and their god, John Frum. These rituals would be done with the hope that John Frum would see them in his plane high above and return with gifts from the modern world.
‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ – Arthur C Clarke.
Today, the legend of John Frum continues on Tanna. Who exactly this man was is a point of contention. Unfortunately, the name ‘John’ was one of the most common male names in Britain and America throughout the 20th century but at least this name is believable. The last name ‘Frum’, however, was believed to be the result of misinterpretation on behalf of the natives. Instead, the mysterious John meant to say that he was John ‘from’ America. The Tannese thought this to be his actual name.
Tanna has developed their entire spirituality on a man that may or may not have ever existed who did things that may or may not have ever happened. Sound familiar? It is generally believed that 2,000 years ago, a man named Jesus of Nazareth travelled throughout the Middle East, spreading promises of a better life to his followers. Like John Frum, Jesus Christ ascended into the sky, never to be seen again. However, his ‘second coming’ is promised. So too, is John Frum’s
The similarities between modern Abrahamic faith and this island cult do not end there. Many white men of militaristic inclination have visited Tanna since the 1930’s. So why are these John Frum lookalikes not the second coming of John Frum? The Tannese believe that these white men and women are merely profits of John Frum, proof of his second coming. Is this not what the Catholic Church considers to be a saint – especially good men and women who embody the teachings of Christ, thus promising his second coming?
Tribal elders still have in their possession a small medallion, no larger than a coin that they believe John Frum left behind. This to them is their holiest of relics – a Holy Grail of sorts if you will. This medallion, like the legend of John Frum, represents good health, happiness, and prosperity, as well as the promise of a better life. Sounds eerily familiar to me.
This small insight into the seemingly strange beliefs of the Tannese people is more than just an oddity. It’s an opportunity for us all to reconsider and re-investigate our own belief systems. The Tannese worship the model of the aeroplane as it is the very vehicle that delivers to them their gods and their goods from the great blue beyond. If Christians or Muslims knew there was a physical craft that carried us into heaven or an afterworld, surely they would praise and attempt to imitate that vehicle. For what science or rationale cannot comprehend, all humans will attempt to explain as an occurrence or magical or divine origins. The legend of John Frum, as well as our own modern spiritual interpretations, are clear evidence that these phenomena transcend time and cultures.