JOHN FRUM MOVEMENT TIMELINE
1940 (November): British District Agent James Nicol conducted inquiry into theft of goats to feed people gathered at Green Point (southwest Tanna) who were meeting and dancing for John Frum. This was the first administrative record of John Frum’s name.
1941 (May 11): Only a few Presbyterian Mission converts attended Sunday services; many Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists also boycotted their churches.
1941 (June 1): Police reinforcements from Port Vila arrest suspect John Frum leaders including Jack Kahu, Karua, and Manehevi, among others.
1941 (July): John Frum’s spiritual sons (Isaac Wan, Jacob, and Last Wan) appeared to Ipikel village children (on Sulphur Bay).
1941-1956: Condominium authorities continued to arrest, exile from Tanna, and/or jail John Frum leaders; Colonial authorities changed course in 1956 to no longer treat the movement as subversive.
1942 (March): American forces landed at Port Vila and established military outposts around Efate Island, including a major airport. Many Tannese, including John Frum supporters, joined the U.S. military native labor corps.
1943 (October): New Hebrides Defense Force members accompanied by U.S. military officers arrived on Tanna to arrest Green Hill John Frum leader Neloiag and dozens of his followers who were clearing an airfield.
1944 (December): James Nicol died in an automobile accident; John Frum supporters were unsurprised.1957 (January): Movement leaders Nakomaha and Thomas Nampas were released from confinement and returned home to Sulphur Bay.
1957 (February 15): Nakomaha and Nampas raised “American flags” (apparently red warning flags scavenged from fuel dumps during the War) to celebrate John Frum’s success. February 15 became the Movement’s annual holiday during which supporters raise actual American flags.
1970s: John Frum supporters engaged in political action, mostly in support of the “Moderate” (French-supported) parties as the New Hebrides moved towards independence in 1980.1998: Song Keasipai of the John Frum Party was elected to the National Parliament.
2000: (Prophet) Fred Nase established the Unity Movement, attracting both Christian and John Frum followers. The organization headquartered at Sulphur Bay split into three factions: Fred Nase’s, Isaac Wan’s (who moved nearby to Lamakara Village), and remnant members who remained in Ipikel village.
2000s: Sulphur Bay (and Friday night John Frum dances) continued to attract attention from international tourists, whose numbers have much increased.
The colonialization of the Pacific Islands, as elsewhere, sparked numerous resistance movements. Tanna Island’s John Frum Movement in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu today), which arose in the late 1930s, is one of the most notable and successful of these movements. It endures today institutionalized as a church and a political party. John Frum, at least today, is a spirit who appears to his followers, often in their dreams, to teach them how to live properly and, sometimes, to predict future events. Spiritual encounters on the island remain common as ancestors appear to their descendants, or as people bump into nonhuman spirits who inhabit sacred places and other island apparitions. Since the 1930s, the John Frum Movement has become one of Tanna’s most powerful religious and political organizations.
Islanders argue that John Frum himself founded his movement. Multiple stories circulate about his advent in the late 1930s. Some claim that he was human, spoke local languages in a high voice, and wore European-style clothing. Pilgrims who met him where he first appeared at Green Point (in 1940 and probably earlier) claim to have shaken his hand. Others insist that he always was a spirit, or has since resumed spiritual form. Colonial authorities at the time, however, presumed that deceitful tricksters dressed the part to fool their neighbors, perhaps as a strategy to attract girlfriends. District Agent Nicol and his successors continued to arrest, exile from Tanna, and jail suspect leaders up through 1956. The U.S. military during World War II investigated whether John Frum might be a Japanese spy come to Tanna to foment trouble (Guiart 1956).
Word of John Frum spread rapidly around Tanna, although colonial agent Nicol did not note his appearance until November 1940. Green Point leaders dispatched messengers (or “ropes”) along the island’s roads to spread the message, and people from all corners descended in pilgrimage to meet John. They cleared a large dance ground at Iamwatakarek village and built a round house in which John rested (or hid). His new acolytes lined up at night to shake his hand and feel his flesh. Sometimes, though, when one reached out, he faded away.
The name “John Frum” (sometimes Jon Frum, or John Frumm) has remained mysterious. The figure identified himself as such, and subsequent commentators have proposed several possible origins of the name. Perhaps originally this was John “Broom,” a being who would sweep British and French authority from Tanna. Or, might it be John “From America”? Urumun, in the language spoken around Green Point, means “spirit medium” and perhaps there is a semantic connection to Frum.
John Frum activity shifted in 1941 from isolated Green Point villages on Tanna’s southwest coast to Ipikel village on Sulphur Bay, when three spirit “sons” of John Frum appeared to several children (Guiart 1956:151-221). Much to the chagrin of Green Point people, young ambitious village men (including Nakomaha, Nampas, and Joshua) soon claimed best connections with John Frum. Sulphur Bay has since been the Movement’s main “headquarters,” although competing John Frum factions continue to operate. Most Islanders in the 1940s supported the movement, abandoning Christian mission affiliations. On May 11, 1941, only a handful of 3,000-some converts attended Sunday services. The missions, however, gradually rebuilt their congregations and, by the 1950s, Tanna’s population was divided into John Frum supporters, recovered Christians, and families claiming to adhere to traditional relations with ancestral and other spirits.
The U.S. military occupied the New Hebrides from March 1942 through mid-1946, and most island men and youth joined Native Labor Corps, transported to work on Efate Island installations (Lindstrom 1989). John Frum spokesmen, it seems, had predicted future American assistance in 1941, and Islanders thus expected this occupation (Rice 1974:176). Movement leaders subsequently borrowed various military elements and practices, incorporating these into John Frum ideology and liturgy. These included shrines decorated with red painted soldiers, airplanes, crosses (from military ambulances), and symbolic dog tags, as well as American flags, military uniforms, radio antennae, and drill teams that march with rifles made of lengths of bamboos. [Image at right] Team members paint USA on their bare chests. In addition to the annual February 15 celebration, Sulphur Bay leaders also declared Friday to be John Frum’s sabbath. Every Friday “teams” of supporters from villages across Tanna have walked down to the Bay to sing John Frum hymns and to dance through the night, although Friday sabbath participation declined, in 2000, when the Sulphur Bay organization split into three factions.
As the New Hebrides moved towards independent Vanuatu in 1980, political competition increased across the archipelago, including on Tanna. In these years, conflict over Iasur volcano—located just east of Sulphur Bay—also intensified as island factions fought over money that growing numbers of tourists paid to climb up to the caldera’s rim. The French cultivated John Frum Movement supporters, most of whom voted in bloc for French-supported parties. Sulphur Bay leaders organized their own John Frum party that ran candidates in national elections. Supporters elected a John Frum member of Parliament in 1998 and have elected several more since. John Frum followers in 1980 joined secessionist efforts to detach Tanna from newly independent Vanuatu, a rebellion that government forces quashed (Bonnemaison 1994:276-301).
The Movement remained Tanna’s most effective political organization until 2000. Fred Nase, who had worked for some years on Korean fishing vessels, returned home and began to prophesy (Tabani 2008:179-210). Nase’s main spiritual contact was the morning star. He urged people of all religious affiliations to come together in a Unity Movement. The millennial year had made many people nervous. Among the Prophet Fred’s many predictions was that Lake Siui at the foot of the Volcano would vanish. A few months later, during a massive rainstorm, the lake overflowed the volcanic ash that for centuries had served to dam it and it drained away into the Pacific. People were most impressed. Fred attracted many Christian John Frum supporters who followed him to build New Jerusalem, a new village on the ridge east of the volcano. Christian pastors and John Frum prophets, chagrined at the loss of their flocks, petitioned for government help and the state militia torched New Jerusalem in 2003. Fred retreated to a new stronghold at Port Resolution where he focused on curing people who texted their photographs to his mobile telephone and where, some years later, he died. The rump John Frum Movement at Sulphur in 2000 also split, with third-generation leader Isaac Wan moving his followers to a new village, Lamakara, located just to the south (Tabani 2008:223). Other followers remained in Sulphur Bay, faithful to rival movement leaders.
Despite these internal disputes, the movement has remained active as an island church and a political party. Since 2000, increasing numbers of tourists visit Tanna, most to experience Iasur volcano, a stromboli-type cinder cone that shoots ash and lava bombs into the sky every five or ten minutes or so (Lindstrom 2015). The organization at Sulphur Bay has attracted touristic interest since the 1950s (visitors arriving by yacht and today principally by air). Many continue to visit Ipikel, particularly on Fridays, and they provide a useful revenue stream to people living there, and elsewhere.
Published John Frum reports by administrators and missionaries first appeared in 1949 (O’Reilly 1949; Rentoul 1949). John Frum appeared soon after anthropologists, journalists, and others, had borrowed the term “cargo cult” to label Pacific social movements, no matter their particular differences in organization and goals (Lindstrom 1993). Cargo cults, supposedly, were movements of people who either revived traditional ritual practices, or devised innovative ones, to induce their ancestors, the U.S. military, or other powerful forces to enrich them with Western-produced material goods and money and (in some cases) to free them from irksome colonial domination. Many commentators carelessly classified the John Frum Movement as yet another Melanesian cargo cult, although anthropologist Jean Guiart, who was first to intensively study the Movement (1956), rejected that term preferring instead to label John Frum a “neo-pagan” movement (see Gregory and Gregory 1984).
Cargo cult stories entertained Western audiences as they continue to do so today. Accounts of deluded Pacific Islanders who covet our possessions and technology suggest why we, too, should love our things. Many John Frum supporters had joined native labor corps during the Pacific War and observed and often enjoyed military materiel, and they indeed missed access to these goods when the war ended. John Frum did promise to provide his followers with a new currency, but this was to ensure the departure of European traders, missionaries, and administrators from Tanna. When he first appeared at Green Point, John Frum prophesized that: 1) Tanna would flatten and connect with neighboring Aneityum and Erromango Islands; 2) everyone would become youthful and illness would disappear; 3) no one need work any longer as he would provide new money; 4) European missionaries, traders, and administrators along with people from other islands would leave Tanna; and 5) people must discard their colonial currency, and revive island kastom(kava consumption, dance ceremony, and polygamy) (O’Reilly 1949:194-95).
Outside observers often preferred, however, to focus on the movement’s cargoistic elements, John Frum’s material promises, although his supporters were more interested in a future without illness, death, and meddlesome outsiders, and in reviving traditional practices that Christian missionaries had suppressed. David Attenborough, an early visitor, landed on the island in 1959 in search of a “mysterious cargo cult.” He arrived with a film crew in tow. The BBC in 1960 broadcast “Cargo Cult” as an episode in Attenborough’s The People of Paradise television series, which featured also in an accompanying book (Attenborough 1960). Attenborough interviewed John Frum leader Nampas, pressing him to divulge what particular cargo people craved. Might it be refrigerators? Trucks? Airplanes? Nampas, looking perplexed, deflected Attenborough’s demands.
John Frum supporters (as did those involved in movements elsewhere in Melanesia) soon realized “cargo cult’s” negative implications. They deny that they were cargo cultists (Tabani 2014:57). By the 1970s, leaders and followers instead argued that John Frum had arrived to ensure economic and political development, echoing colonial administrators who also then preached the necessity of improving political and economic structures. By the 1980s, and still today, followers argued that John Frum appeared to save kastom (traditional island practices of kava-drinking, dance, marital exchange, and respect for ancestral spirits) that Presbyterian and other Christian missionaries had suppressed since 1910, or so. Their claim is probably correct as the movement encouraged one-time Christians to return to their own lands (many had moved to coastal mission villages), again to plant and drink kava, to celebrate family events with exchanges of kava and pigs and all-night dances, and otherwise to revalue island culture. This positive revaluation of kastom occurred within the pre-independence period when political leaders expressly celebrated island traditions as an important foundation for future national unity.
John Frum supporters expected an eventual social change that would improve island lives. Wartime experience cemented America as the transformative power (and a useful anti-colonial foil). Islanders and Americans were brothers, now better connected thanks to John Frum. American planes, ships, submarines might one day return to the islands, or perhaps American soldiers were hidden inside the volcano. Movement Americophilia persisted until the end of the twentieth century when better links to global communication systems, and American attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan tarnished the USA’s reputation.
Some eighty years beyond John Frum’s advent, most supporters don’t actively expect cargo planes to land, or ships to arrive. Rather, they celebrate John Frum’s accurate prophesies of Tanna’s ongoing transformation from colonial outpost to a vibrant island whose culture and landscape today attract increasing numbers of international tourists. Most recovered Christians likewise admit John Frum’s significant role in retrieving and preserving island kastom.
John Frum’s prophets and early leaders borrowed ritual and liturgy from Christian, American military, and customary sources. The principal John Frum ceremony (at Ipikel and now also Lamakara villages) occurs on Friday afternoons as people gather to receive John Frum prophesies. Men prepare and consume kava together, and John Frum “teams” sing and dance until dawn. Important ceremony also takes place every February 15, including flag raisings, prayers, drill team marching, and speechifying. Over the years, movement mediums have also developed techniques to request John Frum’s assistance in curing illnesses, locating lost objects, and smiting political rivals.
Christian ritual provided an initial template for John Frum ceremony. Sulphur Bay leaders invented group prayers in front of red crosses, supplicants offering flowers to John and other spirits. [Image at right] They borrowed a religious holiday structure with Friday as John’s sabbath day, and February 15 a Christmas-like annual c]elebration. Various John Frum “church” houses have come and gone through the years. Songsmiths, inspired by John Frum, have composed hundreds of movement hymns in a style related to Vanuatu’s “string band” genre. Supporters from Sulphur Bay’s various “teams” gather each Friday to sing John Frum hymns and dance until Saturday morning.
John Frum ceremony also borrowed U.S. military objects and practices. Annual celebration on February 15 notably has included drill teams comprised of men and boys who carry bamboo rifles, with USA marked in red on their bare chests. Movement leaders have paraded in whatever military uniforms they might have to hand. [Image at right] And, at least until recently, supporters have raised American and other flags up village flagpoles. These weekly Friday and February 15 celebrations have attracted considerable numbers of visitors and tourists.
The main John Frum organization (at Ipikel and now also Lamakara villages) is led today by fourth-generation leaders. John Frum is one of a handful of Melanesian social movements that managed to institutionalize itself, as church and political party, and so has survived for several generations, in John Frum’s case for more than eighty years.
Notably men since 1940 have served as principal John Frum prophets who best control access to his spirit, although authority on Tanna is typically diffuse, depending on context and particular issues in question. When Sulphur Bay lured John Frum away from the original Green Point prophets in 1941, leadership then devolved to Nakomaha, Nampas, and several others, with Nakomaha and Nampas attracting most external attention. Both were elderly by the 1970s when Mwelis, Poita, and Joshua took charge. As these passed away, Isaac Wan emerged as the principal John Frum prophet, until challenged by the Prophet Fred in the late 1990s. Isaac Wan died on November 7, 2021 and has been succeeded by his sons.
Sulphur Bay over the years claimed to have “twenty-six teams” of supporters scattered across the island, and each team has recognized various older men as its spokesmen and local John Frum leader. Island men, who have monopolized contact with all island spirits, also have dominated John Frum dealings. For several decades, however, Lispet (Elizabeth), one of Nampas’ daughters at Sulphur Bay, maintained her own channels to John Frum. She would contact him to cure the illnesses, or solve the problems, of people who provided her with flowers and a bit of money. She also was able to speak a spirit language that only John understood. Her popularity much annoyed John Frum’s male prophets.
Image #1: John Frum supporters raise an American flag, February 15 1979 (Photo by Lamont Lindstrom).
Image #2: John Frum followers with flowers pray in front of red cross, February 15, 1979 (Photo by Lamont Lindstrom).
Image #3: John Frum leaders parade, February 15, 1979 (Photo by Lamont Lindstrom).
Attenborough, David. 1960. People of Paradise. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Bonnemaison, Joël. 1994. The Tree and the Canoe: History and Ethnogeography of Tanna. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Gregory, Robert J. and Janet E. Gregory. 1984. “John Frum: An indigenous strategy of reaction to mission rule and colonial order.” Pacific Studies 7:68-90.
Guiart, Jean. 1956. Un siècle et demi de contacts culturels à Tanna (Nouvelles-Hébrides). Publications de la Société des Océanistes no. 5. Paris: Musée de l’Homme.
Lindstrom, Lamont. 2015. “Cultural Heritage, Politics and Tourism on Tanna, Vanuatu.” Pp. 180-199 in Pacific Alternatives: Cultural Politics in Contemporary Oceania, edited by. Oxford: Sean Kingston.
Lindstrom, Lamont. 1993. Cargo Cult: Strange Stories of Desire from Melanesia and Beyond. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Lindstrom, Lamont. 1989. “Working Encounters: Oral Histories of World War II Labor Corps from Tanna, Vanuatu.” Pp. 395-417 in The Pacific Theater: Island Recollections of World War II, edited by Geoffrey White and Lamont Lindstrom. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.
O’Reilly, Patrick, 1949. “Prophetisme aux Nouvelles-Hébrides: Le Mouvement Jonfrum à Tanna,” Le Monde Non Chrétien 10:192-208.
Rentoul, Alexander. 1949. “John Frum”: Origin of New Hebrides Movement (letter to the editor), Pacific Islands Monthly 19:31.
Rice, Edward. 1974. John Frum He Come: Cargo Cults and Cargo Messiahs in the South Pacific. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company.
Tabani, Marc. 2022. “Clés pour l’ethnologie de Tanna (Vanuatu) au travers des pérégrinations ethnographiques de Jean Guiart.” Journal de la Société des Océanistes 154:47-61.
Tabani, Marc. 2014. John Frum: Histoires de Tanna, Sam Stori blong Tanna. Port Vila: Vanuatu Cultural Centre.
Tabani, Marc. 2008. Une pirogue pour le paradis. Le culte de John Frum à Tanna (Vanuatu). Paris, Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.
1 August 2022