On the South Pacific island of Tanna, beneath a volcano that rumbles and smokes, a guy wearing a fake U.S. Army uniform raises an American flag. Then 40 barefoot men march past, carrying fake rifles made of bamboo, their brown chests decorated with red paint spelling out “USA.”
Later, a group of men slinging fake chainsaws sing a homemade hymn: “We’ve come from America to cut down all the trees so we can build factories.”
This isn’t a protest or a piece of performance art. It’s a religious ceremony held every year on Feb. 15 — John Frum Day, the high holy day of a South Pacific religion that worships a messiah who is, as Paul Raffaele writes in a wonderfully weird story in the February issue of Smithsonian, “an American god no sober man has ever seen.”
Raffaele traveled to the nation of Vanuatu — formerly known as New Hebrides — to check out the John Frum religion, one of the last of the famous “cargo cults” that sprang up in the South Pacific in World War II. He tells a story so bizarre that it reads like a Kurt Vonnegut novel.
For centuries, the natives on these isolated islands were farmers and fishermen who created a culture based on polygamy, ritual dancing and the drinking of kava, a powerfully intoxicating beverage made from the roots of a plant. Around 1900, Raffaele writes, Christian missionaries, mostly Scottish Presbyterians, banned polygamy, dancing and kava drinking, which made life on the islands a lot less fun.
One night in the late 1930s, a group of dissatisfied native men gathered in secret and drank large quantities of kava, hoping to receive a message from the spirit world. And they did: An ethereal white-clad white man named John Frum appeared to them, urging that they throw away their money, stop attending Christian churches and return to their ancient ways.
Inspired by this vision, the men threw their money into the sea and held huge feasts to honor John Frum and recruit converts. The colonial authorities were alarmed, and sent the cult’s leaders to prison in 1941, but still the Frum religion spread.
Lo and behold, a year later, legions of men dressed in white appeared in the islands. They belonged to the U.S. Navy. They came aboard giant ships and inside huge metal birds and brought wonderful things, including chocolate, cigarettes and Coca-Cola. Many islanders concluded that their prayers to John Frum had been answered.
A few years later, World War II ended and the Americans went home. Since then, John Frum devotees have been drinking kava and praying for Frum to come back and bring more of his wonderful American cargo.
Raffaele arrived in Tanna last February and within hours he was out in the jungle, drinking kava with some Frum worshippers. The stuff tasted “like muddy water,” he writes, but it got him very stoned. After his third coconut shell full of kava, his guide carted him back to Raffaele’s beach hut.
“By the seaside at my hut,” Raffaele writes, “I dance unsteadily to the rhythm of the waves as I try to pluck the shimmering moon from the sky and kiss it.”
The next day, Raffaele met a holy man named Chief Isaac, who took him to Yasur, the volcano in which John Frum is said to live when he’s not back home in America. Chief Isaac invited Raffaele into the cult’s headquarters and showed him the church relics — an American flag, a carved American eagle and some imitation U.S. Navy uniforms. The chief was very friendly until Raffaele mentioned another Frum priest named Prophet Fred.
“He’s a devil,” Chief Isaac snarled.
It turns out that Prophet Fred heads an apostate John Frum group that split from Chief Isaac’s church. The two Frum sects have been known to fight pitched battles, just like Catholics and Protestants and Sunnis and Shiites. Ain’t religion grand?
Raffaele asked the chief what kind of cargo he hopes John Frum will bring to Tanna if he returns.
“A 25-horsepower outboard motor for the village boat,” the chief replied. “Then we can catch much fish . . .”
Hey, chief, let’s make a deal: I’ll trade you an outboard motor for a big barrel of kava. Man, I haven’t kissed the moon since I was back in college.
“John promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago and none has come,” Raffaele said to Chief Isaac. “Why do you still believe in him?”
Chief Isaac smiled and uttered an irrefutable answer: “You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth,” he said, “and you haven’t given up hope.”
Jan. 31, 2006
Peter Carlson, Washington Post Staff Writer