The Messiah Shall Deliver Ice-Cold Coke: Cargo Cults in Vanuatu

Atlas Obscura
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Jan. 22 2014 9:44 AM

Holy Materialism: The Cargo Cults of Tanna

cargocults
Tanna tribesmen with photos of Prince Philip.

Photo:Christopher Hogue Thompson

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On Tanna, a small island in the southern part of the Vanuatu archipelago, devoted believers await the second coming of an American deity who will bring divine gifts in the form of TVs, refrigerators, and Coca-Cola. They are members of a cargo cult: an anthropological label for a tribal society that engages in religious practices designed to bring them goods — or "cargo" — from more technologically advanced cultures.

Cargo cults rose to prominence during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of American and Japanese soldiers flooded into the islands of the Pacific region, bringing items that reflected material wealth and industrialization. Seeing mass-produced goods such as candy and radios — and having no concept of manufacturing processes — some island residents believed the goods were divinely created.

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When the war ended and the soldiers went home, the cargo disappeared. Cult members believed that goods were being dispatched to them, but being intercepted by Westerners. They responded to the by setting up mock airstrips, airports, and offices, hoping to attract the cargo deliveries they assumed had been diverted to Western places.

Most of the cargo cults disappeared during the post-war decades, but the John Frum Movement lives on in Tanna. Cult members worship Frum, a messiah with changeable characteristics. To some, he is white. To others, black. For most, he is American, likely based on a soldier who brought cargo to the Vanuatu during World War II — "John from America."

Though Frum's appearance varies, his mission is consistent: to shake off the restrictions of colonial rule and restore the independence and cultural freedom of the Tanna people. Cult followers believe Frum will return on February 15 — an annual holiday known as "John Frum Day" — of an unspecified year, bearing food, household appliances, vehicles, and medicine.

Celebrations on John Frum Day have a distinctly American feel. Men in jeans with "USA" painted in red on their bare chests perform military drills, holding sticks of wood shaped like rifles. Above them, the American flag flies high from a bamboo pole.

The John Frum Movement coexists with other cargo cults in Tanna: the "Tom Navy" movement, which holds a US Naval officer as its figurehead, and the Prince Philip Movement, which regards the Duke of Edinburgh as a pale-skinned mountain spirit and eagerly awaits his messianic arrival.

cargo
American and Swiss flags reflect the presence of US soldiers and the Red Cross in Vanuatu during World War II.

Photo: Charmaine Tham

tanna
A home in Tanna.

Photo: Phillip Capper


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