The small island of Tanna, part of Vanuatu
, is home to one of the world's most interesting religions. Since the 1930's the people
of Tanna have been waiting for John Frum, the man they believe to be the King of America
and the savior of the world
. Today, the John Frum movement is perhaps the world's most well-known cargo cult
During the 1930's, several of Tanna's shamans reported seeing Frum, dressed in a clean white suit and hat. Frum gave them the following message: If the Tannese lived an honest life, Americans would be summoned to build factories and show the Tannese how to become a rich nation. Other beliefs are centered around the coming of Frum himself. Tannese claim that the coming of John Frum will be marked by the movement of mountains and great prosperity. He will give them all the schools, money, and fertile land they desire. The name "John Frum" is thought to be derived from "John from America."
World War II was a key time for the expansion of the movement. Ancient prophecies concerning salvation from above seemed to be fulfilled by the American planes flying overhead. During American occupation, residents of Tanna could see firsthand all of the material goods the white Americans (presumably troops of Frum) owned. Even more exhilarating to the natives, there were many black troops that had just as many goods and shared them with the white men! To the dark-skinned people of Tanna, this was a sure sign that Frum had special plans for them.
The Tannese began to imitate the behavior of their occupants in hopes that John Frum would reward them. They built makeshift docks, and even attempted to create airbases complete with control tower (a grass hut) and radio transmitter (a vine stretched between two poles). They still dress up in mock US military uniforms and many of their rituals resemble military drills.
The followers of Frum, up to 15,000 in number at one point, have even been used for political purposes. When the British and French began talking about independence for Vanuatu, the French attempted to keep a foothold in the region by openly supporting the John Frum movement. The cult was allowed to create a militia, and vehicles were donated by the French government. When a John Frum candidate won on a seat on Vanuatu's legislature in 1980, other parties began whispering about vote fraud. In response, Tanna and four other southern islands seceded and formed the nation of Tafea. The short-lived revolt ended a day after it began when Vanuatan government forces landed on Tanna and engaged the rebels in a small firefight.
The future of the John Frum movement is in question. A few younger inhabitants of the island are now educated overseas, and they bring their skepticism concerning Frum back to Tanna. More recently, chiefs in the John Frum movement predicted the appearance of Biblical figures as a sign from Frum. When they failed to appear, natives attacked their leaders. Despite these problems, the name John Frum still has great import on this Pacific island, and most people are still eagerly awaiting the King of America's arrival on their shores.