John Frum Day

John Frum Day is an annual celebration, held on February 15, in the village of Lamakara on Tanna Island. Each year, a ceremonial army of men paint “U.S.A.” on their chests and perform a hybrid of a military drill and kastom dances with wooden guns. They raise the American flag, build WWII airplanes out of grass, and build a makeshift landing strip, all with the expectation that John Frum will return with more “cargo” (material wealth).

There are many versions of the history of John Frum Day. In some versions of the story a native man, using the alias “John Frum”, began appearing among the native people of Tanna dressed in a Western-style coat and assuring the people he would bring them houses, clothes, food and transport.

Others contend that John Frum was a kava-induced spirit vision. This John Frum promised the dawn of a new age in which all white people, including missionaries, would depart the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), leaving behind their goods and property for the native Melanesians. For this to happen, however, the people of Tanna had to reject all aspects of European society including money, Western education and Christianity, and work on copra plantations. They also had to return to traditional kastom (customs).

As a result, followers of John Frum rid themselves of their money in a frenzy of spending, left the missionary churches, schools, villages and plantations, and moved inland to participate in traditional feasts, dances and rituals. European colonial authorities sought to suppress the movement, but it gained popularity when 300,000 American troops were stationed in New Hebrides during World War II, bringing with them an enormous amount of supplies (“cargo”). Versions of the cult that emphasize the American connection interpret “John Frum” as a corruption of “John from (America)”, and credit the presence of African American soldiers for the idea that John Frum may be black.

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