The John Frum Movement

Magic is a central force in ni-Vanuatu lives. So in 1936, when a mysterious man named John Frum came from the sea at Green Point and announced himself to some kava drinkers, they believed he was the brother of the god of Mt Tukosmera. He told the men that if the Europeans left Tanna, there would be an abundance of wealth. They spread the word. It was the beginning of a neopagan uprising, with followers doing things the missionaries had banned, such as traditional dancing – but not cannibalism, fortunately.

When US troops arrived a few years later, many Tannese went to Efate and Santo to work for them. There they met African American soldiers, who were colourful, with theatrical uniforms, decorations, badges, belts and hats. The African Americans had huge quantities of transport equipment, radios, Coca-Cola and cigarettes. But most of all, they were generous and friendly, treating the ni-Van as equals. Here was the wealth and way of life the ni-Van had been told about – John Frum was connected to America, they decided.

Some supporters made radio aerials out of tin cans and wire to contact John Frum. Others built an airfield in the bush and constructed wooden aircraft to entice his cargo planes to land. Still others erected wharves where his ships could berth. Small red crosses were placed all over Tanna and remain a feature in John Frum villages, where flags are raised daily to this god of their collective imagination.

An offshoot of John Frum, the Unity Movement, sees women in trances twirling themselves into the water at various places, such as Port Resolution, usually on a Wednesday.