Much has been made over the centuries of monarchs invoking the ‘divine right of kings’ to justify their rule and the ability to not have to answer any law above them. But did you know that the Duke of Edinburgh himself, Prince Philip, is the brother of the mystical American soldier John Frum and that both are sons of God? That’s the belief, anyway, of some residents of the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. It may sounds strange to us, but it’s a very good example of the phenomenon of cargo cults. Cargo cults are not something to necessarily be written off as foreign and quaint; rather, they share a common trait with prosperity gospel movements in North America: the promise that God will provide material prosperity for those he favours.
In this case, the cults form in previous isolated tribal societies upon initial contact with foreign cultures that possess new technology and material goods, or ‘cargo’. The arrival of these new figures with their cargo often coincidentally matches with ancient myths and prophecies. Not knowing where these foreigners and their goods come from, the locals create a story of supernatural origin to explain their appearance. On Tanna, such a movement developed in the 1930s and 1940s in the form of John Frum. John Frum is generally portrayed as a World War II-era American soldier that promised the departure of missionaries and colonial government from the island, bringing the residents of Tanna modern material goods as long as they returned to traditional island customs (‘kastom’). He first appeared in the late ‘30s as a kava-induced vision of a white man that would sweep the encroaching Christian missionaries off of Tanna (‘frum’ is a Tannese pronuniciation of ‘broom’; ‘John Frum’ also happens to be a corruption of ‘John from America’). John Frum prodded the islanders to throw away their money and stop attending schools and churches. This coincided with the arrival of American troops in what was then known as the New Hebrides. As the United States set to building military encampments, airstrips, hospitals, roads, and bridges using Tannese labour, the islanders were enchanted by the massive amounts of wealth on displayed (not to mention the free cigarettes, chocolate, and Coca-Cola), as well as the comparative integration of black and white-skinned soldiers at the dinner table (the Tannese had not been allowed to eat at the same tables as missionaries). When the Americans left and took everything with them. The Tannese began ritualistic practices to try and entice John Frum back to bring them more cargo, hacking airstrips out of the jungle to attract airplanes. An intricate religion evolved based around hymns and simulated military parades, kava consumption, homemade uniforms and US military symbology. Every 15 February is John Frum Day, with the ‘Tanna Army’ marching in a simulated military formation with ‘USA’ emblazoned across their chests. On Sulphur Bay, US and Red Cross flags are raised (the symbols that adorned military ambulances).
So what does this have to do with the Prince Philip movement? Well, the notion of a pale-skinned messiah who travelled to another land to fend off missionaries from invading Tanna. In a spinoff of the same myth that spawned John Frum, ancient traditions state of a pale-skinned man who travelled to a distant land and married a powerful queen. A Tannese people called the Yaohnanen heard of the background of Prince Philip and matched the stories together. Combining it with the previously introduced Christian notion of a returning messiah, and the respect shown to the British Royal Family during a visit to the New Hebrides in 1974, the Yaohnanen created a movement based around Philip. The islanders cherish their old signed photographs and newspaper clippings of the Prince, believing he will one day return to the island to be their leader, bringing with him eternal youth and verdant kava plants. Philip is well aware of this phenomenon, and while he has made sure not to actually travel to Tanna for fear of disappointing the islanders and their preconceived notions (on the prince’s 89th birthday this summer when the islanders gathered in hope of the prince’s arrival, a Scottish university student took it upon himself to represent the prince in spirit so that the people would not be let down), he has sent the islanders symbolic gifts of signed photographs and even met with five of them when they travelled to England as part of a Channel 4-produced documentary. Both the John Frum and Prince Philip movements share the common bond of a messiah living in a foreign land returning home to Tanna to bring prosperity and self-reliance via preservation of a traditional lifestyle; a home-grown rebellion against externally-imposed religion and colonisation.
Below is a narrative (in two parts) by Richard Dawkins explaining the genesis of John Frum and how it demonstrates the speed in which new religious movements can generate, all set to the visual of a John Frum Day parade (a related sample chapter from his 1976 book The God Delusion can be found here):
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