Culture clash in the South Seas

BBC News/May 18, 2004
By Nick Squires

The mysterious John Frum movement has existed peacefully on an island in the South Pacific for decades; but a violent feud has now broken out between its followers and a new Christian movement.

Sitting beneath a tattered Stars and Stripes flag hanging limply from a bamboo pole, Jack Yahlu recalls the bloody jungle battle which shattered the peace of this little known corner of the South Pacific.

"They wanted to kill us and we wanted to kill them," 27-year-old Yahlu told me.

"We used slingshots, axes, bows and arrows. Many people were cut with knives."

The fight he is referring to happened last month on Tanna, an island of about 20,000 people in the archipelago of Vanuatu.

The John Frum cult... believed he would drive out their colonial masters and re-establish their traditional ways

The confrontation was between the members of a long-established cargo cult called the John Frum movement, and a breakaway faction which wants to move with the times and embrace Christianity.

Shadowy figure

The John Frum cult first emerged in Vanuatu in the 1930s, when the island was jointly ruled by Britain and France as the New Hebrides.

Villagers have lived peacefully with the cult for decades

Rebelling against the influence of Presbyterian missionaries, dozens of villages on Tanna put their faith in the shadowy figure of John Frum, variously described as either a real person or a spirit.

They believed he would drive out their colonial masters and re-establish their traditional ways.

There are now dozens of these so-called John Frum villages on Tanna.

The cult was reinforced during the Second World War, when the US military arrived with huge amounts of cargo, such as tanks, ships, weapons, medicine and food.

Islanders were stunned to see black and white troops working and living together, in contrast with the French and British officials who had treated them as colonial subjects.

Mysterious saviour

The Americans' wealth and racial co-operation seemed to dove-tail perfectly with their own beliefs. So they became convinced that John Frum, their mysterious saviour, was an American.

In the past we believed in John Frum but now we believe in Jesus

A Tanna Islander

Since then, the villagers have spent the last six decades dressing up in home-made US army uniforms, drilling with bamboo rifles and parading beneath the Stars and Stripes in the hope of enticing a delivery of cargo once again.

They dream of the arrival of cars and refrigerators, roads and medicines.

They have even hacked air strips out of the jungle and built crude wooden aircraft to tempt the speedy return of American generosity.

A thatched hut in Tanna's main John Frum village contains a shrine with a sign painted on an old school black board. "John Promise America," it reads. "One day, He will be returning."

But now a split in the movement has brought violence to this island of black sand beaches, dense jungles and rough dirt roads.

'Prophet Fred'

Thousands of islanders have renounced their old beliefs and put their faith in Fred Nasse, a softly-spoken villager who calls himself Prophet Fred and preaches Christianity.

The lake beneath Mount Yasur disappeared in early 2000

The two sides glower at each other from their respective villages, crouched in the shadow of Mount Yasur, an active volcano which regularly belches great clouds of sulphurous smoke over the surrounding jungle.

Villagers say that Prophet Fred convinced them to turn to the Church by foreseeing a number of natural events.

He predicted that a lake at the base of Mt Yasur would be swept into the ocean. Five months later the lake burst its banks and drained into the sea.

Now all that remains is a black volcanic plain covered in grass, where horsemen ride and cattle graze.

"In the past we believed in John Frum but now we believe in Jesus," said one of Fred's followers. "The John Frum people do not go to church and they do not send their children to school," he said. "They are heathens."

Bloody fight

Last month's clash between the rival groups involved about 400 men. It was a brief but bloody fight which has had lasting repercussions on this normally quiet island.

Half a dozen houses and a thatched Presbyterian church were burned down.

As 25 seriously injured villagers were taken to hospital on the other side of the island, armed police were rushed from Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila.

An active volcano is the backdrop for the bitter dispute

Since then, the two sides have come together in a reconciliation ceremony, in which pigs and promises of goodwill were exchanged in front of chiefs who had gathered from all over Tanna.

But few on either side of the divide believe the feud is at an end, and there are dark forebodings of further violence.

"Perhaps we will eventually have peace," said Maliwan Taroai, a bearded, barefoot Presbyterian minister who supports Prophet Fred, "but it will not be for 1000 years."

Mount Yasur roared in the distance, sending piglets and chickens skittering into the bush.

The John Frum cult may be one of the most intriguing cultural movements in the South Pacific, but its days could be numbered.

The Christians may yet have the final say.

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