Some time ago, Ruchira brought to my attention an article about a village on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, where the people believe Prince Philip of England is a god. Though it might sound preposterous to many of us, it’s actually not a joke. As the article explains, Prince Philip is a foreigner who traveled across the sea from his native land to marry a powerful woman and, as it happens, the people of Yaohnanen village on Tanna know that a pale-skinned spirit from their own island once made just such a journey. Somewhere in the past decades, Prince Philip came to be regarded by these villagers to be that selfsame island spirit.
And why not? This religious tradition dates back some decades to the time when Vanuatu was a colony of European powers. Conflating their own mythic histories with the current news they would have heard during those colonial times was not an unreasonable thing for the islanders to do, especially given that the goings on in faraway England and the lives lead by British royals might seem every bit as mythical and magical to them as their stories of spirits might to us. What’s more, by recognizing this powerful man as being one of their own kin (albeit of a spiritual nature), they associate themselves directly with power and can appeal for benevolence.
At least on one level, this is the aim of religious mythology: to associate ordinary people with mystical power. One sees in the emergent and localized religions of Vanuatu the unvarnished essence of how religion works, how it arises, what function it serves in society and in individuals, how it binds groups in common understanding, and also how it impedes understanding between people of different beliefs.
This story about the cult of Prince Philip reminded me of a brief encounter I had on the same island of Tanna, when I visited the island for a short vacation during my Peace Corps service. Our Tannese hosts lead my friend and me on a trek across the island from Port Resolution to their own village near Mount Yasur. We climbed up and down steep, muddy ridges and waded through streams, surrounded by dense jungle. At last we came upon a large village clearing, over which hung a well-preserved American flag, hanging upside-down. This was Sulfur Bay, the home of the John Frum (or Jon Frum) cargo cult. Our hosts took us down to meet the Chief.
The religion of John Frum took hold in this region on the island of Tanna in the nineteen-thirties. At that time, the islands—the New Hebrides as they were then known—were a colony jointly held by Britain and France. The joint colonial administration of the islands had contributed no tangible benefits to the locals, but did lead to a flood of Christian missionaries. Many Islanders rejected the colonial authority and their Christianity and some of them started a religious or mystical movement calling for the downfall of the foreign powers (not unlike the 19th century Ghost Dance cult of the Native Americans).
It was during this time that Americans began to set up military bases on some of the islands, building landing strips, docks, barracks, and bringing in all the necessities for staging a war (which would prove vital in the Pacific theater of World War II). Millions of American GIs were stationed in the New Hebrides and the Tannese were struck by the unprecedented sight of black Americans working alongside white Americans. And week after week, they saw loads of cargo dropped by airplanes from the sky.
While the Tannese had admired the material bounty and superiority of the whites they had encountered, up until this time, they had seen their simpler material culture as quite separate and sufficient for their own way of life. But now some of the Tannese began to question their lot: If those American blacks could share in that wealth, the Tannese wanted their share of the cargo too.
Though the Tannese had rejected Christianity, it seems they had taken from it one central theme: the notion that piety and prayer could invoke the intervention of a savior who would establish a new order in the world, unseating false power and rewarding the pious. They reasoned that if they undertook the same ritual activities in which the Westerners engaged, namely building landing strips, marching in formation with their rifles, and other such rituals, they could bring about the return of the American, John Frum, who would let them share in this cargo from the sky.
John Frum, their awaited saviour who is to bring their cargo-wealth and depose the foreign rulers*, is a mythical figure, inspired by unknown events: One legend holds that John Frum was the name observed on a GI’s uniform; another explanation suggests that when GIs introduced themselves as “John from America,” only the sounds of the first words were remembered.
Over the years, John Frum’s adherents have tried to bring him back. They did so in the earlier days by doing what they saw the Americans do: clear landing strips and construct wooden control towers, carry wooden rifles they had carved, and march in martial formation. So far, John Frum has not appeared with his promised cargo. But hope is not lost. Today, they still march with their carved rifles and perform traditional, ritual dances; the recitals to John Frum continue in Sulphur Bay and other villages nearby.
As an American in Sulphur Bay, watching the US flag flap upside-down in the breeze, it was difficult to connect to this local history; it made so little sense that it was perplexing to imagine that these perfectly intelligent people speaking to me could actually see the world in such a different way. Though the people of this village must purchase their American flags from the same flag-makers that Americans do, there was no sense at all that its use here has anything to do with America as we understand it. Indeed, it was not at all clear that the villagers realize that Americans see the John Frum flag as their own flag hanging upside down. It’s their flag. The John Frum flag. This, along with the symbol of the Red Cross, were co-opted during the early days of the religion concurrent with World War II when they were seen as meaningful signs displayed in the American village, on the crates and boxes and goods—cargo—that was dropped by the ton for the benefit of the Americans living nearby.
Still, even knowing we were Americans, no one in the village asked us if we had ever seen or heard of John Frum; by now they have met many Americans—not a John Frum among us—and there is no sense that they might associate us with their savior. In fact, maybe because they have met so many of us, they now say that John Frum, though still an American, lives along with other spirits in their island volcano, Mount Yasur. They smiled at us as they would any stranger; they shook our hands. The Chief made small talk for a few minutes, and gave us permission to pass through his village. We moved on, back into the jungle. For them it was an ordinary encounter with outsiders; for me, it was like a trip to another world. Our differing relationships to the bit of history suggested by the US flag was a chasm between our respective ways of understanding the world and how it works, and it would remain so.
*Vanuatu gained independence in 1980, so it would seem the foreign powers have been deposed; the cargo, however, is yet to arrive.
Photo - ©Paul Raffaele