Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen":
JOHN FRUM

A MILLENARIAN MOVEMENT IN TANNA, NEW HEBRIDES


Millenarian tendencies had been noted just before the turn of the century, when there had been rumours that Jesus would descend and lead the Christians to Heaven while Tanna and the pagans were consumed by fire. But the first important signs of native unrest did not become apparent until much later. In early 1940, there were signs of disturbance, exacerbated no doubt by a fall in copra prices. Meetings were held from which Whites were excluded, as were women. These meetings were to receive the message of one John Frum (spelt sometimes Jonfrum), described as a 'mysterious little man with bleached hair, high-pitched voice and dad in a coat with shining buttons.' He used 'ingenious stage-management . . . appearing at night, in the faint light of a fire, before men under the influence of kava.' John Frum issued pacific moral Injunctions against idleness, encouraged communal gardening and co-operation, and advocated dancing and kava-drinking. He had no anti-White message at first and prophesied on traditional lines.

The prophet was regarded as the representative or earthly manifestation of Karaperamun, god of the island's highest mountain, Mount Tukosmeru. Karaperamun now appeared as John Frum, who was to be hidden from the Whites and from women.

John Frum prophesied the occurrence of a cataclysm in which Tanna would become flat, the volcanic mountains would fall and fill the river-beds to form fertile plains, and Tanna would be joined to the neighbouring islands of Eromanga and Aneityum to form a new island. Then John Frum would reveal himself, bringing in a reign of bliss, the natives would get back their youth, and there would be no sickness; there would be no need to care for gardens, trees or pigs. The Whites would go; John Frum would set up schools to replace mission schools, and would pay chiefs and teachers.

Only one difficulty prevented the immediate attainment of this happy state-the presence of the Whites, who had to be expelled first. The use of European money was also to cease. A corollary was the restoration of many ancient customs prohibited by the missionaries; kava-drinking above all, and also dancing, polygyny, etc. Immigrants from other islands were to be sent home.

This was not simply a programme of 'regression.' Only some of the ancient customs were to be revived, and they were customs banned by the missions. And the future envisaged was not the restoration of primitive tribalism and hand-agriculture, but a new life with 'all the material riches of the Europeans' accruing to the natives. John Frum would provide all the money needed.

Natives now started a veritable orgy of spending in European stores in order to get rid of the Europeans' money, which was to be replaced by John Frum's with a coconut stamped on it. Some even hurled their long-hoarded savings into the sea, believing that 'when there would be no money left on the island the White traders would have to depart, as no possible outlet would be found for their activity.' Lavish feasts were also held to use up food. There was thus no puritan or medieval-European 'asceticism' in these general joyful expectations of plenty. Rather, solidarity between rich and poor alike was expressed in this orgy of consumption, since, existing wealth was meaningless in the light of the prodigious riches to come. Friday, the day on which the millenium was expected, became a holy day, whilst on Saturday dances and kava-drinking took place. 'A certain licence accompanied the festivals,' Guiart remarks. We may be sure that this represents some socially-recognized breaking of existing conventions.
The movement was organized through messengers known as 'ropes of John Frum.' The enthusiasts broke away from the existing Christian villages which the missions had set up under Christian chiefs, and broke up into small family units living in 'primitive shelters,' or else joined pagan groups in the interior. This development, though formally the opposite of Santoese domestic communism, symbolizes the same basic social fact: a break with the mission-controlled villages and the old pattern of group life.

The first John Frum wave in April 1940 occasioned little alarm, but the revival of the movement in May 1941 created considerable perturbation. Large amounts of money were suddenly brought in by natives. Even gold sovereigns, which had not been seen since 1912 when they were paid to the chiefs who accepted the authority of the Government, appeared; this perhaps symbolized renunciation of the agreement. Some natives came in with over 100 B.Pounds in cash; cows and pigs were killed, kava drunk, and there was all-night dancing at the Green Point villages on the west coast where the movement had its centre. The Presbyterian missions, on Sunday the eleventh of May, found their services unattended. One of the most influential chiefs had given the order to abandon the mission and their schools. Dominican services were equally neglected.

After a lapse of a week, Nicol [the British Agent] visited Green Point, only to find it empty except for a few women and children. He summoned twenty police reinforcements from Vila and, with the aid of one of the chiefs, arrested the John Frum leaders. A menacing crowd followed him shouting 'Hold firm for John Frum !'

In the trial, it transpired that John Frum was a native named Manehivi in his mid-thirtes. He was illiterate (though he pretended to read), and refused to say where he had obtained his gold-buttoned coat. Manehivi was sentenced to three years' internment, and five years' exile from Tanna; nine others received a year's imprisonment, Nicol had Manehivi tied to a tree and exposed as an imposter for a day, and made five chiefs sign a statement asserting that they renounced John Frum, and fined him 100 Sterling.

The movement still flourished in spite of repression. December 1941 was the significant date of the next major outbreak. News of Pearl Harbour had percolated through even to the natives of Tanna, though the defeat was credited to the Germans, who were going to win. Because of growing anti-British feeling, Nicol had twenty men arrested and sent to Vila, and reconmended the establishment of a permanent police force.

Meanwhile the John Frum leaders in Vila were active. Manehivi was not the real John Frum, people said; the latter was still at large. Missionaries intercepted messages written from Vila by a second John Frum, a Tama police-boy, Joe Nalpin, and addressed to a west coast chief and two other men. They contained a new theme: John Frum was King of America, or would send his son to America to seek the King, or his son was coming from America, or his sons were to seek John Frum in America. Mount Tukosmeru would be covered by invisible planes belonging to John Frum.' Nalpin actually helped to direct the new phase from gaol, where he was serving a nine months' sentence.

In January, Australian Cataline flying boats on patrol were the probable origin of the rumour that three sons of John Frum-Isaac, Jacob and Lastuan (Last-One?- had landed by plane on the other side of the island from Green Point. 'Junketings' were going on night and day, as it was believed that John Frum's advent was imminent. The appearance of the first Americans and of numerous planes added fuel to the flames. . . .

As the Americans moved in to meet the Japanese threat, the news of their arrival swept the islands. A man was arrested for saying that Mount Tukomeru was 'full of soldiers'; it would open on the Day, and the soldiers would fight for John Frum. But the most astounding piece of information was the news that many of these U.S. troops were black! It was prophesied that large numbers of black Americans were coming to rule over the natives. Their dollars would become the new money; they would release the prisoners, and pay wages.

Consequently, the Americans met with a splendid response when they set out to hire native labour. The movement now revived on Tanna, and kava-drinking and dancing were the order of the day, especially on the east coast; the missions were still boycotted. More arrests were made, and the prisoners sent to Vila, where many were allowed to work for the U.S. Air Force. . . .

In October, Nicol returned. His arrival precipitated a new John Frum demonstration which was broken up by the police. Natives armed with guns and clubs resisted arrest and reinforcements were summoned. A new leader in the north of the island, Neloaig (Nelawihang), proclaimed himself John Frum, King of America and of Tanna. He organized an armed force which conscripted labour for the construction of an aerodrome which the Americans had told him to build for American Liberator planes bringing goods from John Frum's father. Those who refused to work would be bombed by planes. This pressed labour was resisted by a few natives who were wounded. The District Agent, under the pretense of demanding a ship to evacuate him from the island, radioed for help. He arrested Neloaig when the latter visited him at his office.

The arrest of Neloaig produced demands for his release. The supporters of John Frum, undaunted, went on feverishly building the airstrip, and a band of Neloaig's followers even attempted to liberate their leader from gaol. The police reinforcements, with two U.S. officers, were quickly despatched to the John Frum airstrip. There they found 200 men at work, surrounded by others with guns. After the latter was disarmed, an American officer spoke to the natives, trying to persuade them of their folly. This was backed up by a demonstration of the power of a tommy-gun turned on a John Frum poster pinned to a nearby tree. Many fled in panic; the police then burned down a John Frum hut and took forty-six prisoners. Neloaig received two years, ten others one year, and the rest three months. Later Neloaig escaped from gaol and hid in the bush on Efate for three years before he gave himself up. In April 1948 he was committed to a lunatic asylum. His wife was detained at Vila, but the people of north Tanna still paid homage to her.

Though illiterate, Neloaig had pretended to read and had started his own schools. When the missionaries at Lenakel tried to restart classes in 1943, only fifty children out of a total population Of 2,500 attended. Dances and kava-drinking still flourished, and villages were allowed to fall into untidiness. John Frumism still flourished. Pagans, too, provided recruits; pagan leaders had long attempted to play off Government against mission, Neloaig's father among them.


Peter Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of 'Cargo' Cults in Melanesia (London- MacGibbon & Kee, 1957), PP. 153-9

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