On One Pacific Island, a U.S. Soldier and Prince Philip Are Gods

Two Yaohnanen tribesmens show framed pictures of their 2007 visit with Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Christopher Hogue Thompson, Used Under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 License

In Vanuatu, a South Pacific island nation that's a three-hour or so flight east-northeast of Sydney, Australia, the mystic figure known as John Frum is alive. Well, as much as he's ever been alive. He is not alone. John Frums, some will argue, "live" all over the world. Even in places you wouldn't expect.

On the tiny island of Tanna in the Vanuatu archipelago — overall population about 250,000 — a vocal lot of locals still worship John Frum, a mythical personage often depicted as a white American World War II soldier (though he has been described in different ways). Every year on Feb. 15, Frum followers celebrate John Frum Day.

They raise the U.S. flag. They march in formation with rifles made of bamboo. Older islanders dress in military outfits, complete with medals. Years ago, they carved airstrips out of the jungle, complete with fake planes.

They honor John Frum and prepare for his return and the good times — and material things —that will come with it.

All this, it should be noted, for someone that outsiders believe sprung from the minds of elders high on kava, a local plant with slightly psychoactive properties.

Frum followers are leading examples of what many anthropologists label a "cargo cult," which is in itself a kind of moving target of a term that scientists now struggle to accept. The term has been used largely for groups in the Pacific, those in less-developed societies conducting what are seemingly strange and primitive rituals. The label is still used, but not as much. Calling something a "cult," after all, is a tad pejorative. Even the word "cargo" may not represent what it once did.

However the groups are tagged, they persist, some to the point that they have become legitimized parts of society. And they're not all relegated to the jungles of faraway islands.

"It's not just something that's in Vanuatu or New Caledonia or New Guinea. It's not just the 'primitive' spots," says John Edward Terrell, the Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago. "That's why I argue that Trumpism is a 'cargo cult.' It's right here at home."

The Granddaddy of Cargo Cults

The term "cargo cult" originated in 1945 with the John Frum movement, which began in the early part of the 20th century. The Frum movement gained followers during and after World War II when islanders, seeing cargoes of food and goods that American soldiers brought, went full-in (probably after a night of sipping kava drinks) on the idea that an American savior would reappear after the war, bringing gifts of "cargo."

"John promised he'll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him," a village elder told Smithsonian Magazine in 2006. "Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things."

More than cargo, though — and one reason that anthropologists avoid using the term "cargo cult" — the promise of John Frum then, and now, is to throw off the yoke of colonials who for years pushed strange religions and customs on a people rich with their own history and kastom. The followers of Frum at one time were told by their leaders (who, ostensibly, heard from John himself ... again with the kava) to stop listening to the missionaries and to "drink kava, worship the magic stones and perform our ritual dances," according to what a village leader told Smithsonian.

That desire for more than just cargo — for a better, more authentic life — has paid dividends on the island, even as worshippers await the return of their man. The John Frum Party is now represented in the Vanuatu parliament.

The Frum movement is not the only "cargo cult" still active in the Pacific. Also on Tanna, a small sect worships the United Kingdom's Prince Philip, believing the Duke of Edinburgh (and husband to Queen Elizabeth II) is a divine being. Several other groups have been ID'd as "cargo cults" in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere.

"It is a social phenomenon; you have to be able to, in a sense, tell it to other people," Terrell says. "People can connect with the idea that, 'It's all going to get better if we do X or Y.'"

What Cargo Cultists Want

These "revitalization movements," as famed anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace more tastefully called them, are no different than what many cultures throughout the world experience throughout history. The people in these crusades want what we all do — a better life.

Wallace spelled out five phases in the development of these movements; Terrell has boiled them down here, from the point of view of those experiencing it. (We've shrunk them even more.)

  1. Once, life was good. We were happy.
  2. Things got worse, and we got a little less happy and more restless.
  3. It got really bad, and we started looking for ways to make things better. "Disillusionment and apathy became common."
  4. Somebody with what Wallace called a "vision dream" — gained in any number of ways, tangible or intangible, of this world or beyond it — suggested a better way. Converts were made. More people, seeking a better life, joined in. A movement was born.
  5. The movement lives until the dream is realized or dashed.

How Cargo Cults Relate to Today's World

The idea of people wanting to improve their lot, and waiting on someone to help them do it, should not be, Terrell suggests, some strange concept. Entire religions — not just John Frum — are based on it. Whole societies turn on it.

Unhappy? Looking for more meaning in your life? Want to return to a happier time? A, shall we say, "greater" time?

Donald Trump, anyone? Brexit, perhaps? The Arab Spring? Russia under Putin?

It turns out that the "cargo cults" of Vanuatu aren't all that different from the rest of the world when it comes to what they want.

"I don't think it always has to be about 'How it had been was much better, and if we can only get back, we'll all be fine,'" Terrell says. "But Trumpism clearly does [that]. I don't think it's any exaggeration that Trumpism has all the earmarks of a cargo cult.

"It's about the power of belief. And the power of persuasion."