March 2016 saw me returning for another trip to the South Pacific for the third installment of the ongoing work I have doing in collaboration with the writer Christopher Lord. We have been working together since beginning the project in February 2014 when travelled out to Tanna Island to learn about the phenomena of Cargo Cults, and to find out whether we could make a body of work out of quite a complicated history.
The project is best described as a series of four short stories depicting encounters between the remote communities in the Pacific Ocean and an outside world that cannot leave them alone. Cargo Cults’ were first documented by missionaries at the end of the 19th century when much of the Pacific was being converted to Christianity. By the World Wars, a belief had developed amongst islanders in Vanuatu about a man from a distant land who would one day return to reinstate their traditional way of life and give them their rightful wealth: the cargo.
These beliefs are still practiced today – the village that says Prince Philip was born of a mountain; another believes the messiah is as an American GI called Jon, with followers that parade the streets with bamboo guns and star-spangled banners; an independence movement that venerates a dissolute French adventurer as its king.
As a strange realisation of the cargo cult, people continue to be drawn to the islands of Vanuatu by these miraculous tales. They leave behind humdrum lives in Europe and the US to play out fantasies of being gods and kings against a backdrop of Vanuatu’s tropical idyll – Christopher Lord.
We travelled to Vanuatu in March 2016 as we had discovered Claude Phillipe (from Marseilles), who claims to be the monarch of one of the islands, Tanna. He is part of a group known as the ‘Four Corner Movement’, linking back to a French militant called Antoine Fornelli in the 1970s – he had tried to gain independence for the islands and was subsequently thrown in jail by the UK/French condominium government at the time. His lineage was apparently passed on to Claude Phillipe (CP), who he met at a party in the South of France during the 1990s. The aim of the movement is to maintain and protect the island’s custom beliefs – I had contacted them and discovered that CP would be visiting Tanna for ‘Four Corner Day’.
The plan was to meet Claude Phillipe in Port Vila, on Efate (the main island of Vanuatu) – we would then travel together to Tanna where we would document the 2,000 or so people who were apparently anticipating his arrival. After 24 hours on Efate we met him and his small entourage, but were told that he had ‘stomach problems’ and would not be visiting the island. Instead, Four Corner Day would take place in the garden of his hotel.
Our trip was somewhat thrown up in the air – we had to change our itinerary and our flights rather quickly, and instead of visiting Tanna we opted to head north to Espiritu Santo instead. This opened up a whole new world of options to the project, introducing us to a plethora of American history and stories of revolution. The six days we spent up there left us simply scratching the surface of stories we wanted to know more about. Time constraints meant not only had we missed out on a week on Tanna, but had discovered new material – we were travelling home already wanting to go back.