This is an ongoing body of work about the history of an archipelago in the South Pacific, Vanuatu. It looks at why some say the messiah is an American G.I. named John, and why these beliefs inspire modern day visitors from the outside world to come in search of fulfilment.
John will come bearing the wealth and development that was denied to islanders during a century of European colonialism. Parading in front of the American flag – bare feet stamping on soggy earth – the hope is that ‘John Frum’ America will return on a great white ship flying the Star-Spangled Banner. The beliefs began at the end of the 19th century in the spirit of an anti-colonial movement – a rejection of missionary dogma, but the arrival of the American navy during World War II merged with this yearning for intervention by a great power from overseas. These Melanesian movements, or ‘cargo cults’ have long fascinated anthropologists, and have conjured a strange byproduct phenomena: foreigners who come to the islands from America and Europe, departing their lives back home to play out dreams of fulfilling prophecies and being kings against the backdrop of Vanuatu’s landscape of simmering volcanoes and rattling palm fronds.
Amid the flurry of incoming B-52 bombers and thousands of bottles of Coca-Cola – Vanuatu, previously the New Herides, was host to America’s second largest naval base in the Pacific during WWII – where many of the rituals that still underpin the John Frum movement were formed.