‘Cargo Cults’ originated in the Micronesian and Melanesian regions of the Pacific Ocean during the 19th Century when the tribal peoples native to these areas first met Westerners in the form of explorers and missionaries.
The residents of these islands were fascinated by the supply ships that accompanied their visitors and the constant flow of goods that the ships continued to bring for the new arrivals.
With the outbreak of the Second World War the islanders saw a huge influx of Japanese and American combatants arrive in the area, bringing with them massive amounts of supplies, establishing ports and airstrips to ensure a reliable stream of materials and using radios to coordinate the delivery of the goods.
At the end of the war these ports and airstrips were abandoned, along with the military bases they supported and the stream of supplies stopped.
Trying to attract further deliveries and continue the flow of these goods to the islands the residents began to practice ritualistic exercises designed to mimic the actions of the servicemen that they felt had caused the materials to appear.
They built crude landing strips and models of aircraft and radio equipment and imitated the actions they had seen the soldiers engage in to cause the deliveries.
This involved parade ground drills with abandoned rifles or copies made from wood, carving out headphones from wood to be used in replica control towers and waving in planes on the runway using the landing signals they had seen the airmen use.
Interestingly, the majority of the cargo cults based their designs and actions on the American servicemen they had seen. It is believed that this is due to the fact that, while both sets of soldiers had initially shared their supplies with the natives, the relationship between the Japanese soldiers and the islanders deteriorated rapidly.
One of the most popular of the cargo cults was that of ‘John Frum’, a charismatic figure from the island of Tanna in Vanuatu.
This originated in the 1930's and was originally established to drive out Westerners from the region.
A native in a Western coat began visiting villages in the area and proclaimed that if the people of Tanna rejected the practices that the Europeans had brought in, like money, Christianity and the export of their goods, and embraced traditional ‘kastom’, or customs, he would lead them in forcing out the Westerners and securing the material wealth they enjoyed for the locals.
In 1941 the followers of John Frum rid themselves of their money in a blitz of spending, removed themselves from the missionary schools, churches and plantations and moved into the centre of the island to dedicate themselves to traditional feasts and rituals.
The Europeans sought to suppress the movement and eventually arrested and exiled Frum but the enterprise survived and developed into a cargo cult during the Second World War.
By the 1950's this evolved into an organisation called the ‘Tanna-Army’, a ritualistic group that organised military-style parades and wore t-shirts proclaiming themselves to be ‘T-A USA’
or the ‘Tanna Army of the USA’.
This group is still active today and celebrate ‘John Frum Day’ on February 15th each year with a parade as they believe that Frum will return to lead them on the 15th of February.
They just don’t know what year...
The Yaohnanen tribe of Tanna also believed that John Frum had a brother, a divine being, who had travelled over the seas to a distant land and had married a powerful lady who had made him a King.
During the 1950's Yaohnanen met up with British colonial officials and were told about their Queen, Elizabeth II. The tribesmen were excited by the news of this woman from a distant land who had the power to send men around the world in her name. They asked if she was married and were informed of the existence of Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
The tribal leaders were convinced that this must be the brother of John Frum who had left them to seek his fortune and told the colonial officials their story.
They also established the ritual worship of Prince Phillip at this time, although the form it took is unclear.
The Royal couple visited Vanuatu in 1974 but were unaware of the cult at this point.
After the visit the tribal leaders informed the British Colonial Office of their beliefs and asked that the Prince be informed.
The British Resident Commisioner relayed this back to London and suggested the Prince might like to send a portrait of himself to the islanders. A signed photograph was duly sent and in return the tribal leaders sent Prince Phillip a Nal-Nal club, a traditional weapon of the Yaohnanen people.
Prince Phillip then sent back another photograph, this time showing him posing with his new club.
In 2007 a delegation of Tanna natives visited the UK.
They met privately and exchanged gifts. The Prince’s gifts to the Yaohnanen people included a new photograph which was taken back to Tanna to be kept with their other pictures of Prince Phillip, the only focus for their worship until John Frum’s brother returns...