Tanna Island

I promised you weird and wonderful—so if this isn’t it, well…

The general, currently in command of the Cargo Cult, with his staff

Tanna is an Island in the Vanuatu archipelago. It is home to not only the Cargo Cult, but also the place where they worship both John Frum and Prince Phillip of England as gods.

The origin of this singular phenomenon date back to about 1910 when some villagers saw that Westerners had cool stuff like metal tools, fishing rods, and sewing machines. This amazed them, and they thought that the goods were made by gods. But it was during WWII where things really went strange. Tanna and some surrounding islands were smack dab in the middle of a fiery hot-lead rumpus, and the island was invaded first by the Japanese and later the Americans.

With limited landing strips, much of the military cargo was parachuted onto the islands. This magical largess dropping from Heaven was often intercepted by the locals, giving rise to the John Frum Movement and the Cargo Cult. No one seems to agree if there was a specific ‘John Frum’, in that the origin of the name comes from: “Hello, I’m John from America.” But he is still celebrated as a holy man, even if no one knows who he was.

Well, it ‘might’ work

Once the war ended, the villagers tried to lure additional material from the sky by fashioning cloth and stick replicas of airplanes on landing strips—sort of in the way one might set out a duck decoy on a pond. This led to bamboo gun emplacements, jeeps, and control towers. It did no good, and no more god-sent gifts rained from the sky. But they hold onto the dream—the Cult is still around today…though it has morphed into a theatrical tourist-oriented production where the locals wear old U.S. military uniforms, and the ‘soldiers’ drill with bamboo rifles fixed with red painted bayonets.

On the heels of the Cargo Cult comes the Prince Phillip Movement, which began in the 1960s. It seems the Kastom people who prayed for cargo on Tanna believe the husband of Queen Elizabeth to be a divine being—and they worship him. They celebrate his birthday as a tribal holiday, and in 1974 the Prince visited the island—claiming not to have any knowledge of these folks who think so well of him. (Shuuure Phil, just randomly stopping by are you?) The Prince has very few worshipers around the world (especially in his hometown), and it’s my guess he just wanted a little love. Photos of the Prince are in every hut, much like in Britain where there are pics o’ the Queen in most kitchens.

I know what you’re thinking… go to an island where they are more or less still living in the Stone Age; pose for pictures, pass out a few fake Rolexes, and become their god. This is not a bad plan at all. It worked for Marlon Brando and Larry Ellison.

OK, so these folks are nuts, right? Hummm. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to mock these Melanesian islanders for thinking that cool stuff can fall from the sky—because there is very good evidence that it did. It is harder to find evidence for Heaven and Hell, though there seems to be a good many photos of the stairway to Heaven. 


Are the Kastom actually deranged compared to us? A 2014 Pew poll reveals that 72% of Americans believe in Heaven, but only 58% believe in Hell. My personal ‘Hell’ is whether or not to capitalize the words Heaven and Hell. Check out this chart, which reveals that 3% of atheists believe in Hell and 5% in Heaven. If you’re an atheist who believes in Heaven and/or Hell, I’d love to hear from you. No judgement. I just don’t know how that works for you unless, like me, it’s a simple grammar issue.


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6 Comments

  • I can’t travel now, and yet reading about places I will never go is more satisfying than ever, now. Great choices, made even more wonderful by the delightful commentary and introspection. You’re doing a hell of a job here.

  • I love your adventures. That you share odd history and beautiful pictures is so engaging. Sometimes I really can’t tell if your stories are real or not. It really wouldnt matter to me becasue I enjoy the way you write so much, you are so engaging. I am so happy I found you to be able to take part. Thanks for your work and sharing with us.

  • I love your adventures. That you share odd history and beautiful pictures is so engaging. Sometimes I really can’t tell if your stories are real or not. It really wouldn’t matter to me because I enjoy the way you write so much, you are so engaging. I am so happy I found you to be able to take part. Thanks for your work and sharing with us.

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