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Personifications of a prophety: strangers as cargo cult leaders in Tanna (Vanuatu)

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Abstract

The island of Tanna in Vanuatu has attracted several generations of anthropologists, film-makers and travel writers since the post-war period, paving the way for an uninterrupted flow of tourists a few decades later. Most professional observers have invariably been fascinated by the story of John Frum, a supernatural figure whose prophecies gave rise to a widespread indigenous social protest movement during the Second World War, which has persisted to the present day. While anthropologists and historians have endeavoured to analyse the causes, nature and possible developments of this movement, particularly in comparison with other similar manifestations in Melanesia, writers and film-makers have preferred presenting the John Frum movement as a perfect expression of the mysterious South Pacific “cargo cult” and actively contributed to shape the image of Tanna and its inhabitants for a worldwide audience. This iconisation of the syncretic and messianic figure of John Frum according to primitivist perceptions in Western popular culture and the broad media coverage it received, also resulted in the involvement of foreign personalities or actors in the construction of the John Frum movement as a cargo cult. The purpose of this article is twofold. Firstly, to examine the history of those outsiders, public figures, administrators, adventurers, indigenous leaders, film-makers and swindlers who in one way or another have either been associated with the figure of John Frum or who has deliberately attempted to personify and embody this spirit. The analysis of this spiritualist quest in Tanna will be extended in a broader comparative perspective: to assess the contribution of Melanesian millenarian movements to the anthropological theme of the 'stranger king'.
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Dates and versions

hal-03919264 , version 1 (02-01-2023)

Identifiers

  • HAL Id : hal-03919264 , version 1

Cite

Marc Tabani. Personifications of a prophety: strangers as cargo cult leaders in Tanna (Vanuatu). Iconic Figures: Intersecting Religious and Political Narratives of the Past, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Dec 2022, Berlin (DE), France. ⟨hal-03919264⟩
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