2/12/09 - john frum

In today's encore excerpt - Richard Dawkins, in his highly controversial book The God Delusion, writes about the 'cargo cults' that arose in Pacific Melanesia and New Guinea during the 1930s, some of which are still in existence today:

"My main authority for the cargo cults is David Attenborough's Quest in Paradise, which he very kindly presented to me. The pattern is the same for all of them, from the earliest cults in the nineteenth century to the more famous ones that grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War. It seems that in every case the islanders were bowled over by wondrous possessions of the white immigrants to their islands. ... The islanders noticed that the white peope who enjoyed these wonders never made them themselves. When articles needed repairing, they were sent away, and new ones kept arriving as 'cargo' in ships, or later planes. No white man was ever seen to make or repair anything, nor indeed did they do anything that could be recognized as useful work of any kind (sitting behind a desk, shuffling papers, was obviously some kind of religious devotion). Evidently, then the 'cargo' must be of supernatural origin. ... Anthropologists have noted two separate outbreaks [of cargo cults] in New Caledonia, four in the Solomons, four in Fiji, seven in New Hebrides, and over fifty in New Guinea, most of them being quite independent and unconnected with one another. ...

"One famous cult on the island of Tanna ... is still extant. It is centered on a messianic figure called John Frum. ... It is not known whether he ever existed as a real man. ... He made strange prophecies and he went out of his way to turn the people against the missionaries. Eventually, he returned to the ancestors after promising a triumphal second coming bearing bountiful cargo. ... Most worryingly for the government, John Frum also prophesied that on his second coming he would bring new coinage stamped with the image of a coconut. The people therefore got rid of all their money of the white man's currency. In 1941, this led to a wild spending spree; the people stopped working, and the island's economy was seriously damaged. ... In the 1950s, Attenborough ... met the high priest [of the cult], a man called Nambas. Nambas referred to his messiah familiarly as John, and claimed to speak to him regularly by 'radio' ... which consisted of an old woman with an electric wire around her waist who would fall in a trance and talk gibberish, which Nambas interpreted as the words of John Frum. ...

"It is believed that the day of John Frum's return will be February 15th, but the year is unknown. Every year on February 15th, his followers assemble for a religious ceremony to welcome him. So far, he has not returned, but they are not downhearted. ... [One cult devotee] says, 'If you can wait two thousand years for Jesus Christ to come, an' 'e no come, then I can wait more than nineteen years for John.' "


Richard Dawkins


The God Delusion


Houghton Mifflin Company


Copyright 2006 by Richard Dawkins


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