Cargo cults, like just about any other cult, are completely fucking insane. They originated in early 20th century tribal communities on a number of Pacific islands. Their followers believe that either an American WWII soldier named John Frum, or everyone's favorite generational racist, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, will somehow come into possession of all the food, clothes, and guns that the West currently owns and deliver it to them. The cargo cults believe that, once that's happened, the remaining population of the world will disappear, leaving them in control of what they believe is rightfully theirs.
Sadly, these cults have all but vanished, except for on Tanna, a remote island near Fiji and New Caledonia, where they're still holding strong in their weirdly adorable delusion. Russian photographer Vlad Sokhin spent a week living amongst members of the John Frum cult in Tanna. He joined them during their annual festivities, where they all paint "USA" on their chests and march around with bamboo rifles and wooden AK-47s in the hope that an American soldier from 75 years ago will return to give them presents/kill everyone else in the world.
Vlad also visited the village of Yaohnanen, where the Prince Philip Movement is based, so I had a chat with him about the history of cargo cults.
VICE: Hey Vlad. So, tell me why these Pacific Islanders have ended up worshipping American soldiers and the Queen's husband.
Vlad Sokhin: It all started in the early 20th century, when Westerners started going to Melanesian islands, like Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands. I mean, imagine seeing planes and boats for the very first time. To them, it was literally a miracle from the sky—foreign beings appearing in these huge, noisy things and bringing them rifles, clothes, and food.
I get that, but surely after the Westerners explained who they were, the islanders would start to make sense of it all?
Yeah, they did, but some local prophets started to say that the islanders were the ones who truly deserved all the cargo—that it had been dedicated to them by the gods —but that Westerners were crafty and had unfairly taken possession of it all. People started to believe that, if they imitated the Westerners, they would start to receive the same things, so they built the outer shells of planes out of wood, made landing strips in the jungle, and waited on the strips all day with flags, hoping to guide a plane into land.
I assume no planes ever came?
Nope. It only really happened on Tanna, after the cults fizzled out on all the other islands, and they've stopped doing that there now too, because planes bring tourists and money to the island every week anyway. Although, some of the elders still go to the airport every day and wait for planes to arrive, in the hope that John Frum might be on one of them.
Yeah, tell me about John Frum. Was he real? Or is he just a creation of the island's prophets?
No, I believe he was a real man. Vanuatu was a British and French colony in the 30s, and in 1937 a man named John Frum apparently appeared on Tanna. He was a black soldier, probably from America, but I don't know that he was actually called John Frum. I think he might have said, "I am John from America," and the locals heard it as, "I am John Frum." So, what was it that made him into the deity they now see him as? I assume they'd seen plenty of soldiers before him?
Yes, but he was the highest ranking soldier on the island, so the islanders saw all these white soldiers polishing the shoes of a man with the same color skin as them, and thought that was proof of God's original plan—for their people to be the rightful owners of all this cargo.
Then he started preaching to them?
Yeah, he supposedly told them that, if they stopped using all of the stuff that the Westerners had given to them – stopped drinking their wine and smoking their cigarettes—the cargo would come back to them. Every Friday night is John Frum night, where all the followers get together and play songs on their guitars. They sound a bit like American country music, and the lyrics speak about John Frum's apostles, Jerry Cowboy and Jimmy Cowboy, two characters from old American western movies. Wow. And they have John Frum day as well, which is the big celebration, right?
Yeah, every year, on the 15th of February they all dress up in American navy uniforms, march in an American style, waving the stars and stripes around, and paint the ends of their bamboo sticks red to signify American rifles. Some carve more elaborate guns, like AK-47s, out of wood. The idea is that John Frum will return on the 15th of February with an everlasting supply of cargo, meaning it will be paradise on Earth in Tanna while the rest of the world disappears. They don't know what year this is supposed to happen, though, so they just do it every year.
What happens when he doesn't come? I guess they're pretty used to it by now?
Yeah, Isaac Wan, the oldest man in the village, is the leader of the John Frum cult, so he's the one doing the preaching at every event, and he looked a little upset, but he just shrugged it off and said he hoped John Frum would come next year. I like that optimism. So, you were saying how the John Frum cult rejects American culture, but they still seem to appropriate a lot of it with the uniforms, flags, and weapons.
They believe that American symbols are universal signifiers of cargo, so they use the symbols, but they don't use the lifestyle, if that makes sense? All the clothes they wear are second-hand, so it seems like they accept Western culture superficially, but the clothes are pretty much the only thing similar to our culture. Only two people in the village have solar panels, to charge mobile phones, but there's no TV, no other electricity, no media, and definitely no internet.
So, how did the Prince Philip Movement start if there was no way they could have seen him?
To be honest, I'm not sure. I know the Queen and Prince Philip made an official visit to Vanuatu in the 1970s, which I'm sure strengthened the movement, but I know that it started at least a decade before that. It's a lot smaller than the John Frum movement, but you're right, that still doesn't explain how it started.
Weird. What do they believe?
They believe that Prince Philip is John Frum's brother and that he was born in Tanna, but left for the West and ended up marrying a very powerful woman. They think that, once he dies, he'll return to Tanna in spirit form and bring all the wealth of the British crown with him. Do they actually worship him as a god?
Well, they have portraits of him that they pray towards, but since some members of the village were flown over to London to meet the Prince by a British TV show, I think they just respect him more as an elder nowadays.
How do they show their appreciation towards him?
They hold a big celebration on the 10th of June every year—his birthday—in much the same way as the John Frum cult. Only, there's no American insignia, just a Union Jack and lots of dancing. Also, they do all their worshipping at Nakamal, the name for their sacred place, or at the founder of the cult's grave. He died some years ago, but his son is now the leader of the movement. Do the two cults get along?
Yeah. I mean, there's no animosity, because the Prince Philip Movement believe that the Prince is John Frum's brother, but they don't visit each other or anything.
What about the remaining Christians on the island? How do they feel about it all?
That's an interesting one, actually. There's a church called Unity of John in Christ, which is basically a church that had tried to convert John Frum followers to Christianity, but failed, so they've kind of mixed the two together. How does that work?
They've basically added John Frum into the Bible and said that he's an apostle, but they're still trying their hardest to convert everyone back to Christianity. Without much luck, I have to say.
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamie_clifton