July 30 – Independence Day in Vanuatu

Posted on July 30, 2013

Independence from France AND Britain?

This South Pacific island nation had a unique government during most of the twentieth century: it was ruled by both France and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. One reason this sort of arrangement was so unusual was because France and the U.K., historically, have been enemies more often than friends!

But many of the settlers who came to the islands from the 1600s to the 1800s were British, and even more of the settlers were French—and each group of European settlers wanted their home countries to provide a government to protect their interests against the Melanesian peoples who had lived on the islands for thousands of years.

During the colonization and the joint rule by France and Britain, Vanuatu was called the New Hebrides (in French, Nouvelles-Hebrides) after the Hebrides Islands of Scotland. It sounds as if the joint rule was a bit inefficient. If I've understood what I read correctly, there were two of everything, so if the bureaucratic mess of (say) the British immigration office got you down, you could turn around and try the French one. There were two court systems and two prison systems, too, and people could choose which courts to use and which prison systems to submit to. I read that the British prisons were more strict but also more humane, but the food in the French prisons was better.

(Well, of course!)

The British helped Vanuatu gain its independence on this date in 1980—after the brief “Coconut War”—although France dragged its feet all the way through the independence process.
Melanesian kids

A Cargo Cult...

Have you ever heard about the Melanesian religions known as “cargo cults”? Vanuatu has a famous cargo cult revolving around John Frum. It is possible that this religion (and, now, also a John Frum political party) was inspired by an American G.I. named John Frum—or any John at all (“John Frum” could have evolved from the phrase “John from America”). It's of course possible that Frum is an entirely fictional character, someone who never existed but who was created in bits and pieces from reports of people's visions and dreams. No matter what, Frum was supposed to be a god who appeared to the Melanesians and promised that all the white people would leave the islands and the Melanesians would enjoy a new age of prosperity....but only if the Melanesians first cut themselves off from every aspect of European society and took up traditional ways.

Because of Frum's supposed message, his followers gave away all their money and Western-style possessions, and they left their schools and churches and plantations. They moved to the island interior and began to participate in traditional feasts, dances, and rituals.

The cult got its start shortly before the start of World War II, and during the war its popularity increased. After all, the American G.I.s who came by plane during the war brought with them a lot of cargo, both supplies and equipment.

This grass airplane was built to show
what the symbolic landing strip was...
When WWII was over, the airfields abandoned, and the equipment removed, many believers in John Frum began to build symbolic landing strips in an apparent effort to lure American airplanes back, and more cargo.

A leader of the John Frum religion, named Nakomaha, created what he called the “Tanna Army,” a non-violent ritualized army that participated in parades. Every year on February 15—the date that John Frum is supposed to come back, some unspecified year—the Army holds a parade, and they march with chests painted with "USA" (or shirts that read "Tanna Army USA").

I found the accounts of this religion—which is now, somehow, a political party in Vanuatu—sort of confusing. Do Frum followers pretty much worship Western goods (cargo), and yearn for more? Or do they avoid or give away all Western goods?

To learn more about Vanuatu, check out this earlier post

Also on this date:

Plan ahead:

Check out my Pinterest pages on July holidayshistorical anniversaries in July, and July birthdays.

And here are my Pinterest pages on August holidayshistorical anniversaries in August, and August birthdays.

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