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It's Hard to Be God

Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine by Anna Della Subin. Macmillan, 480 pages.

IN 1940, JAMES M. NICOL, a British officer employed on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific, reported on the popularity of the mysterious figure of John Frum, a divine being who had arisen to contest the colonial order, and whose acolytes promoted dancing and kava drinking, much to the consternation of the resident Presbyterian missionaries. Frum’s followers were millenarians who prophesized that he would come from America with such prosperity that work would no longer be necessary. He would even bring his own currency, stamped with an image of the coconut palms that the colonialists grew all over Tanna. The white people would then leave the island. Since the nineteenth century, Europeans had stripped Tanna of sandalwood and forced its people to work as indentured laborers in Queensland, Australia. The doctrine of John Frum repudiated the racialized hierarchies of colonialism and promised a new age of material affluence.

Nicol quickly arrested some of Frum’s followers and put one agitator in the pillory. But the islanders clearly obtained the wrong lesson from this exemplary punishment. Next year, the movement reemerged. In May 1941, Christian churches were deserted by the faithful as the people of Tanna abandoned mission villages, moved inland, and awaited God’s arrival. In preparation for his coming, they left their arduous jobs and began spending extravagantly. Every last sovereign must be spent, they claimed, before the true sovereign would arrive. The events of May 1941 combined a labor strike with a rejection of the colonial monetary economy. The people of Tanna were seizing the divine mode of production.

Nicol was alarmed. He sent police to burn down the houses used by Frum’s followers and imprisoned some of them in nearby Port Vila. There, they met the men of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—a friend of Frum’s, it was said. When World War II broke out, American soldiers built military bases at Port Vila, and Frum’s supporters were released from prison to work as manual laborers alongside boatloads of Tannese men. The wages that the Americans paid—six dollars a month—far outstripped those offered by the British. After the war ended, though, the Americans departed, and colonialism resumed, while the islanders carved out airstrips from their fields in preparation for Frum’s return.

Frum was not the last divinity to stalk the South Pacific. A decade or so after the 1941 strike, the worship of Prince Philip began in the New Hebrides—a South Pacific archipelago administered jointly by Britain and France, and now known as Vanuatu—around the time the islands began to struggle for independence. At its height, this group reportedly had several thousand followers. Philip learned of his divinity a few years after a 1974 sojourn through the region, and he seemed to rather like his new status. In 1978, a British delegation was dispatched to his worshippers with a signed photo of the prince. A Tanna politician, Tuk Noao, reciprocated with a nalnal, a traditional pig-killing stick. After much debate with anthropologists and court officials, God posed with the rod on the lawn of Buckingham Palace, and sent back a photograph of the occasion.

One might think that becoming a god is a quick route to an easy life. The problem is that gods are beholden to their believers, and worshippers tend to have plans for their deities. In 1980, after the archipelago’s independence, Philip’s followers had to start paying federal taxes, and they wrote to him, appealing the injustice. While Philip’s reply indicated that the tithes would indeed have to be suffered, his followers nonetheless waved the letter at the tax collectors and demanded a religious exemption. Rather than raising a royal up to heaven, divinizing Philip turned out to be a way of dragging a colonial power back to earth.

Prince Philip is but one of an improbable array of characters that people Anna Della Subin’s first book Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine. Its thirteen chapters take the reader on a peripatetic voyage through two centuries of deification, ranging from the famously ambiguous deicide of Captain Cook, who was killed in Hawaii as a God or a marauder (or perhaps both), to the lesser-known travails of Nikalsain, the deified form of John Nicholson, a British colonial officer in India who whipped his followers. The book covers three major areas: studies of the way Europeans used myths about natives divinizing white men to justify colonialism; narratives about the theopoesis of Africans—notably Haile Selassie—that are used to usurp racialized imperial orders; and tales about the way even the most resolutely secular figures—such as Nehru—were divinized.

Subin’s critical tasks unfold in hints and fragments, at the edges of the stories she tells. She wants to kill the white gods by unmasking their myths, while also learning to live with the permanence of what she calls mythopolitics—the claim that political power is always in some sense mythological. She succeeds admirably in the first task, and if her explorations of the second raise more questions than answers, that is one of the joys of the book.

Read entire article at The Baffler