Cargo Cults: History, Characteristics and John Frum

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Cargo Cults are “Melanesian indigenist millenarian belief systems” found mainly in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu and a few other Pacific islands. These cults believe that a messiah, sometimes an American named John Frum, will come bearing wealth and modern appliances and material goods such as canned food, clothing, radios, wristwatches and motorcycles for his followers.

In a cargo cult an indigenous society imitate the behaviors, rituals, and symbols associated with technologically advanced societies, particularly their modes of transportation and material wealth, in seemingly hope of attaining the same benefits. The term "cargo cult" was coined in the field of anthropology during World War II. Recent scholarship on such cults has criticized the term for being prejudicial and not accurately conveying the true nature of the movements. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In addition to bringing material good, cargo cult worshippers believe that cargo-bearing ships and planes from heaven will reunite the living with their ancestors and usher in a new era in which the poor people of Papua New Guinea and Melanesia learn the secrets of the white man's material success. Some cargo worshippers expected their ancestors would to come to life as armed soldiers and fight foreign policemen and troops in New Guinea.

Among the cargo cults that are still active are: 1) The John Frum cult on Tanna Island (Vanuatu); 2) The Tom Navy cult on Tanna Island (Vanuatu); 3) The Prince Philip Movement on Tanna, which worships Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Queen Elizabeth II’s husband) as the son of Vanuatu’s volcano god Kalbaben; 4) The Turaga movement based on Pentecost island (Vanuatu); 5) Yali's cargo cult in the Madang region of Papua New Guinea; 6) The Paliau movement on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea; 7) The Peli association on Papua New Guinea; and 8) ) The Pomio Kivung on Papua New Guinea. +

Characteristics of Cargo Cults

One of the main goals of the cargo cult worshippers is for them to learn the "secret of cargo." They scoff at the notion that material wealth is created by hard work and machines and insist that cargo is created in some mystical place by supernatural beings. The success of cargo cult leaders is determined by their ability to convince their followers that they know the secret of cargo and persuade them that they can deliver the goods.

Cargo cults are marked by a number of common characteristics, including: 1) a "myth-dream" that is a synthesis of indigenous and foreign elements; 2) the expectation of help from the ancestors; 3) charismatic leaders and 4) a belief in the appearance of an abundance of goods. Indigenous societies of Melanesia have typically characterized by "big man" political systems in which individuals gained prestige through gift exchanges. The more wealth a man could distribute, the more people who were in his debt, and the greater his renown. Those who were unable to reciprocate were identified as "rubbish men". [Source: Wikipedia]

Characteristic cargo cult activities include the setting up of mock airstrips, airports, airplanes, offices, and dining rooms, as well as the fetishization and attempted construction of Western goods, such as radios made of coconuts and straw. Believers have staged "drills" and "marches" with sticks for rifles and use military-style insignia and national insignia painted on their bodies to make them look like soldiers for the purpose of attracting the cargo. Symbols associated with Christianity and modern Western society are often interwoven into Cargo Cult rituals. One of the notable examples of this is the use of cross-shaped grave markers.

[Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, February 2006]

As anthropologist Kirk Huffman, who spent 17 years in Vanuatu, explains: “You get cargo cults when the outside world, with all its material wealth, suddenly descends on remote, indigenous tribes.” The locals don’t know where the foreigners’ endless supplies come from and so suspect they were summoned by magic, sent from the spirit world. To entice the Americans back after the war, islanders throughout the region constructed piers and carved airstrips from their fields. They prayed for ships and planes to once again come out of nowhere, bearing all kinds of treasures: jeeps and washing machines, radios and motorcycles, canned meat and candy.

History of Cargo Cults

The word "cargo" is pidgin English of Western materials, and the cult itself can be traced back to Captain James Cook who introduced tools and cloth to the stone age tribes living on these Pacific. Many people in Papua New Guinea and Melanesia had long believed that their ancestors were white. For people that still rubbed sticks to start a fire things like knives and jewelry could only come from one place: heaven. [Source: "A Pacific Island Awaits Its Messiah" by Kal Muller, National Geographic, May 1974].

Some 19th century explorers to New Guinea and Melanesia played along the native belief that white men were god and even went to great lengths to discreetly dispose of the bodies of European that died so the natives believed that were immortal. In the early 20th century some Cargo Cult prophets began to promulgate new theories of cargo in which Europeans were cast as evil men who didn’t produce cargo but rather hid cargo the islanders's ancestors had intended to give to the islanders. An armed revolt in 1912 forced the German out and the Australians to move in.

The earliest recorded cargo cult was the Tuka Movement that began in Fiji in 1885 at the height of the colonial era's plantation-style economy. The movement began with a promised return to a golden age of ancestral potencyColonial authorities saw the leader of the movement, Tuka, as a troublemaker, and he was exiled, although were unable to keep him from returning. Cargo cults occurred periodically in many parts of the island of New Guinea, including the Taro Cult in northern Papua New Guinea and the Vailala Madness that arose from 1919 to 1922. The last was documented by Francis Edgar Williams, one of the first anthropologists to conduct fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. Less dramatic cargo cults have appeared in western New Guinea as well, including the Asmat and Dani areas. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to anthropologists indigenous Melanesians, withe emphasis on prestige gained through gift exchanges. experienced "value dominance" when exposed, by colonialism, to foreigners who had a seemingly unending supply of goods for exchange. This meant they were dominated by others in terms of their own (not the foreign) value system, and exchange with foreigners left them feeling like rubbish men. Since the modern manufacturing process was unknown to them, members, leaders, and prophets of the cults said that the manufactured goods of the non-native culture were created by spiritual means, with the help of deities and ancestors. Some argued that these goods were intended for the local indigenous people, but the foreigners unfairly gained control of them through malice or mistake. Thus, a characteristic feature of cargo cults was the belief that spiritual agents would, at some future time, provide cult members with valuable cargo and desirable manufactured goods.

Cargo Cults of World War II

The cargo cults gained momentum during World War II when once again the Pacific islands and New Guinea were visited by strangers bearing gifts, this time American GI's with packaged food, arms, jeeps and fabricated houses. The soldiers eventually left but the indigenous people had "Navy Tom" to worship as well as "John Frum." [Source: "A Pacific Island Awaits Its Messiah" by Kal Muller, National Geographic, May 1974].

The years during and after World War II was perhaps the most intense period of cargo cult activity. At that time Melanesian islanders witnessed the largest war ever fought by technologically advanced nations. The Japanese distributed goods and used the beliefs of the Melanesians to attempt to get them on their side. Later the Allied forces arrived in the islands and did the same. [Source: Wikipedia]

The vast amounts of military equipment and supplies that both sides airdropped (or airlifted to airstrips) to troops was something the Melanesian could have never imagined. Watching manufactured goods, clothing, medicine, canned food, tents and weapons arrive in this way in vast quantities for the soldiers, who often shared some of it with the islanders, seemed like something that had to have been hatched in heaven and delivered by gods.

The John Frum cult, one of the most widely reported and longest-lived, formed on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. This movement started before the war, and became a cargo cult afterwards. Cult members worshiped certain unspecified Americans — "John Frum" or "Tom Navy" — who they said brought vluable cargo to their island during World War II and would do so again in the future.

Cargo Cults After World War II

When World War II was over, foreign military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping cargo. In response, charismatic leaders developed cults in remote locations in Melanesia and promised to provide followers with cargo such as food, arms and Jeeps. The cult leaders said that the cargo would be gifts from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had been the case when the foreign soldiers were present. [Source: Wikipedia]

In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the military personnel use. Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day-to-day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles. The islanders carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses.

In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of airplanes out of straw and cut new military-style landing strips out of the jungle, hoping to attract more airplanes. The cult members thought that the foreigners had some special connection to the deities and ancestors of the natives, who were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches.

Cargo cults were typically created by individual leaders, or big men in the Melanesian culture, and it is not at all clear if these leaders were sincere, or were simply running scams on gullible populations. The leaders typically held cult rituals well away from established towns and colonial authorities, thus making reliable information about these practices very difficult to acquire.

Cargo Cults Excessiveness

Missionaries and Europeans tried to discourage participation in the Cargo Cults. Leaders deceived and robbed cult members with "money making machines". Some tribes reverted to back to stone age practices because they believed that John Frum looked down on their western ways. Some even ate up all their food and threw their money into the sea in the belief that John Frum could replenish any shortage. [Source: "A Pacific Island Awaits Its Messiah" by Kal Muller, National Geographic, May 1974].

In 1968, a prophet on the island of New Hanover in the Bismark Archipelago, told his followers the President of the United States was only person who knew the secret of Cargo. The cult members refused to pay taxes and saved up $75,000 to give to Lyndon Johnson if he told them the secret of cargo.

Venerated cargo prophets were sometimes visited by "flower girls" who collected his semen in bottles and distributed among women followers.

One cargo cult prophet who was made sergeant major in the Australian army for his cooperation was taken to Australia so that he could see for himself that the secret of cargo was factories and workers. What impressed the prophet was not the production of the material goods but the fact that many people who lived in big houses and drove fancy cars didn’t participate in the production of material goods. He was appalled that white people possessed so much cargo but were so unwilling it share it with the poor people in New Guinea.

New Guinea Cargo Cults

Cargo cult worshippers in the highlands of Papua New Guinea set up airstrips in the mountains with a model plane made of sticks and bamboo and control tower manned 24 hours a day by tribesmen with tin can microphones. At night a fire is lit as a beacon in case a plane piloted by ancestors and loaded with material cargo from heaven appears

Writer Malcolm Kirk tells a story about villagers along the Sepik River on the Indonesia side of New Guinea going to the town of Marambanja where a man named Matias Yaliwan had invented a “money machine”. Yaliwan was a charismatic man who had formed a "cargo cult," based on the belief that white men were rich because they carried "cargo" of money wherever they went. He said that white men had some sort of mysterious power that enabled them to make money out of thin air. By studying the Bible and books like "Seven Steps to Power" Yaliwan claimed that he had "unlocked the secret to power". Members of his cult, which of course paid money for the service, learned how to use this power. Stories were told about cult members who used the power to find suitcases stashed with money in the jungle.

Kirk thought we would go to Marambanja and investigate this for himself. Yaliwan welcomed him on his arrival and Kirk asked if he see the famed money machine. Sure, Yaliwan replied, and escorted Kirk into the "Power House." Yaliwan asked for some money from Kirk to learn the secret. Kirk obliged and emptied his pockets of change which amounted to about $10.

From other room came an assistant named Jimmy, who performed an act called "Playing the dishes." Jimmy told Kirk to observe carefully to see how the money was made. The money was then placed in to a bowl. Jimmy then poured the money from this bowl into another bowl and then back again. Perspiring while he did it, he repeated this process for about twenty minutes while Kirk observed him closely. Finally Yaliwan asked Jimmy how much money he was given. Jimmy replied $10. The Yaliwan asked him much money he has now. Jimmy replied again $10 and he made no move to return it to Kirk. That is how they "make money" on the Sepik River

History of the John Frum Cult

The John Frum cult, as we said before, formed on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu before World War II and still exist there today, where villagers have thrown their money into the sea and killed their pigs for grand feasts to welcome him.Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Colonial authorities eventually struck back, arresting the movement’s leaders — including Chief Isaac’s father, Chief Nikiau. They were shipped to a prison at Port-Vila in 1941, their subsequent years behind bars earning them status as the John Frum movement’s first martyrs. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, February 2006]

Local leaders say that John Frum first appeared one night in the late 1930s, after a group of elders had downed many shells of kava as a prelude to receiving messages from the spirit world. “He was a white man who spoke our language, but he didn’t tell us then he was an American,” says Chief Kahuwya, leader of Yakel village. John Frum told them he had come to rescue them from the missionaries and colonial officials. “John told us that all Tanna’s people should stop following the white man’s ways,” Chief Kahuwya says. “He said we should throw away their money and clothes, take our children from their schools, stop going to church and go back to living as kastom people. We should drink kava, worship the magic stones and perform our ritual dances.”

Perhaps the chieftains in their kava reveries actually experienced a spontaneous vision of John Frum. Or perhaps the apparition has more practical roots. It’s possible that local leaders conceived of John Frum as a powerful white-skinned ally in the fight against the colonials, who were attempting to crush much of the islanders’ culture and prod them into Christianity. In fact, that view of the origins of the cult gained credence in 1949, when the island administrator, Alexander Rentoul, noting that “frum” is the Tannese pronunciation of “broom,” wrote that the object of the John Frum movement “was to sweep (or broom) the white people off the island of Tanna.”

The cult got its biggest boost in 1942, when American troops by the thousands were dispatched to the New Hebrides, where they built large military bases at Port-Vila and on the island of Espíritu Santo. The bases included hospitals, airstrips, jetties, roads, bridges and corrugated-steel Quonset huts, many erected with the help of more than a thousand men recruited as laborers from Tanna and other parts of the New Hebrides — among them Chief Kahuwya.

Where the U.S. armed forces go, so go the legendary PXs, with their seemingly endless supply of chocolate, cigarettes and Coca-Cola. For men who lived in huts and farmed yams, the Americans’ wealth was a revelation. The troops paid them 25 cents a day for their work and handed out generous amounts of goodies.

The Americans’ munificence dazzled the men from Tanna, as did the sight of dark-skinned soldiers eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, living in similar huts and tents and operating the same high-tech equipment as white soldiers. “In kastom, people sit together to eat,” says Kirk Huffman, who was the curator of Vanuatu’s cultural center during his years in the island nation. “The missionaries had angered the Tannese by always eating separately.”

It seems this is when the legend of John Frum took on a decidedly American character. “John Frum appeared to us in Port-Vila,” Chief Kahuwya says, “and stayed with us throughout the war. John was dressed in all white, like American Navy men, and it was then we knew John was an American. John said that when the war was over, he’d come to us in Tanna with ships and planes bringing much cargo, like the Americans had in Vila.”

In 1943, the U.S. command, concerned about the movement’s growth, sent the USS Echo to Tanna with Maj. Samuel Patten on board. His mission was to convince John Frum followers that, as his report put it, “the American forces had no connection with Jonfrum.” He failed. At war’s end, the U.S. military unwittingly enhanced the legend of their endless supply of cargo when they bulldozed tons of equipment — trucks, jeeps, aircraft engines, supplies — off the coast of Espíritu Santo. During six decades in the shallows, coral and sand have obscured much of the watery grave of war surplus, but snorkelers can still see tires, bulldozers and even full Coke bottles. The locals wryly named the place Million Dollar Point.

After the war, when they returned home from Port-Vila to their huts, the Tanna men were convinced that John Frum would soon join them, and hacked a primitive airstrip out of the jungle in the island’s north to tempt the expected American planes from the skies. Across the South Pacific, thousands of other cargo cult followers began devising similar plans — even building bamboo control towers strung with rope and bamboo aerials to guide in the planes. In 1964, one cargo cult on New Hanover Island in Papua New Guinea offered the U.S. government $1,000 for Lyndon Johnson to come and be their paramount chief. But as the years passed with empty skies and seas, almost all the cargo cults disappeared, the devotees’ hopes crushed.

John Frum Cult in the 2000s

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian magazine: I wait while Jessel Niavia, the driver, starts the vehicle by touching together two wires sticking out from a hole under the dashboard. As the jeep rattles up a steep slope, the narrow trail slicing through the jungle’s dense green weave of trees and bushes, Jessel tells me that he is the brother-in-law of one of the cult’s most important leaders, Prophet Fred — who, he adds proudly, “raised his wife from the dead two weeks ago.” [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, February 2006]

In the morning heat on a tropical island halfway across the world from the United States, several dark-skinned men — clad in what look to be U.S. Army uniforms — appear on a mound overlooking a bamboo-hut village. One reverently carries Old Glory, precisely folded to reveal only the stars. On the command of a bearded “drill sergeant,” the flag is raised on a pole hacked from a tall tree trunk. As the huge banner billows in the wind, hundreds of watching villagers clap and cheer.

Chief Isaac Wan, a slight, bearded man in a blue suit and ceremonial sash, leads the uniformed men down to open ground in the middle of the village. Some 40 barefoot "G.I.’s" suddenly emerge from behind the huts to more cheering, marching in perfect step and ranks of two past Chief Isaac. They tote bamboo “rifles” on their shoulders, the scarlet tips sharpened to represent bloody bayonets, and sport the letters “USA,” painted in red on their bare chests and backs.

In the village dozens of cane huts, some with rusting tin roofs, encircle an open ceremonial dancing ground of impacted ash and the mound where the American flag flies each day, flanked by the much smaller flags of Vanuatu, ex-colonial ruler France and the Australian Aborigines, whose push for racial equality the villagers admire. Clearly, John Frum has yet to return with his promised cargo because Lamakara is dirt poor in consumer goods. Surrounded by an eerie doomsday moonscape of volcanic ash, Yasur, a 360–meter (1,184-foot) -high, sacred volcano. My driver points at the cone. “Haus blong John Frum,” he says in pidgin English. It’s John Frum’s house. As the sun sets beyond the rain-forest- covered mountains, Jessel’s brother, Daniel Yamyam, arrives to fetch me. “I’m now a Christian, but like most people on Tanna, I still have John Frum in my heart,” he says. “If we keep praying to John, he’ll come back with plenty of cargo.”

John Frum Leaders Explains About John Frum

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian magazine: The next morning, I head to Lamakara to talk to Chief Isaac.... Chief Isaac, in an open-neck shirt, green slacks and cloth shoes, greets me on the mound and leads me into a hut behind the flagpoles: the John Frum inner sanctum, off-limits to all but the cult’s senior leaders and, it seems, male visitors from abroad. “Office blong me,” he says with a smile as we enter.

The hut is dominated by a round table displaying a small U.S. flag on a pedestal, a carved bald eagle and imitation U.S. military uniforms neatly folded and placed in a circle, ready for use on John Frum Day. Above, suspended by vine from a beam, hangs a globe, a stone ax and a pair of green stones carved into circles the size of a silver dollar. “Very powerful magic,” the chief says as he points to the stones. “The gods made them a long time ago.”

Written on a pair of blackboards is a plea that John Frum’s followers lead a kastom life and that they refrain from violence against each other. One of the blackboards bears a chalked red cross, probably copied from U.S. military ambulances and now an important symbol for the cult. “John Frum came to help us get back our traditional customs, our kava drinking, our dancing, because the missionaries and colonial government were deliberately destroying our culture,” Chief Isaac says, his pidgin English translated by Daniel.

“But if John Frum, an American, is going to bring you modern goods, how does that sit with his wish that you lead a kastom life?” I ask. “John is a spirit. He knows everything,” the chief says, slipping past the contradiction with the poise of a skilled politician. “He’s even more powerful than Jesus.” “Have you ever seen him?” “Yes, John comes very often from Yasur to advise me, or I go there to speak with John.”

“What does he look like?” “An American!” “Then why does he live in Yasur?” “John moves from America to Yasur and back, going down through the volcano and under the sea.”

The chief tells me about his trip to the United States in 1995, and shows faded pictures of himself in Los Angeles, outside the White House and with a drill sergeant at a military base. He says he was astonished by the wealth of the United States, but surprised and saddened by the poverty he saw among white and black Americans alike, and by the prevalence of guns, drugs and pollution. He says he returned happily to Sulphur Bay. “Americans never show smiling faces,” he adds, “and so it seems they always think that death is never far away.” When I ask what he most wants from America, the simplicity of his request moves me: “A 25-horsepower outboard motor for the village boat. Then we can catch much fish in the sea and sell them in the market so that my people can have a better life.”

As we look down into John Frum’s fiery Tanna home, I remind him that not only does he not have an outboard motor from America, but that all the devotees’ other prayers have been, so far, in vain. “John promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago, and none has come,” I point out. “So why do you keep faith with him? Why do you still believe in him?” Chief Isaac shoots me an amused look. “You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth,” he says, “and you haven’t given up hope.”

John Frum Worship

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian magazine: At Sulphur Bay the faithful never wavered. Each Friday afternoon, hundreds of believers stream across the ash plain below Yasur, coming to Lamaraka from villages all over Tanna. After the sun goes down and the men have drunk kava, the congregation gathers in and around an open hut on the ceremonial ground. As light from kerosene lamps flickers across their faces, they strum guitars and homemade ukuleles, singing hymns of John Frum’s prophecies and the struggles of the cult’s martyrs. Many carry the same plea: “We’re waiting in our village for you, John. When are you coming with all the cargo you promised us?” [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, February 2006]

Threaded among the singers’ perfect harmonies is a high-pitched Melanesian keening that hones each hymn with a yearning edge. I look around in vain for Chief Isaac until a senior man in the cult whispers that after drinking kava, Isaac has disappeared among the darkened trees to talk to John Frum. The weekly service doesn’t end until the sun comes back up, at seven the next morning.

“The John Frum movement is following the classic pattern of new religions,” says anthropologist Huffman. Schisms split clumps of faithful from the main body, as apostates proclaim a new vision leading to sacrilegious variants on the creed’s core beliefs. Which explains Prophet Fred, whose village, Ipikil, is nestled on Sulphur Bay. Daniel says that Prophet Fred split with Chief Isaac in 1999 and led half of the believer villages into his new version of the John Frum cult. “He had a vision while working on a Korean fishing boat in the ocean,” Daniel says. “God’s light came down on him, and God told him to come home and preach a new way.” People believed that Fred could talk to God after he predicted, six years ago, that Lake Siwi would break its natural dam and flood into the ocean. “The people living around the lake [on the beach beneath the volcano] moved to other places,” says Daniel. “Six months later, it happened.”

Then, almost two years ago, Prophet Fred’s rivalry with Chief Isaac exploded. More than 400 young men from the competing camps clashed with axes, bows and arrows and slingshots, burning down a thatched church and several houses. Twenty-five men were seriously injured. “They wanted to kill us, and we wanted to kill them,” a Chief Isaac loyalist says....When I mention Prophet Fred, anger flares in Chief Isaac’s eyes. “He’s a devil,” he snarls. “I won’t talk about him.”

John Frum Celebrations

John Frum Day is This is February 15 on Tanna. On this holiest of days, devotees gather in the village of Lamakara from all over the island to John Frum. “John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him,” a village elder says as he salutes the Stars and Stripes, with the expectations of “radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.”

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian magazine: A few days before Lamakara’s annual John Frum celebration, I visit Prophet Fred’s village — only to find that he’s gone to the island’s northern tip to preach, most likely to avoid the celebrations. Instead, I meet his senior cleric, Maliwan Tarawai, a barefoot pastor carrying a well-thumbed Bible. “Prophet Fred has called his movement Unity, and he’s woven kastom, Christianity and John Frum together,” Tarawai tells me. The American messiah is little more than a figurehead in Fred’s version, which bans the display of foreign flags, including Old Glory, and forbids any talk of cargo. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, February 2006]

All morning I watch as vocalists with a string band sing hymns about Prophet Fred while several wild-eyed women stumble around in what appears to be a trance. They faith-heal the sick by clutching the ailing area of the body and praying silently to the heavens, casting out demons. Now and then they pause to clutch with bony fingers at the sky. “They do this every Wednesday, our holy day,” Tarawai explains. “The Holy Spirit has possessed them, and they get their healing powers from him and from the sun.”

Back in Lamakara, John Frum Day dawns warm and sticky. After the flag raising, Chief Isaac and other cult leaders sit on benches shaded by palm fronds as several hundred followers take turns performing traditional dances or modern improvisations. Men and boys clad in stringy bark skirts stride onto the dancing ground clutching replicas of chain saws carved from jungle boughs. As they thump their feet in time to their own singing, they slash at the air with the make-believe chain saws. “We’ve come from America to cut down all the trees,” they sing, “so we can build factories.”

Cargo Cult Scholarship

Peter Worsley's analysis of cargo cults emphasized their economic and political causes and viewed them as "proto-national" movements by indigenous peoples seeking to resist colonial interventions. He observed a general trend away from millenarianism towards secular political organization through political parties and cooperatives. Anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace called the "Tuka movement"a revitalization movement. [Source: Wikipedia]

Theodore Schwartz was the first to stress that both Melanesians and Europeans place great value on the demonstration of wealth. "The two cultures met on the common ground of materialistic competitive striving for prestige through entrepreneurial achievement of wealth." Melanesians felt "relative deprivation" in their standard of living, and thus came to focus on cargo as an essential expression of their personhood and agency.

Peter Lawrence was able to add greater historical depth to the study of cargo cults, and observed the striking continuity in the indigenous value systems from pre-cult times to the time of his study. Kenelm Burridge, in contrast, placed more emphasis on cultural change, and on the use of memories of myths to comprehend new realities, including the "secret" of European material possessions. His emphasis on cultural change follows from Worsley's argument on the effects of capitalism; Burridge points out these movements were more common in coastal areas which faced greater intrusions from European colonizers.

Cargo cults often develop during a combination of crises. Under conditions of social stress, such a movement may form under the leadership of a charismatic figure. This leader may have a "vision" (or "myth-dream") of the future, often linked to an ancestral efficacy ("mana") thought to be recoverable by a return to traditional morality. This leader may characterize the present state as a dismantling of the old social order, meaning that social hierarchy and ego boundaries have been broken down.

Contact with colonizing groups brought about a considerable transformation in the way indigenous peoples of Melanesia have thought about other societies. Early theories of cargo cults began from the assumption that practitioners simply failed to understand technology, colonization, or capitalist reform; in this model, cargo cults are a misunderstanding of the systems involved in resource distribution, and an attempt to acquire such goods in the wake of interrupted trade. However, many of these practitioners actually focus on the importance of sustaining and creating new social relationships, with material relations being secondary.

More recent work has debated the suitability of the term cargo cult arguing that it does not refer to an identifiable empirical reality, and that the emphasis on "cargo" says more about Western ideological bias than it does about the movements concerned. Nancy McDowell argues that the focus on cargo cult isolates the phenomenon from the wider social and cultural field (such as politics and economics) that gives it meaning. She states that people experience change as dramatic and complete, rather than as gradual and evolutionary. This sense of a dramatic break is expressed through cargo cult ideology.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Wikipedia, Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, February 2006“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991,, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, The Guardian, National Geographic, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2023

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