You have probably seen the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy”, in which an airplane pilot drops an empty Coca-Cola bottle onto what is depicted as a deserted uncivilized land barely populated by a primitive society, and that becomes the origin of a new religion… That’s actually based on a real ethnological case. From “Cargo Cult” to “Drone Cult”…
University of Tulsa
Initially published 29 Mar 2018
Cargo cult—the term—appeared in 1945, at the end of the Pacific War. Anthropologists rapidly embraced the neologism to label the Melanesian social movements that had come to their attention during the colonial era (which began in the region in the second half of the nineteenth century) as well as post-war movements that captured ethnographic attention. A southwest Pacific example of messianic or millenarian movements once common throughout the colonial world, the modal cargo cult was an agitation or organised social movement of Melanesian villagers in pursuit of ‘cargo’ by means of renewed or invented ritual action that they hoped would induce ancestral spirits or other powerful beings to provide. Typically, an inspired prophet with messages from those spirits persuaded a community that social harmony and engagement in improvised ritual (dancing, marching, flag-raising) or revived cultural traditions would, for believers, bring them cargo. Ethnographers suggested that ‘cargo’ was often Western commercial goods and money, but it could also signify moral salvation, existential respect, or proto-nationalistic, anti-colonial desire for political autonomy. Although some one-time cargo cults have been institutionalised as indigenous churches or local political organizations and remain active, few new movements of the classic cargo sort emerged after most of the Melanesian colonies achieved national independence in the 1970s. Cargo cult stories, however, today continue to circulate widely beyond Melanesia, serving as useful metaphors of contemporary unrequitable desire, both ordinary and peculiar.
Anthropologists have invented or cultivated a number of important keywords, including ‘culture’, ‘ethnicity’, ‘worldview’, ‘socialization’, ‘ethnography’, and ‘rite of passage’. Among these terms is ‘cargo cult’ which, although more particular in scope, has enjoyed surprising popularity both inside the discipline and beyond. Peter Worsley, who compiled an early overview of cargo cults in The trumpet shall sound (1957), offered what had already become the standard definition. Cargo cults are:
strange religious movements in the South Pacific [that appeared] during the last few decades. In these movements, a prophet announces the imminence of the end of the world in a cataclysm which will destroy everything. Then the ancestors will return, or God, or some other liberating power, will appear, bringing all the goods the people desire, and ushering in a reign of eternal bliss (1957: 11).
In the Melanesian islands of the southwest Pacific, ‘cargo cult’ provided a handy label which could encompass a variety of forms of social unrest that ethnographers elsewhere tagged millenarian, messianic, nativistic, vitalistic, revivalistic, or culture-contact or adjustment movements. After the Second World War, anthropological attention (including Worsley’s) had shifted from functionalist accounts of simpler social systems to issues of social change, and how to describe and explain that change. The label presumed that these Melanesian movements typically focused on the acquisition of ‘cargo’ or kago (supplies, goods) in the Pidgin Englishes of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu (then the New Hebrides). Anthropologists offered a variety of explanations for cargo cult outbreaks, within the broader context of global social transformations that the War had caused. Simple greed and cupidity, fundamental Melanesian cultural and religious belief systems, or colonial inequality and oppression variously accounted for cult outbreaks. The term fell out of anthropological favor by the 1970s when Melanesian colonies obtained national independence (Fiji in 1970; Papua New Guinea in 1975; Solomon Islands in 1978; and Vanuatu in 1980). Active social movements continue, however, in colonised West Papua, the western half of New Guinea that Indonesia annexed in 1962. Some have tagged these anti-Indonesian liberation movements as cargoistic (e.g., Giay & Godschalk 1993; Timmer 2000), but caution is warranted insofar as the label undercuts the political gravity and legitimacy of organised liberation efforts. Although most anthropologists have abandoned ‘cargo cult’ as misleading, and even embarrassing (although, see Otto 2009 and Tabani 2013, who defend the label’s merits), the term enjoys a post-ethnographic afterlife and continues to pop up frequently in popular commentary and critique.
Cargo cult erupts
Anthropologists briskly adopted, but did not invent, the term ‘cargo cult’. The label first appeared in print, as a calumny, in the November 1945 issue of the colonial news magazine Pacific Islands Monthly (Bird 1945). Norris Mervyn Bird, an ‘old Territories resident’, wrote to express worries that wartime upheavals, a more liberal postwar colonial regime, and ill-digested Christian teaching would unsettle local people and spark cargo culting. Bird introduced the term as an alternative to an earlier cultic label, ‘Vailala Madness’:
Stemming directly from religious teaching of equality, and its resulting sense of injustice, is what is generally known as ‘Vailala Madness’, or ‘Cargo Cult’. . . . A native, infected with the disorder, states that a great number of ships loaded with ‘cargo’ had been sent by the ancestor of the native for the benefit of the natives of a particular village or area. But the white man, being very cunning, knows how to intercept these ships and takes the ‘cargo’ for his own use. . . By his very nature the New Guinea native is peculiarly susceptible to these ‘cults’ (1945: 69-70).
F. E. Williams, Government Anthropologist employed by the Australian Territory of Papua, had investigated curious incidents around Vailala in 1922 (Williams 1923). Predictions circulated about the return of ancestral spirits on ghost steam ships carrying desirable cargo. Enthusiasts abandoned the traditional male initiation ceremony and destroyed ritual artifacts, mimed Australian tea parties at flower-bedecked tables, and took up marching, drilling, and ecstatic dancing. By the time Williams arrived to investigate, colonial officials and others had tagged all this as ‘Vailala Madness’, and Williams adopted the label as ‘the most distinctive and suitable’ of various alternatives (Williams 1923: 2).
‘Cargo cult’ bested ‘Vailala Madness’ as a movement cover term as it was not tied to a particular locale, elevated madness to cult, and featured catchy alliteration. Australia-based anthropologists including Lucy Mair and H. Ian Hogbin, who then lectured at the Australian Army School of Civil Affairs in Canberra and had served as anthropological consultants during the War, embraced the label, importing this into anthropological circles (see Mair 1948; Hogbin 1951). ‘Cargo cult’ quickly spread through Australian academia and beyond as anthropologists and journalists borrowed the term to label almost any sort of organised, village-based social movement with religious and political aspirations—movements that were increasingly on the colonialist and academic radar throughout Melanesia, as elsewhere. Anthropologists retrospectively applied the new term to pre-1945 Pacific movements, including Vailala Madness itself.
Although anthropologists had occasionally grappled with social change (e.g. Malinowski 1945), post-War transformations focused ethnographic attention on disorder and disruption, including social movements. Several important analyses of historical movements appeared in the 1950s, including Norman Cohn’s The pursuit of the millennium (1957) and Eric Hobsbawm’s Primitive rebels (1959). The Melanesian cargo cult expanded the catalogue of notable global movements, old and new, including Handsome Lake’s (Wallace 1956) and the Ghost Dance in North America, China’s Boxer Rebellion, Kenya’s Mau Mau, and more (see Lanternari 1963). By 1952, seven years after Pacific Islands Monthly introduced the versatile label, South Pacific Commission librarian Ida Leeson found enough ethnographic and administrative material on cargo cults to produce a robust bibliography. Peter Worsley’s comparative compendium, The trumpet shall sound: a study of ‘cargo’ cults in Melanesia, which tracked 60-some movements across the southwest Pacific from Fiji to New Guinea (including West Papua), followed in 1957.
Melanesian social movements before and after the 1950s were each distinct and particular, but similar enough to come under the cargo cult label. Steinbauer (1979) tallied 185 of these. The new term disposed observers to find common elements and themes, including: desire for cargo (however imagined); expectation of spiritual assistance, whether from the ancestral dead or Christian figures, as locally reimagined; mimetic ritual reflecting European colonial or wartime practices (flags and flagpoles; marching and drilling); the washing and other manipulation of money; and ecstatic dancing and other forms of paroxysm. Cargo prophecy varied from movement to movement, although a common assertion was that ancestral spirits (who governed natural forces and fertility) were equally implicated in the production of manufactured goods. A technologically wise ancestor, perhaps, had sailed off to America, or Europe, or Australia and there was taught the secrets of cargo. Or, wily Europeans were filching cargo that ancestral spirits were beneficently shipping to their descendants.
The period between 1956 and 1964 was cargo cult research’s golden age. During these years, five important cargo ethnographies were published: Jean Guiart (1956) on Tanna’s (New Hebrides) John Frum Movement; Margaret Mead (1956) and Theodore Schwartz (1962) on the Paliau Movement, Admiralty Islands; Kenelm Burridge (1960) on movements in Madang Province; and, not too far away, Peter Lawrence (1964) on the Yali Movement. One might also include here Robert Maher’s (1961) New men of Papua: a study in culture change about the Tommy Kabu Movement of the Purari River delta area, except that Maher did not use cargo cult idiom to frame his analysis. The term only appears as a bit of an afterthought on the book’s final page, where Maher warns that Purari people, although pragmatic, might turn to cargo culting should their desire for social change be thwarted. Malaita’s Maasina (Marching) Rule also was labeled a post-war cargo cult, although Keesing (1978; see Akin 2013) and others argued that it was rather a nationalist movement with only minor spiritual rudiments.
On the island of Tanna, the shadowy figure who people called John Frum (or Jon Frumm, or John Broom) appeared in the late 1930s and instructed new devotees to return to original lands, resume kava drinking and dancing, and in general maintain island tradition, or kastom (Guiart 1956). Presbyterian missionaries had attempted to prohibit kava (Piper methysticum) drinking as men, when under its mild psychoactive influence, communed with their ancestral spirits, with local kava-drinking grounds serving also as burial grounds. John Frum foretold reversals of land and sea; mountains and plains; and black and white. He also predicted American material assistance that, indeed, eventuated in 1942 when US forces landed to establish military bases in the archipelago. A series of mostly male leaders (in spiritual contact with John Frum) originated movement rituals shaped by both Christian liturgy and wartime experience. As did Vailala adherents and cultists elsewhere in Melanesia, movement rituals included marching and drilling, flags and poles, and flowers. Followers gathered weekly, each Friday evening, to dance through the night. On 15 February 1957, leaders raised two red flags hoarded from American ammunition dumps, and this day remains the main annual movement holiday. Over the years, John Frum talk of cargo has shifted from new money and goods, to local autonomy, to economic development projects (Lindstrom 1993).
On Manus and neighboring Admirality Islands, the Pacific War likewise stimulated and shaped the Paliau Movement (known subsequently as The Noise, Makasol, or Wind Nation). Paliau Maloat, a mature man returning home from conscript service with the Japanese military, and drawing on Christian teaching, proposed a ‘New Way’ wherein people could better pursue economic development through cooperation. He proposed that people from different communities join to share garden and sea resources, working together to advance economically. Younger followers, claiming spiritual contact with Jesus, predicted Christ’s imminent return alongside the ancestral dead. Expecting impending arrival of cargo planes, ships, bulldozers, sheet metal, money, and tinned food, followers destroyed property, danced ecstatically, shared ancestral inspirations, and waited (Schwartz 1962: 227, 268). Over the years, the movement morphed into a political bloc (Makasol) and independent church (Wind Nation) (Otto 1992). Paliau was elected to Papua New Guinea’s pre-independence Parliament in 1968 and then to the Provincial Council in 1979. Wind Nation and Makasol continue to enjoy some support on Manus.
In Madang, Peter Lawrence (1964) followed the history of regional social movements through five phases, between 1871 and 1950. Road belong cargo’s opening chapter on the ‘native cosmic order’ is a magisterial summary of the cultural context of these disturbances, culminating in the poignant story of Yali, Madang’s most recent and celebrated prophet.
Yali Singina from Sor village on Papua New Guinea’s Rai (Madang Province) coast, like Paliau, was caught up in the Pacific War, working with Australian forces including coast-watchers (during the Pacific War, Australian and American servicemen, with indigenous support, manned a chain of remote outposts, reporting on Japanese military movements.) At war’s end, also like Paliau, Yali returned home to push economic development through cooperation, attracting followers across Papua New Guinea’s Rai Coast. Weekly on Tuesdays (the movement’s holy day), ‘flower girls’ decorated ritual tables:
At the core of this cult was ritual sexual intercourse between Yali and these women, following which the sexual fluids were collected in a bottle decorated with specific flowers (codiaeum variegatum). The bottle was placed on a table in the hope that the ancestors worshipped would offer their help by producing money at the bottom of the bottle (Hermann 1992: 58).
Yali also ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the colonial House of Assembly. His son James Yali, however, was elected several times to Papua New Guinea’s national Parliament.
The Mambu Movement, which developed in the Bogia region on the western side of Madang Province in the 1930s, was still active in the 1950s when Kenelm Burridge (1960) arrived to undertake investigative cargo fieldwork. Mambu, a former plantation worker and Catholic convert from Apingam village, near Bogia, had disappeared during the Pacific War, but his prophesies continued to echo around the region. These foretold that ancestral spirits living inside Manam Island’s volcano were preparing cargo for shipment to the faithful, and that followers would no longer need to pay colonial head taxes. Waiting for tinned food, axes and bush knives, soap, cloth, and the like, people built cargo sheds near cemeteries and cult temples adorned with red flags, abandoned mission churches, gave up minding their crops and drying coconut for the market, underwent cultic rebaptism in water, enjoyed promiscuous if ritualised sexual intercourse, and adopted European clothing. Colonial authorities jailed Mambu for six months, as they would Yali and also John Frum leaders on Tanna, to little avail, as upstart prophets and new movement leaders carried the message over several decades.
Following Lawrence, anthropologists have suggested several aspects of Melanesian cultures that shaped these renowned cargo movements, along with many others. These cultural elements include the traditional importance of wealth, presumptions of necessary spiritual contribution to economic production, a disjunctive temporality, and village polities wherein big-man leadership facilitated that of cult prophets… [+]