The Cargo Cults

Jan. 1, 1991

After World War II, veterans returning from the Pacific all had stories to tell, not only about the war, but also about experiences with other cultures. There were tales of mysterious customs, strange lifestyles, and curious ceremonies. Of all the experiences, however, few were like the encounters with a number of bizarre–to Americans, at least–religious groups: the cargo cults.

“Cargoism” was, and is, a widespread religious movement among natives of the islands of Melanesia in the South Pacific. The theology and practice of the cult centers on the worship of cargo.

In simplest terms, followers of cargoism believe in the imminence of a new age of blessing which, they believe, will be heralded and fulfilled by the arrival of special cargo sent to them by supernatural powers. This belief existed long before the appearance in the Pacific of Western troops.

Western sociologists specializing in Melanesian religions say all the cargo cults are based on a curious mixture of native and Christian beliefs and rituals. The cultists believe their deities will send them ready-made goods just like those used by the military forces that came from far away. In their estimation, the goods will come from heaven, thought by some to be in Australia or, alternatively, in the sky immediately above it.

Those who hold to the latter view of paradise believe that Heaven is joined to Earth by a ladder, down which ancestral spirits carry the goods, packed in crates addressed to specific individuals. They expect that the precious cargo will come to them by ship, airplane, or truck, depending on where they live.

The Millennium at Hand

When soldiers and airmen from the United States and other allied countries arrived in the islands with huge war cargoes, it was for the worshipers proof that those who followed the beliefs of a cargo cult were to be rewarded for their faith. Though the natives did not benefit directly from the appearance on their islands of those types of cargo, the cultists believed that their predictions were confirmed and that the cargo-millennium was at hand. A time of plenty had arrived. There was no longer a need to work. Money was unnecessary. Crops could be, and were, neglected. Pigs were randomly slaughtered for feasts. It was a time to celebrate, and the cultists lived it up.

Things didn’t turn out as the cultists expected, but few lost the faith. When goods fail to appear, as in the postwar period, the followers usually assume it is because they have not yet performed the correct ritual, because foreigners have schemed against them, or because the cultists have neglected the gods.

Although the worship of cargo is basic, there are slight variations in theology among the approximately seventy cargo cults that are known to have existed. There are fewer now, and those remaining seem to be waning in religious fervor. However, world religion scholars say interest fluctuates and is revived by forceful, persuasive leaders who appear from time to time.

Typically, all cargo cults begin when someone claims that, through a dream or vision, supernatural powers have told him or her that a messiah and the ancestors or spirits of the dead will soon return bringing huge supplies of manufactured goods. Their arrival will usher in a wonderful new era when the believers will have their identity, dignity, and honor restored. Inequality, suffering, and death will cease. The riches of those they think have so far monopolized wealth and defrauded them of their share will then belong to the cultists.

The cargo cult members do not know how the goods of foreigners are made. They believe that the arrival of cargo must be stimulated by some kind of religious ritual, because the gods will respond only to correctly performed ceremonies. Cult leaders and sometimes whole native communities demonstrate that they have received news about the coming of cargo by falling into ecstatic states.

Typical of cargo dogma is a belief adopted by three groups in Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides). They worship a god named John Frum, king of America, who is said to have arrived in the islands before the appearance there of Christian missionaries in the mid-1800s. John Frum also is expected to return.

The cultists embrace the deity of Frum because he promised them a life untroubled by economic strife and the demanding ways of foreigners, especially Europeans. Although Frum hasn’t shown up, Frum followers saw great significance in the arrival of cargo-rich foreign troops on the island Tana in the New Hebrides during World War II. Cargo cult believers on other islands of Melanesia were likewise convinced that the cargoes they saw being unloaded were heaven-sent and that a god or messiah would soon follow.

Worshiping George V

In Papua New Guinea, cargo cults are numerous. The first to be discovered were the Baigona, reported by researchers in 1912, and the Vailala, first described by sociologists in 1919. Researchers found that cultists often were seized by mass hysteria that led to violent shaking fits and ecstatic trances. The Marching Rule movement is popular in the Solomon Islands. Another cult worships a faded portrait of King George V of England, declaring that it is the picture of Ihova, also known as God.

Some cult members believe they must imitate the foreigners. They even drill with wooden rifles and hold flag-raising ceremonies. They adopt Western dress and imitate Western behavior. They have built wharves, storehouses, airfields, “radio masts,” and lookout towers in anticipation of the arrival of good fortune. Cult leaders make contact with the deities by using “wireless telephones,” often nothing more than wooden posts or carved totem poles.

Cargo is expected to appear in local cemeteries, on altars, or in other places they consider holy and where the deity is expected to emerge. Cultists of Vanuatu have not lost faith in the long-absent John Frum; believers still await his return.

If someone tells you that he has seen natives of the South Pacific building airstrips and piers to prepare for the return of vast cargoes, don’t pass it off as just another tall war story. There are still hundreds of cargo cultists out there, patiently awaiting the day when their lookouts will spot a great armada on the horizon and a string of giant aircraft lined up on final approach to their airstrips.

C. V Glines is a regular contributor to this magazine. A retired Air Force colonel, he is a free-lance writer and the author of many books. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was “The Visions of Hector Bywater,” which appeared in the December 1990 issue.