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Cargo cult

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A ceremonial cross of the John Frum cargo cult, Tanna island, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), 1967

Cargo cult is an umbrella term to denote various spiritual and political movements that arose among indigenous Melanesians during the early-mid 20th century. The definition of cargo cult is vague, having been used for "almost any sort of organised, village-based social movement with religious and political aspirations" and "a variety of forms of social unrest that ethnographers elsewhere tagged millenarian, messianic, nativistic, vitalistic, revivalistic, or culture-contact or adjustment movements". "Cargo cults" were often organised around a central charismatic prophet, who either pushed for the revival of ancestral traditions or the adoption of new traditions (often in the form of ritual acts like dancing, marching and flag raising) in order to appease ancestral spirits. Although many accounts focus on the acquisition of Western material goods, the definition of "cargo" was broader than this, with many such movements focused on spiritual salvation, or were political expressions of a desire for autonomy. Many scholars see the movements as a reaction to the disruption to traditional ways of life caused by the colonisation of Melanesia during the late 19th century by Western powers and the resulting oppression and discrimination, as well as the contact between traditional gift giving and colonial capitalist economies.[1]

The term "cargo cult" was introduced to the field of anthropology in 1945 around the end of World War II, though similar previous phenomena had been labelled with the term "Vailala Madness". Following the coining of the term, groups under this label were subject to a considerable number of anthropological publications focusing on the phenomenon through the 1960s. Since the 1970s after Melanesian countries gained political independence, few new groups matching the term have emerged, and the term largely fell out of favour among anthropologists, with some describing the term as "Western-centric origin and pejorative",[2] although its use as a metaphor is widespread outside of the discipline of anthropology.[3] Recent scholarship on "cargo cults" has challenged the suitability of the term for the movements associated with it, with recent anthropological sources arguing that the term is born of colonialism and prejudice and does not accurately convey the diversity of movements included or the nature of the movements to which it refers.[1]

Causes, beliefs, and practices[edit]

Cargo cults are marked by a number of common characteristics, including a "myth-dream" that is a synthesis of indigenous and foreign elements,[clarification needed] the expectation of help from the ancestors, charismatic leaders, and lastly, belief in the appearance of an abundance of goods.[4] The indigenous societies of Melanesia were[when?] typically characterized by a "big man" political system 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.[5] Those who were unable to reciprocate were known as "rubbish men".

Faced, through colonialism, with foreigners with a seemingly unending supply of goods for exchange, indigenous Melanesians experienced "value dominance". That is, 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.[5]

Since the modern manufacturing process was unknown to them, members, leaders, and prophets of the cults maintained that the manufactured goods of the non-native culture had been created by spiritual means, such as through their deities and ancestors. These leaders claimed that the goods were intended for the local indigenous people, but the foreigners had unfairly gained control of these objects through malice or mistake.[6] Thus, a characteristic feature of cargo cults was the belief that spiritual agents would, at some future time, give much valuable cargo and desirable manufactured products to the cult members.[6]


An example of a Cargo Cult ritual, as described in the anthropology magazine Sapiens in 2022:

On a tropical island in the South West Pacific, a few dozen men gather in the rainforest. They are wearing long trousers but no shoes or shirts, and red paint marks the initials U.S.A. on their bare chests. Carrying thick bamboo poles painted with red stripes, the men greet each other cordially and muck around for a while.

Suddenly, the toll of a bell abruptly changes the mood. Everyone stands upright, looking solemn and purposeful. A frail-looking older man in a worn-out military jacket several sizes too large shouts something in Bislama, a pidgin language common in Vanuatu, and the men get in formation. They place their bamboo poles on their shoulders like rifles, and at the next command begin marching in lockstep through the jungle.

Their destination is a clearing in the forest that looks like a landing strip. But the only airplane present is a full-size wooden replica of a light aircraft. On one side of the strip lies a control tower made of bamboo. On the other sits a satellite dish built of mud and straw. Undeterred by the apparent lack of any actual aviation technology, some of the men light torches and place them alongside the runway. Others use flags to wave landing signals. Everyone raises their gaze to the sky in anticipation.

They wait. But the planes never come.[2]

First occurrences[edit]

Discussions of cargo cults usually begin with a series of movements that occurred in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.[7] 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 potency. Minor alterations to priestly practices were undertaken to update them and attempt to recover some kind of ancestral efficacy. Colonial authorities saw the leader of the movement, Tuka, as a troublemaker, and he was exiled, although their attempts to stop him returning proved fruitless.[8]

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.[7] 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.

Pacific cults of World War II[edit]

Members of the John Frum cult at a ceremonial flag-raising.

The most widely known period of cargo cult activity occurred among the Melanesian islanders in the years during and after World War II. A small population of indigenous peoples observed, often directly in front of their dwellings, the largest war ever fought by technologically advanced nations. The Japanese distributed goods and used the beliefs of the Melanesians to attempt to gain their compliance.[7] Later the Allied forces arrived in the islands and did this as well.

The vast amounts of military equipment and supplies that both sides airdropped (or airlifted to airstrips) to troops on these islands meant drastic changes to the lifestyle of the islanders, many of whom had never seen outsiders before. Manufactured clothing, medicine, canned food, tents, weapons and other goods arrived in vast quantities for the soldiers, who often shared some of it with the islanders who were their guides and hosts. This was true of the Japanese Army as well, at least initially before relations deteriorated in most regions.

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 having the name "John Frum" or "Tom Navy" who they claimed had brought cargo to their island during World War II and whom they identified as being the spiritual entity who would provide cargo to them in the future.[9]

Postwar developments[edit]

With the end of the war, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping cargo. In response, charismatic individuals developed cults among remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow on their followers deliveries of food, arms, Jeeps, etc. The cult leaders explained that the cargo would be gifts from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had occurred with the outsider armies.[10]

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.[10] 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.[11][better source needed]

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.[12] 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. 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.[13]

Current status[edit]

Some cargo cults are still active. These include:

However, as of 1993, Lamont Lindstrom reports that "many" Melanesian political movements "must take care" to "explicitly" deny any connection with the cults.[16]

Theoretical explanations[edit]

Anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace conceptualized the "Tuka movement" as a revitalization movement.[full citation needed] Peter Worsley's analysis of cargo cults placed the emphasis on the economic and political causes of these popular movements. He 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.[17]

Theodore Schwartz was the first to emphasize 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."[5] 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.[18]

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.[19][20] 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.[21]

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.[22]

Since the late twentieth century, alternative theories have arisen. For example, some scholars, such as Kaplan and Lindstrom, focus on Europeans' characterization of these movements as a fascination with manufactured goods and what such a focus says about consumerism.[23] Others point to the need to see each movement as reflecting a particularized historical context, even eschewing the term "cargo cult" for them unless there is an attempt to elicit an exchange relationship from Europeans.[24]

The term was first used in print in 1945 by Norris Mervyn Bird, repeating a derogatory description used by planters and businessmen in the Australian Territory of Papua. The term was later adopted by anthropologists, and applied retroactively to movements in a much earlier era.[25] In 1964, Peter Lawrence described the term as follows: "Cargo ritual was any religious activity designed to produce goods in this way and assumed to have been taught [to] the leader [of the cargo cult] by the deity"[26]

In recent decades, anthropology has distanced itself from the term "cargo cult", which is now seen as having been reductively applied to many different complicated and disparate social and religious movements that arose from the stress and trauma of colonialism, and sought to attain much more varied and amorphous goals—things like self-determination—than material cargo.[27]

Discourse on cargo cults[edit]

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.[28] 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.[clarification needed][25]

Lamont Lindstrom takes this analysis one step further through his examination of "cargoism", the discourse of the West about cargo cults. His analysis is concerned with Western fascination with the phenomenon in both academic and popular writing. In his opinion, the name "cargo cult" is deeply problematic because of its pejorative connotation of backwardness, since it imputes a goal (cargo) obtained through the wrong means (cult); the actual goal is not so much obtaining material goods as creating and renewing social relationships under threat. Martha Kaplan thus argues in favor of erasing the term altogether, though other writers like Ton Otto have argued the term remains useful.[29]


See also[edit]

  • Cargo cult programming – Ritual inclusion of computer code that serve no purpose (cargo cults used as a metaphor)
  • Cargo cult science – 1985 autobiographical book by Richard Feynman (cargo cults used as a metaphor)
  • Culture shock – Experience one may have when moving to a cultural environment which is different from one's own
  • Ghost Dance – New religious movement
  • Johnson cult – political theatre
  • Magical thinking – Belief in the connection of unrelated events
  • Prosperity theology – Material wealth–based Christian belief


  1. ^ a b Lindstrom, Lamont (29 March 2018). "Cargo cults". Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology. doi:10.29164/18cargo.
  2. ^ a b Xygalatas, Dimitris (20 October 2022). "What Cargo Cult Rituals Reveal About Human Nature". Sapiens. Retrieved 5 November 2023.
  3. ^ Lindstrom, Lamont (1993). "1 WHAT HAPPENED TO CARGO CULTS?". Cargo Cult: Strange Stories of Desire from Melanesia and Beyond, ,. University of Hawai'i Press. Retrieved 15 June 2024. Cargo cult is one of anthropology's most successful conceptual offspring. Like "culture," "worldview," or "ethnicity," its usage has spread beyond our discipline. Other communities nowadays find the term as alluring as anthropologists used to .....
  4. ^ Otto, Ton (2009). "What happened to Cargo Cults? Material Religions in Melanesia and the West". Social Analysis. 53 (1): 90. doi:10.3167/sa.2009.530106.
  5. ^ a b c Schwartz, Theodore (1976). "The Cargo Cult: A Melanesian Type-Response to Change". In DeVos, George A. (ed.). Responses to Change: Society, Culture, and Personality. New York: Van Nostrand. p. 174. ISBN 978-0442220945.
  6. ^ a b Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Random House, 1974, pg. 133-152
  7. ^ a b c "How "Cargo-Cult" is Born". XVII(4) Pacific Islands Monthly. 18 November 1946. Retrieved 29 September 2021.
  8. ^ Worsley, Peter (1957). The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of 'Cargo Cults' in Melanesia. New York: Schocken books. pp. 17–31.
  9. ^ Mercer, Phil (17 February 2007). "Cargo cult lives on in South Pacific". BBC.
  10. ^ a b White, Osmar. Parliament of a Thousand Tribes, Heinemann, London, 1965
  11. ^ Mondo cane. 30 March 1962.
  12. ^ "They Still Believe in Cargo Cult". XX(10) Pacific Islands Monthly. 1 May 1950. Retrieved 30 September 2021.
  13. ^ Inder, Stuart (1 September 1960). "On The Trail of the Cargo Cultists". XXXI(2) Pacific Islands Monthly. Retrieved 2 October 2021.
  14. ^ Andrew Lattas, University of Bergen, Norway
  15. ^ EOS magazine, January 2011
  16. ^ Lindstrom, Lamont (1993). "1 WHAT HAPPENED TO CARGO CULTS?". Cargo Cult: Strange Stories of Desire from Melanesia and Beyond,. University of Hawai'i Press. Retrieved 15 June 2024. Nowadays, for example, many Melanesian political movements must take care to deny explicitly that they are any sort of cargo cult. .....
  17. ^ Worsley, Peter (1957). The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of 'Cargo Cults' in Melanesia. New York: Schocken books. p. 231.
  18. ^ Otto, Ton (2009). "What happened to Cargo Cults? Material Religions in Melanesia and the West". Social Analysis. 53 (1): 85. doi:10.3167/sa.2009.530106.
  19. ^ Burridge, Kenelm (1969). New Heaven, New Earth: A study of Millenarian Activities. London: Basil Blackwell. p. 48.
  20. ^ Burridge, Kenelm (1993). Lockwood, V. S.; Harding, T. G.; B. J., Wallace (eds.). Contemporary Pacific Societies: Studies in Development and Change. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. p. 283.
  21. ^ Worsley, Peter (1957). The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of 'Cargo Cults' in Melanesia. New York: Schocken books.
  22. ^ Otto, Ton (2009). "What happened to Cargo Cults? Material Religions in Melanesia and the West". Social Analysis. 53 (1): 93–4. doi:10.3167/sa.2009.530106.
  23. ^ Lindstrom, Lamont (1993). Cargo Cult: Strange Stories of desire from Melanesia and beyond. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  24. ^ Otto, Ton (2009). "What happened to Cargo Cults? Material Religions in Melanesia and the West". Social Analysis. 53 (1). doi:10.3167/sa.2009.530106.
  25. ^ a b Otto, Ton (2009). "What happened to Cargo Cults? Material Religions in Melanesia and the West". Social Analysis. 53 (1): 87. doi:10.3167/sa.2009.530106.
  26. ^ Lawrence, Peter (1971). Road Belong Cargo: A Study of the Cargo Movement in the Southern Madang District, New Guinea. University of Manchester at the University Press. pp. Introduction, page 5, second full paragraph. ISBN 9780719004575.
  27. ^ Jarvis, Brooke. "Who is John Frum?". Topic.
  28. ^ Otto, Ton (2009). "What happened to Cargo Cults? Material Religions in Melanesia and the West". Social Analysis. 53 (1): 86. doi:10.3167/sa.2009.530106.
  29. ^ Otto, Ton (2009). "What happened to Cargo Cults? Material Religions in Melanesia and the West". Social Analysis. 53 (1): 88–9. doi:10.3167/sa.2009.530106.


  • Butcher, Benjamin T. My Friends, The New Guinea Headhunters. Doubleday & Co., 1964.
  • Frerichs, Albert C. Anutu Conquers in New Guinea. Wartburg Press, 1957.
  • Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Inglis, Judy. "Cargo Cults: The Problem of Explanation", Oceania vol. xxvii no. 4, 1957.
  • Jebens, Holger (ed.). Cargo, Cult, and Culture Critique. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
  • Kaplan, Martha. Neither cargo nor cult: ritual politics and the colonial imagination in Fiji. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
  • Lawrence, Peter. Road belong cargo: a study of the Cargo Movement in the Southern Madang District, New Guinea. Manchester University Press, 1964.
  • Lindstrom, Lamont. Cargo cult: strange stories of desire from Melanesia and beyond. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.
  • Read, K. E. A Cargo Situation in the Markham Valley, New Guinea. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, vol. 14 no. 3, 1958.
  • Tabani, Marc. Une pirogue pour le paradis: le culte de John Frum à Tanna. Paris: Editions de la MSH, 2008.
  • Tabani, Marc & Abong, Marcelin. Kago, Kastom, Kalja: the study of indigenous movements in Melanesia today. Marseilles: Pacific-Credo Publications, 2013.
  • Trenkenschuh, F. Cargo cult in Asmat: Examples and prospects, in: F. Trenkenschuh (ed.), An Asmat Sketchbook, vol. 2, Hastings, NE: Crosier Missions, 1974.
  • Wagner, Roy. The invention of culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • Worsley, Peter. The trumpet shall sound: a study of "cargo" cults in Melanesia, London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1957.
  • Worsley, Peter. "Cargo Cults", Scientific American, 1 May 1959.


Further reading[edit]

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