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Cargo Cults

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Religion is a funny thing. As much as we may think we understand it, under certain circumstances it may twist around and pop up in a completely unexpected form. For instance, most Muslims would have a hard time recognising Sufis as having the same faith as they do, modern Hindus would be completely inexplicable to pre-Christian Brahmanists and Sikhism1 is strange to both faiths. Perhaps no religion has originated more variations, sects and bizarre interpretations than Christianity. As it was introduced across the globe by European colonial missionaries2, Christianity was adapted and interpreted by thousands of native converts. Western Catholics may be stunned to know that voodoo was originally a synthesis between their faith and traditional African beliefs, and that many practitioners of Voodoo consider themselves devout Catholics. Another apparently bizarre set of faiths with varying levels of Christian influence are the Cargo Cults of Melanesia in the South Pacific, which are examined in this Entry.


Belief in cargo reflects long-standing beliefs in Melanesian cultures. The exchange of goods and objects of wealth are a fundamental way in which communities and social relationships are maintained. Through generous giving, individuals gain power. The 'big man' is the one who has the most to give, who is followed by his community and may even become a local prophet. This focus on wealth was linked to a belief that the ancestors continue to have influence over a community long after their death. Melanesians believe that ancestors speak to them in dreams, providing instructions for 'proper living' and foresight of the future. They further believe that their ancestors will one day come back to life, bearing unimaginable wealth and secure the long-term future of their community. Cargo prophets were just another sort of traditional island leader.

When Europeans arrived in Melanesia in the 18th Century, distributing generous gifts to the islanders of materials (or cargo3) that they had never seen before, they believed that these were the 'big men', their ancestors, returning with the prophesied wealth.

The first chronicled cargo cult sprung up on the Madang Coast of modern day Papua New Guinea almost immediately after the arrival of the 18th Century Russian explorer Miklouho-Maclay, who gave gifts of Western goods such as steel axes and bolts of cloth to the natives. As more Europeans arrived, so the belief in cargo spread through Melanesia.


The first colonial government in Madang was German. Soon after its establishment in 1882, the area was flooded with Lutheran missionaries looking to 'save' the natives from their 'barbaric idols' and ancestor worship. They found the natives highly resistant, however; they were not content with hymns and stories, and wanted to know why the white men were hiding the secret of cargo from them. The missionaries were being stingy big men, and stinginess was number one on the list of bad qualities for a big man to have. The natives revolted in 1904 and again in 1912, but they were unable to eradicate the better-armed Germans. Then came WWI. The Germans were replaced by the Australians and it became clear that the ancestors worked in ways that could not be affected by the actions of the native people.

Christianisation of Cargo

Tribal councils were held, and the people of Madang decided that the cargo was not created by the Europeans, who were not actually ancestors. The actual ancestors made cargo far away, but the Europeans kept it from getting to the natives. Maybe if they learned the Europeans' rituals they could learn the secrets of cargo and convince their ancestors to send cargo to them instead. Thus, without any warning that the missionaries could understand, the natives began converting to Christianity in droves. Under the guidance of their tribal leaders, they willingly adapted Christian behaviour and clothing, and became models of Christian obedience. The sermons, however, were conducted in a confusing mixture of German, English and various native languages. This, combined with the native obsession with the spiritual value of cargo, led to rather interesting confusion on the nature of the Christian message.

The Christian Message (Interpreted)

In the native view, the Christians worshipped the god Anus. He created Adam and Eve and gave them cargo of canned meat, steel tools, rice in bags and matches. He took it all away when they discovered sex and he sent a flood to destroy them, but he gave Noah a big wooden steamboat and made him the captain so he would survive. When Ham disobeyed his father his cargo was taken away and he was sent to New Guinea. Now his descendants were being given a chance to reform and regain their cargo. All through the twenties the natives patiently worked hard, sang hymns and prayed to Anus. But by the thirties it became clear that the missionaries were lying; they had been good Christians and worked hard, but it was the foreign bosses who did no work that got all the cargo.

They were not yet ready to abandon Christianity, however. Instead they formed a new theory in the interwar period: Jesus Christ had been kidnapped by a combination of the European missionaries and a conspiracy of Jews, whom the natives knew from Bible stories. He was trying His best to help out His people in New Guinea, but the power of the Jews was keeping the cargo under wraps. He was being held prisoner at or near Sydney, Australia. In preparation for his imminent escape, they slaughtered their pigs4 and massed in the cemeteries, camping out for weeks at a time.

World War II and Japanese Occupation

The early years of World War II brought a startling new development as the natives heard of the Australians fighting against Japan. A cult leader named Tagarab came up with a solution: Jesus was really an unimportant god. The god of cargo was really a native god called Kilibob. Anus was an ordinary human who was the father of Kilibob, who was the father of Jesus. Kilibob had found out about the lies of the white missionaries and would arrive with an army of ancestors who looked like Japanese soldiers. When they did show up in December 1942, it was the first real fulfilment of cargo prophecy. The Japanese claimed the cargo had been delayed by the war, but as soon as it was over Madang would become part of the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and cargo would flow in. So the natives threw their support behind the Japanese, capturing downed Allied pilots and policing the coast. The tide turned as the war went badly for Japan, and eventually many Cargo Cult prophets, including Tagarab, were shot for protesting the Japanese retreat. By the time the Australians recaptured New Guinea the natives were entirely sure that all foreigners were thieves and liars.

Post-WWII Cargo Cults

After the return of Australian rule it was clear than neither the Australians, nor the Japanese or the Germans could really provide the secrets of cargo. Some cargo prophets, however, turned in a last-ditch effort to the nation that was providing the cargo for all the others: America. Cargo cults came to focus increasingly around Americans and various aspects of American culture.

Yaliwan Mathias

In 1962, in an effort to survey out the partially unmapped New Guinea landscape the UN set up a survey marker on Mount Turu, near the town of Wewak. A prophet named Yaliwan Mathias formed an entire cult around this marker. He claimed that the Americans who had placed it were really ancestors who wished to show their descendants where to find the secret of cargo. Over a period of several years he gathered $21,500 from his followers to prepare an expedition to retrieve this secret. In May 1971, after a night of prayer, Yaliwan Mathias trudged up the mountain and dug up the marker. When no cargo was found, he concluded that the Australians must have learned about the plan of the ancestors and taken the secrets away.

King of New Hanover

In 1968, a new Cargo Cult formed on the island of New Hanover, in the Bismarck Archipelago. The founder admitted he didn't know the secret of cargo, and in fact claimed that it was known only to one person: American President Lyndon Johnson. It was clear that in order to learn the secret of cargo, Lyndon Johnson would need to be contacted. This Lyndon Johnson cult revolted against the Australian authorities, establishing their own political structure and refusing to pay taxes. Over several years they saved up $75,000 and sent a letter to the United States government, offering to buy Lyndon Johnson and make him King of New Hanover. Johnson didn't accept the offer, perhaps because he was already considered a monarch by those protesting the war in Vietnam.

The Cult of John Frum

Most cargo cults have been short-lived, but the longest lasting and famous is the John Frum cult, on the island of Tana in Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides), the members of which have been waiting over 40 years for the return of American GIs. The islanders had long believed in a legend that foretold that a mighty god would come from the air and the sea to establish a time of peace and prosperity. Their legend also claimed that 50,000 warriors were waiting inside the volcano, Yasur, to lead them into victory and prosperity.

During World War II, an influx of American soldiers, ships and cargo arrived in Melanesia. 1,000 men were recruited from Tana to work on the American landing strip and army base on the neighbouring island of Efate. Not only did the Tanese experience better treatment than they were used to under the previous British administration, but they saw black American soldiers arriving who had the same possessions, clothes and food as the whites, all of which were beyond the everyday reach of the Tanese.

Back on Tana the islanders stopped going to church and began to build landing strips, warehouses and radio masts out of bamboo, in the belief that if it worked on Efate for the Americans, it would work for them on Tana. Carved figurines of American warplanes, helmets and rifles were made from bamboo and used as religious icons. Islanders began to march in parades with USA painted, carved or tattooed on their chests and backs. John Frum emerged as the name of their Messiah, although there are no records of an American soldier with that name.

When the last American GI left at the end of the war, the islanders predicted John Frum's return. The movement continued to flourish and on 15 February, 1957, an American flag was raised in Sulphur Bay to declare the religion of John Frum. It is on this date every year that John Frum Day is celebrated. They believe that John Frum is waiting in the volcano Yasur with his warriors to deliver his cargo to the people of Tana. During the festivities the elders march in an imitation army, a kind of military drill mixed with traditional dancing. Some carry imitation rifles made of bamboo and wear American army memorabilia such as caps, T-shirts and coats. They believe that their annual rituals will draw the god John Frum down from the volcano and deliver the cargo of prosperity to all of the islanders.

The Prophet Yali

The greatest of all Cargo Cult prophets was Yali, who was mentioned in the introduction to Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Unlike his contemporaries, he remained loyal to Australia during the war. As a reward, after the war ended he was taken to Australia on a grand tour.

He became fascinated by the Queensland Museum, which contained many of the New Guinea gods which had been seized by missionaries, apparently being worshipped by thousands of Australians and tended by priests in white coats. The conclusion was clear - the Australians had stolen the New Guinea gods and were using them to get cargo.

While in Brisbane, Yali made another startling discovery: the Australians kept hundreds of animals in the Brisbane Zoo, which they carefully fed and tended. He also noticed the large number of dogs and cats kept as pets in homes. It wasn't until a conference in Port Moresby5 that he was able to solve this puzzling behaviour. The solution came when he witnessed a book which showed a succession from monkeys into humans. It became clear the depth to which the missionaries had lied: they had claimed Adam and Eve were men's ancestors when they clearly believed that their ancestors were animals who needed to be treated with respect. It was obvious the missionaries had made up such lies in order to hide this truth from the New Guineans, who had held such beliefs before their arrival. Upon returning home, Yali was convinced by the prophet Gurek that the Queensland Museum was actually Rome, that the gods had been taken captive there, and that in order to lure them back the natives had to stop their foolish acceptance of the lies of Christianity.

Throughout the 1940s Yali cooperated with Australian officials who were attempting to stamp out all Cargo Cults related in any way to God or Jesus as heresies. He managed to convince the whites that he didn't believe in cargo, and that he would advocate their position to his people. He was provided with a stage and speakers, and thousands came to hear him speak out against the Jesus Cargo Cults. The more vehemently he said that Jesus would not bring cargo, the more the natives understood that only he could show them how to get cargo. The more he denied that he knew the secret of cargo or that he was an ancestor, the more the natives believed he had magic powers and could lead them to the long-awaited cargo. Yali formed an alliance with Gurek, by which Gurek would spread word that in order to bring cargo the people must bring back the old rituals as well as adopt the secret European rituals Yali had seen in Australia. They were to set up 'shrines' in their houses, consisting of a small table covered with a white cloth and with a small vase of flowers placed on top of it. Yali was to be known as 'king'.

It became clear to the Australian authorities that a movement of real significance was taking place in New Guinea. They ordered Yali as an official government agent to stamp out the growing Gurek cult. He used his policing authority to do away with his enemies and set up loyalists in towns and villages throughout New Guinea. Before long he did act as de facto king of New Guinea, controlling the police and the labour force and setting up a system of redistribution. The more the Australians sent Yali out into the field the stronger his cult grew, but it became impossible to prove that Yali had anything to do with it. His non-belief in cargo had been publicly stated, and how could he help it if certain extremists misinterpreted his words? In 1950 Yali was arrested on charges of incitement to rape, which some have claimed to be fraudulent, and jailed for six years.

The Legacy of Yali

Throughout his entire sentence, his followers looked for Yali to return to Madang at the head of a huge cargo fleet. As the Australian government was forced to concede certain improvements such as building schools and opening up local assemblies, Yali got credit for everything that could be conceived as cargo. After his release from jail, he came back as an old man to preside once more over Madang. Worshippers came to be blessed by him and have the sin of Christianity washed from them. He continued to act as king, appointing ambassadors to Japan, China and the United States. In 2003 James Yali, son of the prophet Yali, seized de facto authority as Governor of Madang. Since taking power he has taken steps to force out Europeans living in the Madang area, bulldozing western settlements and forcibly evicting their occupants. Although formal protests have been lodged, the Papua New Guinean government has not taken any action to counter this movement.

Further information

Much of the information on the Mandang Cargo Cults, as well as an attempt at explaining the environmental causes of this behaviour, can be found in chapter seven of Marvin Harris's Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches.

1Created as an attempt to merge Islam and Hinduism2Already representing an array of sects3Meaning any Western goods4A traditional part of all spiritual events5Capital of Papua New Guinea

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