San José State University
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Cargo Cults
of the South Pacific

After World War II anthropologists discovered that an unusual religion had developed among the islanders of the South Pacific. It was oriented around the concept of cargo which the islanders perceived as the source of the wealth and power of the Europeans and Americans. This religion, known as the Cargo Cult, held that if the proper ceremonies were performed shipments of riches would be sent from some heavenly place. It was all very logical to the islanders. The islanders saw that they worked hard but were poor whereas the Europeans and Americans did not work but instead wrote things down on paper and in due time a shipment of wonderful things would arrive.

The Cargo Cult members built replicas of airports and airplanes out of twigs and branches and made the sounds associated with airplanes to try to activate the shipment of cargo.

Although the existence of the Cargo Cult only became known after World War II the cult had developed long before, when the Europeans first arrived in the area in ships. There were legends among the islanders of their distant ancestor-god having journeyed to the west and promised to someday return. The West was thought to be the land of the dead.

When the Portuguese and Dutch came into the area of the South Pacific they came from the west and they were pale skinned just as the islanders would have expected people coming from the land of the dead to be. The Europeans of the time also did not work but sent messages which led to the arrival of wonderful things as cargoes from ships.

At some point the notion developed among the Cargo Cult members that cargoes were being sent for them by their long dead ancestors but those cargoes were being intercepted by the Europeans. This idea was confirmed in the strongest possible way for one islander during World War II. His name was Bateri and he had learned to read and write some. One day he went into the office of military post and saw stacked up boxes labeled Batteries. Obviously those boxes were his!

In addition to ceremonies at the replicas of airports in the jungle there was another interesting type of ceremony. Islanders would build a hut in the forest and the cultees would bring money and leave it in the hut in expectation that it would grow. Sometime replicas of briefcases would be used to hold the money. Unfortunately the money would often be stolen from these jungle banks leaving the islanders even poorer than they were before.

The Cargo Cult had a name for the diety in heaven. He was called John Fromm. It is not certain how this name arose but quite possibly it was from American soldiers identifying themselves by their place of origin: i.e., I am John from Indiana or I am John from Minneapolis. Some clever business began marketing products under the name John Fromm. For example, soap bars were labeled John Fromm Soap. When it was a choice between ordinary soap and God's soap, it was no contest. It was clear which one would get you heavenly clean.

Because the Cargo Cult diverted people from productive and rewarding activities it was discouraged by the authorities. In New Guinea the Australian authorities enlisted the aid of the son of a famous warrior to discourage the Cargo Cult. He was effective and as a reward the Australians gave him a trip to Sydney. While in Sydney this man visited an anthropological museum. There he saw the sacred cult objects of his people on display. When the man returned to New Guinea he spread the word that the source of the Australians power was that they had stolen the sacred art of his people and built a temple to house it. A new cult developed around this idea.

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