The Strange Phenomena of the Cargo Cults
Often it becomes easier to understand an issue when we put it into a different context. 
It is very difficult at times to understand the diversity and scope of the beliefs that fall into
the domain of religion.  Each of us thinks that normative religious thought is what we
individually believe.  It's the other guy who has the problem.  We find it
incomprehensible that someone could sincerely believe things that we can clearly see
are incorrect.  Protestants find it hard to understand how Catholics can believe in the
infallibility of the Pope.  Baptists don't agree with the Charismatics on the issue of
speaking in tongues.  Mainline Christians don't believe that Muslims worship the same
God because the refer to him as Allah (simply Arabic for God).  Christians can't
understand how it is that the Jews do not accept Jesus as messiah.  When it comes to
religious thought, each of us lives in a very tiny world of our own, even though the
constraints are self imposed.
Everyone (at least those of us in the United States) has an inalienable right to believe
what we choose to understand.  Another way of looking at that, given the diversity of
religious thought, is to say that each of us has the right to be wrong.  Logic dictates that
it is impossible for us all to be right.  But my goal in writing these investigations is to
prompt readers to think - to look beyond the constraints that may have encumbered their
thinking, and to break through to a greater domain of understanding.
With that in mind I think it would be useful to consider a remarkable religious
phenomenon that exists in some remote parts of the world.  A truly new religion has
emerged in these regions in the last century or so due to a unique set of circumstances. 
It is humorous to those of us from so called educated societies, and yet is serious and
sad, in that it has become a force that demands the time, attention and loyalty of many
adherents.  Presumably it blinds its people to the possibility of other, more worthy,
spiritual pursuits.
I am referring to a number of religious movements that have primarily taken place,
independently, in the islands of the Southern Pacific, although some are known among
primitive cultures in South Africa as well.  They are known by the collective epithet
"Cargo Cults".
The Cargo Cults seem to be unique to the more primitive Melanesian cultures of the
South Sea Islands, although they can be found in Africa as well.  The first seemed to
spring up in Dutch New Guinea an 1867 and British New Guinea in 1893. They became
significant political movements in those areas.  This region has been home to
idiosyncratic quasi-religious/ political movements over the years.  The people of Hanover,
Papua New Guinea were very captivated by Lyndon Johnson during the sixties.  In their
first House of Assembly elections they voted him in as their leader.  When he declined
to serve, they raised a fund to buy him.  Of course, he could not be had, so eventually
the Lyndon Johnson cult faded away.  The Yaohnanen people of Vanuatu raised a
worshipful cult for Prince Phillip of Britain.  They have prepared a home for him and
women have volunteered to be his wife if he would but come and be their god and bring
to them the ostentatious riches of the British.  
A Cult known as the Pomio Kivung have been awaiting their own millennium style
redemption to take place in Papua New Guinea for over thirty years now.  They expect
supernatural bliss when their ancestors return bearing the "cargo" that will transform their
lives.  A man named Harvey Whitehouse, of Queen's University of Belfast, was assumed
to be just such a reincarnated ancestor.  He was able to observe the dynamics of the
cult from the inside.  He documented what he observed in a book entitled "Inside the
Cult" published in 1995 by Oxford. 
These movements have arisen out of contact with Europeans and Americans and the
enormous prosperity and technology gap that they suddenly  exhibited.  Naturally, the 
islanders wanted to have the ships, vehicles, machinery and equipment, and the modern 
way of life that they had seen for the first time.  They thought that the white man must have
somehow tricked the gods into giving them these accoutrements of modern technology
and prosperity.  Therefore, they set about to get some of their own by the only means
which to them was logical - religion.  
The best known and most virulentof these cults, however, still exists on the Island of in 
Vanuatu, the real life inspiration for the Famous stageplay South Pacific.
In Vanuatu, there exists the John Frum Cult.  It seems to have sprung up suddenly
sometime during the period of the second world war, at the  same time that massive
western technology barraged the islands in support of the war effort.   The simple
aboriginal peoples were overwhelmed by the sudden influx of the western technology,
such as the ships, weaponry, vehicles, appliances, and wealth that accompanied the
There seems to have been an American G.I -  Possibly the name was John Frum (or
John from America) in the area during that time who made some kind of statement that
the people interpreted to mean that he would return to the islands and bringing all the
wealth and technology of the West back for them, if they would give up their Bibles and
return to their old ways.  In other forms of the legend the soldier was a World War II
seabee named Tom Navy.  But whoever the central figure, he suddenly became their
messiah, the focus of the hope for a golden age for the people of Vanuatu.  Their
longing for this new level of prosperity gave rise to a religion, to hasten the coming of
John Frum.
The rites of these followers are predictably military along with a strange mix of Christian
tradition, also learned from western influence.  They consist of  dressing up in mock
military uniforms, holding military drills and setting up a small-scale mock airbase
complete with a grass hut style control tower and a mock radio transmitter that consists
of a vine stretched between two poles.  During their ritual they fly the American flag,
display the Red Cross, and utter phrases deemed to be magical - "Roger, you have
landing clearance, come in, over and out", etc.  The movement operates furtively,
suppressed by the government, which does not view the flying of Old Glory lightly.  
It no doubt seemed to the islanders that the visitors - military men, missionaries or
administrators from the West - had obtained their riches simply by talking and shuffling
pieces of paper.  They did nothing that the simple islanders recognized as work.  This
was a great offence to the Melanesian work ethic and moral system, which dictated that
wealth comes from hard work - farming, fishing, and trading.  This was an enormous
injustice and an affront to their sense of values.  Logically, at least to them, they turned
to religious ritual, based on a new and more specific cult observance to remedy the
A few years ago, a crisis developed when younger islanders, some of which were
educated in foreign universities, began to mock and disrespect the custom chiefs for
perpetuating the myth.  In a test of faith, and perhaps out of desperation, the custom
chiefs said that Abraham and Moses would appear among them and shake hands on
a particular Friday to reinforce their authority.  When the specified day came and went
without the appearance of the prophets, the islanders became enraged and beat the
custom chiefs unmercifully, so much that some required hospitalization.
One would think that Elijah-in-reverse-like showdown would put an end to the cult.  But
as religions always do, a rationale develops to explain the failure of the appearance of
Moses, or Abraham, or John Frum, or Tom Navy.  Many followers believe that their
messiah has come, albeit in a surreptitious way.  In the stores of Vila, Vanuatu's capitol,
can now be found the wealth and accoutrements of Western civilization, for anyone to
buy.  They now have what they want.  There is coffee and dancing.  There is electronics
and other technology.  The legacy of John Frum is reality in the form of economic
development and progress.  John Frum is there in spirit.
But in the back woods villages, miles away from the capitol, and life is still primeval, the
aboriginal people locked in austere ways sing:
"Jon Frum
He mus come
Mus stap long kastom
Mus keep Kastom"
The cult has mostly gone underground, but it goes on.
(c)Copyright 2000 by Wayne Simpson
Distributed by the Biblical Research Foundation
629 Lexington Road, Sapulpa, Ok 74066

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