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In its simplest expression a cargo cult is a religious interpretation of misunderstandings from meetings of a vastly different cultures. Traditionally these would be meetings between explorers, missionaries, or military expeditions representative of the developed world coming into contact with primitive societies. In some iteration, cargo cults could well be a global phenomenon but are mostly referred to in relation to Melanesian islands. Aspects of cargo cults have been broadly noted in Papua New Guinea and the Amazon. The remoteness of these places, enforced by forest, sea, or otherwise creates a huge barrier of understanding for these tribes.
The aboriginal societies in question will usually have, previous to this contact, celebrated their own worldy possessions, surroundings and life itself as pan-theistic creeds dating back to time immemorial. When faced with the baffling shiny, precisely manufactured goods of these newcomers, these tribes continued this theology by transferring their object of worship to this very cargo. And so bric-a-brac of the developed world was integrated into these societies through their existing religions, as they struggled to make sense of a world which is entirely alien to their understanding. Through this devotion these people hoped to attain the same worldly goods and associated wealth.
Of course, it must be understood that these people, when faced with the paraphernalia of the modern world cannot have comprehended their true purposes and workings, instead attributing magical qualities to them – imagine how cranes that could lift heavy items, guns that could make a loud noise and kill at a distance, machines that could transport people safely in their bellies would look to someone whose most familiar raw materials grow on trees.
These cults did not stop there. They mirrored the surface nature of these more technologically advanced societies with which they have come into contact, amalgamating representations of religious icons, military installations, equipment and transportation into their adorations. These were, and still are, incorporated into rituals emulating observed practices such as military parade drilling.
These specific examples are most commonly associated with meetings of societies brought about by billeting crews of ships and planes on Pacific islands during the Second World War, in particular Tanna, as detailed below. It is probable that these practices have always occurred in similar societal meetings, but have only been thoroughly documented by anthropologists from the late nineteenth century. A pertinent example of a similar occurrence previous to this would be the indigenous population of the americas held in thrall by the conquistadors other-worldliness.
To English speakers the most amazing cargo cult must be the one in Papua New Guinea which prayed for among other things, canned meat. To whom did they pray? To their god – Anus, of course. Which begs the question – just what kind of English speakers did these people encounter?
Tanna Island (approx 20 x 16 miles, pop. 28,000) in Vanuatu had a bloody history. There are tales, probably just unsubstantiated, of cannibalism. The island was chock full of simple primitives waiting for magnanimous European missionaries to forcibly ‘save’ them. And so along came a bunch of evangelists to install a western society with a legal framework which punished the islanders for continuing their own customs, with religious repression meted out in generous dollops. You know the type of stuff – none of your dancing, ancient practice of kava imbibing, worshipping spirits, sexual liaisons and for starters get yourselves some clothed shame!
Essentially, as far as the islanders were concerned, a racist executive now controlled their lives. This state of affairs lasted for 30 years until the coming of John Frum.
It may surprise you, venerable reader, that although the John Frum cult is a recent one, its exact genesis is unclear. For example, proponents cannot agree on his skin colour, but a story is told of a local holy man who named himself John Frum and wore clothing of US military origin. It is thought that the name refers to John the Baptist ie “John from (Jesus)”.
It is described that this figure exhorted his followers to rid themselves of all aspects of their newly imposed modern lives. His aim was to return to their previous existence, the observance of which, he promised with no sense of irony, would bring them their desired modernisation along with shedding the last vestiges of the missionaries’ repression. The Europeans didn’t like this one little bit, causing the new cult to relocate to a deserted area of the island just below the volcano.
In time, the Christian leadership grew tired of pussyfooting around these repugnant heathens and imprisoned John Frum, later exiling him along with others. As Nelson Mandela, Gerry Adams and Adolf Hitler can attest, this almost never works. The movement grew.
Then the war came to Tanna. The US was steadily creeping up on Japan, stationing troops on any spare land in the Pacific. As with any other place which experiences a military influx, the islanders were influenced by their new, temporary neighbours. The black islanders saw black GIs work in tandem with the white soldiers constructing all the necessary infratsructure, or as DamnInteresting puts it “enjoying all the benefits of cargo that the white soldiers enjoyed”.
Stories have been told attributing airdrops of provisions the quality of magic the eyes of the islanders – manna from heaven. However, it should noted “cargo” as it would become ritualised would also have been offloaded from boats, or simply static and piled into towers of intrigue.
The emphasis of the John Frum cult changed in this time and in the face of this cargo, the very embodiment of the modernisation the islanders craved. John Frum became synonymous with the notion of a black GI. In many ways they imported the american dream through a military looking glass.
After the war ended the military machine was dismantled. Million Dollar Point is where the Americans pushed huge amounts of prized ‘cargo’ into the sea. The villagers began to build rough interpretations of their prized cargo. They began to mimic the practices of the now departed troops, to construct representations of their edifices just as any other religion features votive offerings and icons. Signs were confused and purposes were crossed. For example the red cross that had been so prevalent became conflated with the symbol of christianity, while US national emblems became quasi-spirtual icons. It was, and in some ways remains, a semoitician’s nightmare.
February 15th is celebrated as John Frum day. The followers re-enact military parades with rough-hewn props and enact pageants representing the american GIs activities. They emblazon their chests with USA, wear blue jeans, or combat trousers, shoulder their improvised arms and march. Created by a holy man in 1957, this is the Tanna Army.
John Frum followers believe that in their ongoing disregard for worldly possessions they are on a righteous path and that John Frum himself will return with plentiful cargo for all. Their beliefs often centre around their island’s volcano being the site for his return.
They claim now to be Christians, using their cargo cult as almost a filter of the forms of Christianity to which they have been exposed. The best known adage by John Frum acolytes is that the Christian west has been waiting 2,000 years for the return of their messiah, while the John Frum cult has only been waiting 50.
The John Frum movement is galvanising; it has its own political party, led by a man called Song Keaspai. The ‘tribe’s’ chief is Chief Isaac Wan, who claims regular contact with the spirit GI himself, John Frum. In 1999 the beginnings of a violent schism occurred, led by fantastically banally named Prophet Fred. Now that’s a religion – let Fred tell you all about his god John.
The god-squad don’t give in though, no sir. Chief Isaac mentioned in 2006, in the Smithsonian Magazine ‘What I most want from America is A 25-horsepower outboard motor for the village boat. Then we can catch much fish in the sea and sell them’
7 months later, some crackpot Canadians by the name of Bibles for the Poor arrived with said engine, with a god-given bonus of 5 horsepower extra. Oh the magnanimity! And some bibles for the poor little brown heathens.
For a religion created as an alternative to western Christian condescension this must have been a special moment. Bless them.
In John They Trust, Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, February 2006
Around the World in 80 Faiths (Episode 1), Pres. Pete Owen-Jones, BBC, 2009
Cargo, cult, and culture critique, Holger Jebens, University of Hawaii Press, 2004
Wikipedia on John Frum
Damn Interesting did a better job covering this than the Inquisition. Go there, read it.
Wikipedia on Cargo Cults in general
Returning to Eden by Daniel Pouzzner
A nice visual play on the theme by Michael Paukner
Bibles for the Poor (wingnuts)
Peter Klausler applies ‘cargo’ logic to a more general lack of profundity
This article was posted by Ronan McDonnell on
Friday, May 7th, 2010 at
It is archived in Culture, History, Religion, Travel, Wild Places and tagged cargo, cult, john frum, pacific, Religion, tanna, vanuatu.
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