Cargo Cults

One of the strangest and most fascinating occurrences to come out of the South Pacific in the aftermath of World War II was the appearance of so-called “cargo cults” among some of the Melanesian natives in New Guinea and nearby islands.

During the war these remote island people had been exposed to American and Australian troops and airmen in large numbers. Allied military personnel built airfields and port facilities, and their ships and planes disgorged a seemingly unending supply of materials and goods of every kind. The locals never saw the Americans and Australians actually fabricating anything, thus it appeared that this cargo was produced by some sort of magic.

With the end of the war, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping cargo. In response, charismatic native leaders developed cults among these remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow on their followers deliveries of food, arms, vehicles, 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 during the war. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders sometimes imitated the practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors, and airmen use. Such cult behaviors often involved mimicking the day-to-day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles.  The islanders even carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers, waved  landing signals while standing on the runways, and lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses. Others 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. Cult members thought that the foreigners had some special connection to the deities and ancestors of the natives and were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches.

The John Frum cult, one of the most widely reported and longest-lived of the cargo cults, formed on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. 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 who they identified as being the spiritual entity who would provide cargo to them in the future.

Though I cannot cite a source, I remember reading in 1964, when some local election was taking place in New Guinea at the same time as our national elections, some natives wished to vote for Lyndon Johnson in the hope that he would bring “cargo” back to the islands.  

I cannot help but feel sympathy for those poor, deluded natives. Of course, there are probably some atheists who feel similar sympathy for Christians and Muslims whom they regard as believers in non-existent deities. 

But we Christians know that our faith is on firm ground. Our Savior lives!

As for the cargo cults, over time they gradually disappeared.

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