cargo cult

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Cargo Cults

Various forms of modern mythologies among the native peoples of Melanesia, arising from folk recollections of the riches brought by white traders, missionaries, or other colonizers. The earliest form of cargo cults appears to have developed in Fiji in the late nineteenth century when prophets would announce the imminent return of ancestors or white men on ships laden with luxuries.

During World War II, another form of cargo cult developed around the Red Cross planes transporting medical supplies to the Pacific Islands; modern leaders erected red crosses in the hope of bringing back supplies. In New Hebrides, there was a group that believed a white man would arrive in a red airplane laden with good things, and sticks were used to mark out a magic airstrip. In the New Hebridean island of Tanna, a strong movement emerged around the mythical messianic figure "John Frum." He appears to favor particular individuals and makes legendary trips to America to visit the president. His "Second Coming" will be manifest to the whole island, and he will bring the good things of the world so long denied to the Tannese.

Cargo cults represent a tragic combination of exploitation by explorers and traders and the culture shock of Christian missionaries displacing native religion.


Burridge, Kennelm. Mambu. New York: Harper Torchbook, 1978.

Lawrence, Peter. Road Belong Cargo. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1964.

Rice, Edward. John Frum He Come. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.

Worsley, Peter. The Trumpet Shall Sound. New York: Schocken Books, 1962.

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Cargo cults. The popular name for millennial movements in Melanesia. During the last 100 years, hundreds of these have come into being from Fiji to Irian Jaya, and also in other tribal cultures. Local myths of a golden age encourage prophets to announce the imminent return of culture heroes or ancestors bringing spiritual or material ‘cargo’ of the kind discovered through Western contacts. This will inaugurate a new era of human fulfilment and equality with whites. Some movements are religious in form, as with Manseren cults, the Vailala Madness, and Jon Frum. Others also attempt realistic development, as with Paliau and Yali, and the Peli and Pitenamu Societies.

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cargo cult, native religious movement found in Melanesia and New Guinea, holding that at the millennium the spirits of the dead will return and bring with them cargoes of modern goods for distribution among its adherents. The cult had its beginnings in the 19th cent. and received great impetus from World War II, when the Western armed forces littered the islands with surplus cargo. The cult aims to restore a past time and to regain the goodwill of ancestors who are being lured into giving cargo to the white foreigners, cargo originally intended for the native Melanesians. Cargo cults are revivalistic, in that the adherents expect the restoration of a golden age in which they will be reunited with their ancestors, and nativistic (see nativism), in that the whites are to be driven away. However, as the cargo is composed principally of European goods, and native goods and rituals are abandoned, both the nativistic and revivalistic aspects of cargo cults are qualified by a strong motive toward acculturation.

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cargo cult in the Melanesian Islands, a system of belief based around the expected arrival of ancestral spirits in ships bringing cargoes of food and other goods.

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cargo cult See MILLENARIANISM.