Cargo Cults

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Related to Cargo Cults: Revitalization movement, Raëlians

Cargo Cults

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Early in the twentieth century, a new millennial religion developed in the islands of the South Pacific, primarily Melanesia. Believers looked for a new age of abundance that would come to them from out of the realm of the gods—the sky. The impetus for this new faith was the observation of the arrival of cargo destined for the British and French colonial authorities on airplanes. The early leaders of the movement saw the cargo as having originated from their own deities and ancestors, who intended it for the islands’ native people, and as having been wrongly taken by the Europeans.

It appears that during World War II, when American soldiers arrived and the amount of cargo jumped exponentially, the origin of the cargo was ascribed to a new deity figure named John Frum. The exact origin of John Frum is not known, but some have speculated that it came from a misunderstanding derived from the interaction of the Americans with the native people. In introducing themselves, they would give their name and tell where in the United States they came from. Thus, for example, “I am John from …,” became over time “John Frum.” Also, an innovative businessman began a line of commonly used products (like soap) under the brand name John Frum.

The Americans also built new airfields upon which the airplanes that brought the cargo could land. When the war ended, the Americans abruptly departed, and suddenly the flow of cargo stopped. Many were convinced that Americans were closely tied to the cargo.

Since the end of World War II, the practice of the groups has centered on a version of what would be called sympathetic or imitative magic. Members engaged in activities that symbolized activities they had identified with the cargo’s arrival: They made and dressed in clothes that resembled U.S. army uniforms. They put up American flags and marched under the flag in military formations. They cleared and leveled new airstrips and built large model airplanes.

The movement has appeared on a number of the South Pacific islands, but it thrives most where native religions remain strong, such as Vanuatu, where the movement has grown to the point that very distinct sectarian groupings have emerged.


Inglis, Judy. “Cargo Cults: The Problem of Explanation.” Oceania 28, 4 (June 1957): 249–263.
Rice, Edward. John Frum He Come: Cargo Cults and Cargo Messiahs in the South Pacific. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1974.
Stanner, W. E. H. “On the Interpretation of Cargo Cults.” Oceania 29, 1 (Sept. 1958): 1–25.
Worsley, Peter. The Trumpet Shall Sound. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.
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A critical retrospective of cargo cults has to be a little cock-eyed.
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As I thought about the word and its usage, I began to understand that its continuing unquestioned prominence in the anthropological discourse on cargo cults, unlike some other disciplines that have begun to question its applicability to similar phenomena elsewhere, [2] reveals as much about anthropology as it does the cargo cultists: a near-obsession with difference and rationality, both integral to Western culture as a whole but especially prominent in our discipline.