Cargo Cults

Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus.
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.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Our evidence confirms the importance Lawrence attributes to the longue duree and local logics in the study of cargo cults. It suggests that Lawrence's (1964: 31-32) reconstruction of pre-contact Rai Coast religion in which he argues that relations between humans and super-ordinary beings are analogous to inter-human relations is relevant elsewhere.
Baako's analogy of the cargo cults reinforces his insight that this materialism is no modern, post-independence malady.
All those folk with Perot bumper stickers--the only political one I ever see on the highway apart from "Flush Rush"--will now relapse into furious torpor or join the other great cargo cult, which proposes that had he not been murdered, J.F.K.
A note on cargo cults and cultural construction of change.
He delights in linking some of the cruder forms of folk religion (cargo cults, shamanic tricks, divination) to their more cultivated descendants by postulating "hypnotizability" as the key ingredient in both.
Given the cargo cults built around their names, these expressions of sentimentality and radical hope are also acts of considerable personal modesty.
This proto-nationalist theory, which used to deal with different kinds of indigenous movements usually classified as Cargo cults, is contradicted by the facts, even if today in Vanuatu modern politicians could officially assert such a legacy.
Cargo cults, as one of the most famous themes in the history of melanesianist anthropology, stand here mainly as a pretext to debate about post-modern culture-critical approaches to culture.
Gillion on labor migrations, Peter Worsley and Peter Lawrence on cargo cults, and side trips into population studies, navigational debates, Aotearoa/New Zealand history and biography.
Dalton (ed), A Critical Retrospective on 'Cargo Cults': Western/Melanesian Intersections, pp.
well known for its many sensational(ized) cargo cults.