[Note: Published in Encylopaedia Britannica 1959] (c) Cyril Belshaw
Cargo Cults are religious movements which have as their most characteristic feature ~ the belief that spiritual agents will at some future date divert tremendous cargoes of the most sought after manufactured wealth into the hands of the cult members. For this reason the cults have been labelled “Messianic” —— that is, concerned with a utopian future brought about by the intervention of a Messiah.
Their typical manifestations have occurred in New Guinea and the islands of Melanesia, among peoples of recent or marginal contact with Western Civilization. The distribution of the cults, which have been recorded since the nineteenth century, and which have been noticed in considerable number since World War II, suggests that they are a response to the confusions and insecurities brought about by limited. understanding and participation in Western society, religion, and economy. The participants do not understand the nature of manufacturing or commerce, and have limited purchasing power: they seek to rationalize their situation by reference to religious and magical symbols derived from Christianity and from indigenous Melanesian belief. Within this framework there are numerous variations.
Some movements have been labelled “Nativistic” or “Revivalistic since the dominant theme is a turning away from Western society, and an affirmation of Melanesian independence. In some cases this involves a belief in a complete reversal or drastic revolution in the social order, including a re-arrangement of sexual mores, the dominance of Melanesian over European, the destruction of money and existing forms of wealth. In numerous recent examples, the participants have built air strips and immense warehouses to receive the expected cargo. A typical version of the central myth is that God (or Jesus, or angels) has been labelling crates of produce with the addresses of the Melanesians, but that the avaricious Europeans have been intercepting the 8hips and altering the addresses.
Such movements can readily develop political overtones. Despite their widely different and largely independent geographic origin, there have been instances of the movements organizing across cultural boundaries. The anti-European flavour and the evident capacity for organisation have suggested that the movements can be interpreted as quasi—nationalistic. Governments, concerned. with this aspect, and with the disruption of life occasioned by the large emotional meetings, the destruction of resources, and the utopian fantasies, have endeavoured to ban the movements. Such policies have not been successful and have now given way to attempts at political and economic education.
The modern elements in the movements should not blind us to their traditional basis of operation. Dreams, prophecies ritual experiment, and many other features seem typical of Melanesian traditional cults, as is the concern with material well—being. Even so, much of the mystical symbolism Is derived from a misunderstanding of elements In Western behaviour, attaching, for instance, ritual importance to flags, military drill, and rules of club organization.
The main reference, in easily readable form, is Peter Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound (London, 1957) which contains a full bibliography. Later interpretations include: Judy Inglis, “Cargo Cults: The Problem of Explanation” in Oceania vol. xxviii no. 4, June 1957 pp. 249—263; W.E.H. Stanner, “On the Interpretation of Cargo Cults” in Oceania, vol. xxix no. 1, Sept. 1958, pp.1-25; and K,E. Read “A Cargo Situation in the Markham Valley, New Guinea” in Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, vol. 14 no.3, Autumn 1958, pp.273-94