What are Cargo Cults?


The phenomena of “Cargo Cults” has been studied by anthropologists since the theory of phantom cargo has existed. What exactly is a cargo cult? What exactly is phantom cargo? In order to have a discussion on cargo cults a good definition is required: “A cargo cult is any group of unorthodox religious movements appearing in tribal societies in the wake of Western impact, especially in New Guinea. Cargo cults maintain that manufactured western goods (“cargo”) have been created by divine spirits and are intended for the local indigenous people, but that whites have unfairly gained control of these objects.”

Marvin Harris dedicates a chapter to these cargo cults in his book, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches. Harris focuses on the cults of the Madang area of the north coast of Australian New Guinea. Deep in the jungle of New Guinea the natives patrol an single runway twenty four hours a day waiting for planes that they believe are being piloted by their ancestors, the natives believe that these planes are carrying cargo such as food, clothing, portable radios, wrist watches, and motorcycles. Theses cargo carrying planes are believed to not only bring material goods but also the ability to totally upgrade the lives of the natives. The arrival of the cargo planes will mark the beginning of heaven on earth.
The origin of cargo cults is somewhat intertwined with a Armageddon theory. While the actual date of the first cargo cult is unknown the idea that white men owe the natives cargo dates back hundreds of years. According to Harris, in 1884 Germany set up the first colonial government in Madang and the Lutheran missionaries followed the Germans. The arrival of the white men fulfilled the natives prophecy that the end of the world was near, so the natives slaughtered all their pigs and waited for the white men to distribute the cargo that would save them from the Armageddon. That cargo never came and the white men took full advantage of the natives vulnerability. Since the white men had the cargo and the natives wanted the cargo, the only thing that the natives could think of was to be like the missionaries. The natives became devote church goers, hoping that the secret of cargo would be revealed to them. Instead all they found were the missionaries looking for cheap labor and the native lands of New Guinea.
The other aspects of how cargo cults began has to do with the bible. This is the story how Marvin Harris depicts it. “In native New Guinea the people referred to God as Anus and Anus created Heaven and Earth. Anus gave Adam and Eve a paradise full of cargo; all the canned meat, steel tools, rice in bags, and matches they could use. When Adam and Eve discovered sex, Anus took the cargo away from them and sent the flood. Anus showed Noah how to build a huge wooden steam ship and made him its captain. Shem and Japheth obeyed Noah, their father. But Ham was stupid and disobeyed him. Noah took the cargo away from Ham and sent him to New Guinea. After they had lived for years in ignorance and darkness. Anus took pity on the children of Ham and sent the missionaries to undo Hams mistake. Saying: “You must win over his descendants to my ways again. When they follow me again, I shall send them cargo in the same way as I send it to you white men now.”
The most interesting aspect of cargo cults has to do with the fact that the natives believe that cargo is a sort of supernatural phenomena. They believe that cargo simply appears on the horizon and is distributed among them. Another interesting aspect of cargo cults is pointed out by Harris when he assumes that the real cargo mystery is the fact that without the cheap labor and free land of the natives then the missionaries and the rest of the industrialized world would have never gotten to be so rich in the first place. So why shouldn’t the natives be entitled to their fair share of the profit. According to Harris, this is the true mystery of cargo cults.

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