We point the skeptical eye at native religious groups in the South Pacific hoping to recreate WWII's influx of material goods.
by Brian Dunning
March 30, 2010
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It was a beautiful day on Planet 4 of System 892 when Kirk, Spock, and McCoy materialized. McCoy took in the surroundings and expressed the thought so many of us have had: "Just once I'd like to be able to land someplace and say: 'Behold, I am the Archangel Gabriel.'" It sounds like a fun joke, but take it seriously for a moment. As the characters opined in another episode when they encountered a godlike being:
To the simple shepherds and tribesmen of early Greece, creatures like that would have been gods... Especially if they had the power to alter their form at will and command great energy. In fact, they couldn't have been taken for anything else.
And now let's take these Star Trek references and see how they apply to real life; in particular, and in an extraordinary segue, to the tropical islands of the South Pacific. What happens when you mix native populations with modern visitors? In some cases, what's happened has been a curious religious phenomenon known as "cargo cults".
If you've heard of cargo cults before — and a lot of people have not — the version that you heard probably goes something like this. During WWII in the Pacific theater, Allied troops landed on islands throughout the South Pacific, bringing with them food, medicine, Jeeps, aircraft, housing, electricity, refrigeration, and all manner of modern wonders that the native populations had never seen before. But then the war ended and the troops went home, leaving just a few scraps behind. The natives, in a demonstration of Arthur C. Clarke's third law which states "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," concluded that such a windfall must have come from the gods. They wanted this wealth of cargo to return. And so they did what seems logical from a stone-age perspective: they set about to recreate the conditions under which the gods and their cargo had come. They cleared paths in the jungle to resemble airfields. They wore scraps of military uniforms. They made "rifles" out of bamboo and marched as they had seen the soldiers march. And always they kept their eye on the sky, hopeful that the gods observed their preparations and would soon return with more cargo.
On some islands, particularly the New Hebrides (now called Vanuatu), these gods were personified in John Frum, an apocryphal American serviceman, according to the most popular version of the tale. John Frum is symbolized by a red cross, probably inspired by that painted on the sides of ambulances during the war. To this day, a surviving core of the John Frum Movement dresses in imitation WWII uniforms and celebrates February 15 as John Frum Day, in a plaza marked with a red cross and an American flag. They predict that on this day, John Frum will eventually return, bringing all the material goods of the modern world with him. In the words of one village elder:
John promised he'll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him. Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.
The story of John Frum is sometimes erroneously confused with Tom Navy. Tom Navy was probably an actual person, possibly Tom Beatty of Mississippi, who served in the New Hebrides both as a missionary, and as a Navy Seabee during the war. Tom Navy is more of a beloved historical character associated with peace and service, whereas John Frum is regarded as an actual messiah who will bring wealth and prosperity.
The popular version of the John Frum story may seem a little whimsical. It's actually quite oversimplified and misstates the actual causes and motivations behind what happened. This particular cargo cult has deeper roots that have pulled directly on the heartstrings of much of the population. It goes all the way back to the early 18th century, long before anyone thought of WWII or American servicemen. At that time, the New Hebrides were an unusual type of colony called a condominium, jointly administered by both the British and the French. Among the early colonists were Scottish Presbyterian missionaries, who took a dim view of the uninhibited native lifestyle. On the island of Tanna beginning around 1900, at which time there was no meaningful colonial government, the missionaries imposed their own penal system upon the natives, a period called Tanna Law. Many of the traditional practices were banned, including ritual dancing, polygamy, swearing, and adultery. They also required observation of the Sabbath. But perhaps their most inflammatory prohibition was that of the traditional practice of drinking kava by the men. Those who violated these rules were convicted by the missionaries and sentenced to hard labor.
So it was a population in dire need of a saviour to whom John Frum first appeared, and he did so in the 1930's. By most contemporary accounts, John Frum was a native named Manehivi who donned Western clothes; only in later versions of the story did he become an American serviceman. John Frum advocated a new lifestyle that was a curious mixture of having your cake and eating it too. He promised that if the people followed him, they could return to their traditional ways, but he would also reward them with all the material goods that the missionaries had brought. And so this is what the majority of the islanders did: The missionaries were suddenly ignored and found themselves vastly outnumbered by a population who took renewed interest in all their previous freedoms. Colonial authorities were summoned and leaders of the movement, including several chiefs, were arrested and imprisoned in 1941, introducing a new and culturally powerful element into the situation: martyrdom.
And then, an extraordinary thing happened. World War II descended upon the Pacific. The New Hebrides were flooded with Westerners. Food, medicine, Coca-Cola, and money were showered upon the natives. Many islanders were recruited as laborers and paid (relatively) lavishly. Life was rich with both traditional freedoms and material wealth. John Frum's promise had been miraculously fulfilled.
And so it's clear that the John Frum Movement has more to it than just a silly superstition that if you build something that looks like a dock out of bamboo, supply ships will come streaming in. That's how cargo cults are often portrayed, and it's really not a fair description. The people were going through genuine oppression, a man stepped up and promised freedom, and he delivered in spades. That actual fulfillment of prophecy, though it was merely a fortuitous coincidence, is still more than a lot of other religions can claim. So it does make a certain amount of sense that today's members of the John Frum Movement still look out to sea, and to the sky, waiting for their bounty. As one modern chief explained:
John was dressed in all white, like American Navy men, and it was then we knew John was an American. John said that when the war was over, he’d come to us in Tanna with ships and planes bringing much cargo, like the Americans had in Vila.
Historians have not made much progress trying to find the origins of the name John Frum. One interesting explanation is that "frum" happens to be the pijin pronunciation of broom, as in sweeping the white people off the island. It's also likely that there was an actual person in the islands with a German last name of Fromme or Frumm, and Manehivi could have adopted his name. Another possibility is that it's a simple contraction of "John from America".
Cargo cults have appeared many, many times, and were not all centered around WWII. One of the earliest known cargo cults grew on the Madang Coast of Papua New Guinea, when the pioneering Russian anthropologist Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay stayed there for some time in the 1870's, bringing with him gifts of fabric and steel tools. A hundred years later, a group formed on the island of New Hanover, and believed that if they could acquire American president Lyndon Johnson and install him as their king, cargo would come along with him. They rebelled against the Australian authorities, formed their own government, put together a budget, and offered to purchase Lyndon Johnson from the United States for $1,000. Their price was probably naïve, but just think what would have happened had Johnson accepted: Their plan probably would have worked better than they ever imagined.
The blending of Christianity with native superstitions sometimes caused some interesting problems. During WWII, some Australian groups grew concerned with what they saw as the sacrilegious inclusion of cargo cult principles with Jesus in Papua New Guinea. An educated New Guinean official named Yali, who had been on good terms with the missionaries, was employed by the Australians to travel around and try to dispel cargo cult mythology. After the war, Yali was rewarded with a trip to the Australian mainland, where he saw three things that greatly disturbed him, and caused him to rethink his work of the past few years. The first was the obvious wealth of the Australians compared to New Guinea. The second was a collection of sacred New Guinea artifacts on display at the Queensland Museum, which he began to suspect had been stolen by the Australians and resulted in their great accumulation of material goods. The third, and perhaps most influential, was exposure to the theory of evolution. This led Yali to conclude that the Australian missionaries, who had promoted the story of Adam and Eve, had been lying to him. Taken altogether, Yali reflected that he had been right to preach the separation of Christianity and cargo cults, but that he'd been on the wrong side.
And so while cargo cults may seem, at first glance, like quaint stone age ignorance, they're actually not entirely irrational. They're certainly naïve and based on a fallacious confusion of correlation and causation, but to give their believers some credit, they're doing their best to make sense of what they've been given. Where this belief system fails them, quite obviously, is that it replaces the need to work hard to achieve goals with the belief that faith will provide. This is the lesson that would best serve the believers, and it's the same lesson that missionaries and social workers should pay the most attention to. Rather than smiling at their funny little religion, or trying to replace it with another, we should instead give them the tools they need to create their own wealth of cargo.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Cargo Cults." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
30 Mar 2010. Web.
1 May 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4199>
References & Further Reading
Bonnemaison, J., Pénot-Demetry, J. The Tree and the Canoe: History and Ethnogeography of Tanna. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. 199-218.
Muller, K. "Tanna Awaits the Coming of John Frum." National Geographic. 1 May 1974, Volume 145, Number 5: 706-715.
Raffaele, P. "In John They Trust." Smithsonian. 1 Feb. 2006, Volume 36, Number 11: 70-77.
Rice, E. John Frum He Come: Cargo Cults & Cargo Messiahs in the South Pacific. Garden City: Dorrance & Co., 1974.
Rush, J., Anderson, A. The Man with the Bird on His Head: The Amazing Fulfillment of a Mysterious Island Prophecy. Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 2007.
Worsley, P. "Cargo Cults of Melanesia." Scientific American. 1 May 1959, Volume 200, Number 5: 117-128.
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