Thursday, March 23, 2006

Cargo Cults

An extract from The Joy Of Sects

The famous Cargo Cults of Melanesia and New Guinea provide a fascinating model of exactly what happens when men use religion to explain forces they don’t understand – and how easy it is for religions to adapt when their promises are unfulfilled.

The remote Pacific islanders had long held the belief that the spirits of their ancestors would one day return to them, loaded down with booty. Back in the nineteenth century, they lived in a society where the technology hadn’t progressed much beyond the Stone Age. So, when the first Europeans arrived on their shores on huge steam ships bearing gifts that they couldn’t even imagine being made, the islanders were pretty impressed. So impressed, in fact, that a new religion was born out of the old beliefs: the worship of ‘cargo’ (cargo is pidgin for goods of any kind). It seemed that the ancient prophecy was coming true – and how.

Over the following years belief in the power of cargo grew stronger. A number of prophets sprang up claiming divine snakes had given them special knowledge of cargo. They set up practices like doctors, curing afflictions on the basis of their familiarity with these snake-spirits. To encourage more cargo to arrive, they also began to affect the lifestyles of the Europeans, who had now settled on the islands and received frequent shipments of the goods. These quasi-European prophets forced other islanders to do their gardening for them, wearing trousers and hats and copying what they knew of the white man’s lifestyle – including sipping at late-afternoon cocktails.

In spite of all these efforts, the prophets still didn’t manage to get their hands on much cargo. However, the cult developed further when missionaries started interfering with the islanders in the early twentieth century. A unique form of Christianity emerged. Somehow, the interesting belief came about that Christians worship a god called Anus. The stories in the Bible, as the islanders saw them, told how Anus created Adam and Eve and gave his treasured handiwork cargo of steel tools, canned meat, matches and rice in bags. However, when Adam and Eve annoyed Anus by discovering sex, he sent a great flood to destroy mankind. Luckily, when he sent the flood, Anus had also given a wooden steamboat to a man called Noah and made him its captain. Humanity survived, but when Noah’s son Ham disobeyed his father, his cargo was taken away from him. The bereft Ham was sent to New Guinea, where his descendants were now convinced that they could get his lost cargo back if they worked hard enough at pleasing Anus by singing hymns and praying to him. So, many of the natives did as the missionaries requested. They laboured in their houses, sang their songs and muttered their prayers. By the 1930s, however, they’d worked out that they were being deceived. While the islanders put all the effort in, the foreigners who did nothing received – and kept – all the cargo.

Just as disillusionment began to set in, the Second World War arrived and the islanders once again revised their opinions. Vast amounts of war material were dropped on the islands during the Pacific campaigns against the Japanese Empire. Those who acted as guides and hosts to the visiting American soldiers reaped the benefits. Suddenly, the long-promised cargo was arriving in huge quantities.

Sadly, when the war came to a close, the cargo stopped coming just as quickly as it had arrived. It was then that Cargo Cult activity reached its peak. It was also then that its fame spread around the world as returning servicemen recounted the incredible things they had seen. To outsiders, these stories seemed almost too incredible to be true. In an attempt to convince the cargo to return, the islanders created straw aeroplanes and runways in the jungle (complete with landing lights made from torches) in the hope that they would cause boxes of cargo to fall from the sky again. They carved headphones from wood, and wore them while sitting in home-made control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways, marched around parade grounds in the jungle carrying bamboo rifles, and stood saluting in front of flags of their own devising. If you don’t believe it, just look at the photos.

Inevitably, when the elaborate devices of the islanders failed to bring in the promised loot, disillusionment once again set in. Most of the Cargo Cults have gradually died out. However, on the island of Tanu, more than fifty years since the Americans were there, thousands still hold the belief that one day a GI called John Frum will come down from their local volcano and deliver the cargo of prosperity to each and every one of them. It hasn’t happened yet, but the prophecy is open-ended enough to ensure that this time, it will never be proved wrong. Maybe one day we’ll all be worshipping John Frum. After all, stranger things have happened.

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