The Strange Cargo Cults of the South Pacific

Humankind has spawned a vast number of religions, faiths, sects, and cults, which have all strived in some form or other to come to an understanding of our most universal questions of why we are here and what our purpose is. Such disparate belief systems have brought forth all manner of practices and codexes that run the range of the slightly odd to the downright weird, and one very strange phenomenon is that of a number pf peoples sprinkled throughout the remote islands of the South Pacific ocean, who have fostered a whole religion that revolves around their fleeting tastes of the technological advances the outside world had to offer.

During the hellish fighting of World War II, the South Pacific found itself to be a vast, bloody battleground for two powerful and tenacious enemies, the Americans and the Japanese. All over the region troops from both sides poured into the many remote, isolated islands here, along with their advanced weapons, supplies, and various trappings of the modern world. For the comparatively primitive indigenous peoples of these quaint islands, this was their first contact with Western civilization, their first exposure to such alien goods, and their first experience to see such wondrous and frightening machines of war. While things such as canned food, bottled drinks, manufactured clothing, candy, washing machines, radios, medicine, tents, cigarettes, and other common supplies were normal parts of everyday life for the troops, to these natives these were amazing, almost magical things the likes of which they had never seen or even imagined before.

When relations were good, many such goods were shared with the natives by these soldiers, and others were retrieved from misplaced airdrops or salvaged from the trash, and these new, otherworldly items drastically changed the way of life for a good number of these islanders. These modern items, or “cargo,” were seen as a new source of luxury, a symbol of the vast wealth and power of these mysterious outsiders, and many of these peoples saw these things as divine gifts provided through the foreign troops. They began to worship the deities they believed to be responsible for bringing them these wonders, and in many cases these movements formed what would go on to come to be called “cargo cults.”

South pacific islanders

Although such cults had been around since at least the late 1800s, with the increasing exposure of the native islanders to foreign explorers, they really took off and found their footing during World War II, with the sudden vast influx of outsiders to the region. In particular, such cults popped up in the region of Melanesia, an area of the South Pacific Ocean located between eastern Australia and the islands of Polynesia which includes Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu, and these people firmly believed that the Japanese and Westerners had some special connection with the gods which had enabled them to gain such astounding wealth and access to such incredible supplies.

When the war eventually ended and the troops went home, they took their manufactured goods and supplies with them, and the islanders were left with basically nothing. However, they had grown used to having this influx of the fruits of civilization, and the cargo cults believed that they could still have access to them if only they could catch the attention of the cargo deities they went on to worship. To this end, many of these cults performed elaborate rituals and ceremonies that incorporated things they had connected to the coming of these products, such as airplanes, landing strips, and troop behavior. The natives would go through great lengths to construct replicas of these things, carving out landing strips into the terrain and fashioning massive effigies of aircraft out of sticks and leaves.

An airplane effigy crafted by a cargo cult

They would also try to dress as the soldiers they had seen, either by creating rough approximations or wearing actual salvaged uniforms, as well as emulate their actions and behavior, thinking that this was a key element in the dropping of more supplies from the heavens. To this end, islanders would wear approximations of soldier uniforms and do things such as fan out onto their makeshift runways and wave about torches to mimic what they had seen airmen do, and even attempt to make the noises of aircraft, all for the purpose of attracting the planes they believed would show up once again from over the horizon. In many cases, things such as old Coca Cola bottles and other relics were worshipped and revered as if they were priceless religious artifacts, which for these people they were.

Crude copies of radios were made of wood or straw, with the natives speaking into them as they had seen soldiers do, fake bamboo rifles and bayonets were also made and carried around, marching drills were enacted, “U.S.A.” was emblazoned upon clothing and objects, and pretty much everything possible was done to gain as close an approximation to the outsiders’ habits, behavior, and duties as possible in order to call upon the precious, modernized goods they so desired. Many of the cults held bitterness as well, as they began to believe that the foreign soldiers were somehow intercepting their shipments from the gods, but they mostly believed in the prophecy that if they kept up their dedicated worship and practices then the cargo would come and their land would be turned into a sort of paradise on earth.

Eventually, many such cults faded away, with colonialism and the spread of Christianity playing a big role in this. In an ever modernized world there was just no more place for such cults going through their pointless rituals and staring at the skies waiting for planes that would never come or deliver products from their gods. Gradually, such belief systems melted away as settlers arrived, and the islands became largely absorbed into the world at large, initiated into “civilization.” However, some such cargo cults have actually survived into modern times and provide a fascinating look into these bizarre beliefs.

Cargo cult reenacting a military march

By far one of the stranger and more well-known of these is a cargo cult on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu, called “The John Frum Cult,” also known as the “The Tom Navy cult.” The cult has its beginnings since even before the outbreak of World War II, and supposedly their origins stem from a mythical American who introduced himself as “John, from America,” which seems to have morphed into the name “John Frum.” In some cases, the name of the serviceman is given as “John Navy,” but in either case, this mysterious American was credited with generously giving out loads of Western goods, and promising more if they were faithful, causing him to become a sort of messianic figure among the tribespeople here, a distinction made even more powerful when World War II broke out with its new influx of cargo and the villagers credited John with predicting it and saying he would bring even more. One village elder said of John’s proclamations:

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.

And so the cult continues to make reverent pleas to “John Frum” to return with his promised cargo, and they relentlessly enact rituals and try to appease their mystic savior. Every year on February 15 they celebrate John Frum Day, a sacred day to them, which is the prophesied day of his return, but it is uncertain which year it is to be, and so the villagers celebrate and pray on this day each year, hoping that this will be when John finally comes to them with their cargo. They paint U.S.A. upon their bodies, march with their wooden rifles, raise American flags, and build crude effigies of airplanes to appease their god, yet this precious cargo has never materialized, and the village continues to live in abject poverty.

The John Frum cult

It is unclear if John Frum was ever a real person or not, but he was more likely an amalgam of perceived traits of Westerners, which combined with the people’s fascination with a technologically superior civilization, a desire for cargo, and a desire to be free from colonial oppression, to go on to propel into a legendary religious figure, not unlike the evolution of other such figures in various religions and cults throughout the world. The cult became so fervent and well-known that in 1943 the U.S. government actually sent a vessel, the USS Echo, to make contact with the people for the expressed purpose of informing them that there was no John Frum and that basically their whole belief system was a sham, but they nevertheless ignored this and continued to have faith in their convictions.

Similar to the John Frum cult and just as bizarre is another cargo cult from the island of Tanna called the “The Prince Philip Movement,” which worships Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II of England, as a divine deity. The cult, which started off rather recently, in the 1960s, was formed by the Kastom people of the of the Yaohnanen tribe, who said that a a son of a powerful mountain spirit had descended from the wilderness to travel overseas to a faraway land in order to marry an influential woman to someday return to them. The natives became convinced that this spirit was none other than Prince Philip himself, and when he visited the island in 1974 they became thoroughly convinced that he was the spirit told of by the ancient prophecy. One villager said of this visit:

I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform, I knew then that he was the true messiah.

The Prince Philip Movement

When Prince Philip became aware that their was a whole cult dedicated to him, he sent a portrait of himself to them, which was responded to with an offering of a pig-slaughtering club called a nal-nal, and the Prince then sent them a photo of him posing with it. The shrine has grown to encompass several photographs of the Prince, as well as a Union flag of all things. So sure are these people that Prince Philip is their savior that they have erected a shrine fully dedicated to him, and when a cyclone came ravaging through the region in 2015, they believed this to be a sign that he had achieved a higher state of being and that it was a harbinger of his imminent arrival. In some versions of the tale, John Frum is actually the brother of Prince Philip.

Other lesser known cargo cults exist all around the region to this day as well, including the Turaga movement of Vanuatu, as well as Yali’s cargo cult, the Paliau movement, the Peli association, and the Pomio Kivung, all of Papua New Guinea. In all of these cases we get a fascinating glimpse into belief systems deeply entwined with the technology and civilization we take for granted. The cargo cults of the South Pacific give us an intriguing look into the psychology of religion and the evolution of faith. These are people who have had a fleeting peek into our world, and covet it to the point that it has become the basis for an array of profound spiritual movements that have not only changed their lives but have continued right up into the present. They remain out there, forlornly watching the sky for the planes and their cargo which will likely never come, worshipping deities based on our everyday goods and mythical beings derived from what they consider to be the essence of Western culture. How long will they continue to pray for that cargo? How long will they watch those empty skies and scan the lonely seas looking for signs of our return? Whatever the case may be, they continue on with their strange ways.