What Is a Cargo Cult? Origins of the Term

Village of the John Frum Cargo Cult
Corbis/VCG via Getty Images / Getty Images

The term cargo cult originated in the 19th century as a derogatory expression characterizing indigenous practices in the Melanesia subregion of the southwestern Pacific. The principle behind the idea of cargo cults is the ritualized building of infrastructure and subsequent acquisition of European colonial trade goods as a way to accumulate wealth. 

For instance, a remote village on an island might build an airplane runway in order for European colonists to arrive with cargo, or gifts from Western civilization. A small community with no electricity or running water might build a mock airplane out of straw and sticks, in a form of sympathetic magic, as an attempt to bring more airplanes to their area, bringing cargo.

In What Happened to Cargo Cults? Material Religions in Melanesia and the WestTon Otto wrote that cargo cults arise in areas that are marginalized and oppressed. Considering the global history of European colonization, it is no surprise that most so-called cargo cults appeared in the South Pacific and sub-Saharan African regions. Otto goes on to argue that the development of cargo cults takes place in response to indigenous groups' "contradictory struggle" between ancient tradition and modern capitalism. 

The First Use of the Term Cargo Cult

Regular Friday night singing by villagers following the John Frum cargo cult.
Peter Ptschelinzew / Getty Images

One of the first instances of the term cargo cults occurred in Fiji in 1885. At the time, British colonial plantation practices were at their height, which gave birth to the Tuka Movement. A Fijian priest named Ndugomoi, concerned about the overwhelming influence of white missionaries on his people, declared himself to be the supreme judge over things such as life and death, and all other matters of importance to the people of his community.

Ndugomoi contended that he had received a divine message, urging a revival of traditional religious practices. If his people brought back the ancient ways and honored their ancestors properly, he said, it would lead to a role reversal in which white Europeans would serve the indigenous population. The people of Fiji would once more be the masters.

The birth of the Tuka Movement did not sit well with British colonial authorities. They arrested Ndugomoi, and he was subsequently sentenced to six months of hard labor, as well as exile. 

Cargo Cults in World War II

World War Two Soliders
American soldiers during World War II shared cargo with Pacific Islanders. FPG / Getty Images

During World War II, the Southwest Pacific saw an even greater influx of white Europeans, this time joined by Americans. Because of Allied efforts in the Pacific, small islands became the sites of numerous supply airdrops. Suddenly, populations were encountering Western soldiers, canned food, mass-produced clothing, weapons, medicine, and electronics for the first time. Many Allied soldiers shared these goods with their new neighbors on the islands. This led to what Americans called the John Frum cargo cult on the island of Vanuatu.

John Frum was the name given to a mythical figure that the people of Vanuatu Island associated with cargo. He was often portrayed as a black man, most likely due to the presence of African American soldiers in the region during the war, and his name is believed to be a shortened version of “John from America.” In other variations of the story, he is called "Tom Navy," as a tribute to the American sailors who appeared in the region during the war in the Pacific.

In some legends, John Frum appears dressed in Western clothing, promising the people of Vanuatu that he would return to them with telephones, canned goods, medicine, and modern housing. Followers of John Frum renounced their possessions and money and moved into the interior of Vanuatu, where they held elaborate rituals to pay tribute to John Frum. Once the war ended and the American troops left, followers built elaborate landing strips and mock airplanes, so that John Frum would have a place to land when he returned with cargo to bless the islanders.

Cargo Cults Today

Cargo cults still exist in the twenty-first century. On the island of New Guinea, the Paliau, Peli, and Pomio groups all follow a similar religious structure to that of the early cargo cults.

In addition to John Frum and Tom Navy, Vanuatu is home to the Turaga movement, which is a blend of traditional Melanesian beliefs with economic structures rooted in barter and trade, as opposed to Western practices. In Tannia, another island in the Vanuatu chain, members of the Kastom tribe follow a religion based upon the worship of Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II. 

Cargo Cults Fast Facts

  • The concept of cargo cults emerged in response to European colonialism in the Melanesian region of the South Pacific.
  • The idea of "cargo cults" refers to indigenous spiritual practices integrated with Western economy and trade goods.
  • Well-known cargo cults emerged during the First and Second World Wars.