Cargo Cults: The Island Cults You Never Even Knew Existed  

Amanda Sedlak-Hevener
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There are many cargo cults in Melanesia, an area of the Pacific Ocean located between the eastern edge of Australia and the islands of Polynesia. Melanesia consists of several island chains, including Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, where the remaining cargo cults are located. A "cargo cult" - if you're asking yourself what that means  - is a term used to describe the late-19th and early-20th century emergence of groups of believers who, after first making contact with Western civilization, began worshipping the material wealth that could be acquired from the West. The people in these cults, including the very well-known John Frum cult, worship a god that brings them popular goods that represent Western civilization, including canned foods, radios, and washing machines, among other items. In some ways, the rise of these cults - most of which started during the colonial area between 1400 and 1900 - are a way of resisting colonization; while, in others, they fulfill a number of prophesies predicted by the people of these island nations. Cargo cults led to a number of ritualistic habits, most of which seem strange when compared to those of modernized societies. 

Mysterious Visitors Are Honored With Elaborate Rituals
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Photo: Tim Ross/Wikipedia/CC BY 3.0

A cargo cult on the island of Tanna, part of the Vanuatu chain, worships a mysterious American named John Frum. Another cult on that same island is dedicated to worshipping Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth. Both cults have one thing in common - they perform elaborate rituals designed to honor the person that they have designated as "god." Depending on the particular cult, the rituals involve dressing up like US soldiers and marching around the island, creating mock radios out of straw, and even lighting fires near their created airplane "landing strips." These things are done in order to pay homage to their chosen person of worship, as well as in the hopes that more aircraft will arrive and drop off modernized goods. Some cargo cults even have a specific day where they worship their chosen deity. 

Some Cargo Cults Still Exist Today
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Photo: rremundo/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

Cargo cults surged in popularity during World War II, when troops - mostly British and American - arrived in the Pacific islands of Melanesia to set up temporary camps and shelters. Most of the cults disappeared over time, particularly as the people who were once members became Christian instead or were fully colonized by other countries. However, some cargo cults still exist, mostly on islands in the Vanuatu chain, as well as in Papua New Guinea. 

The Cults Are Led By A Single Chief
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Photo: 2.0

Each cargo cult is led by a single chief who consults with a prophet. The prophet is the person who tries to predict when their chosen deity will return, laden with goods from Western civilization. However, the chief is in charge of the people and oversees their ceremonial preparations. In some cases, the chief and the prophet do not see eye to eye, which can lead to the prophet breaking away and forming his own cargo cult on a different part of the island. This happened on Vanuatu, when Chief Isaac and Prophet Fred had a falling out. They later patched things up and celebrate John Frum Day together. 

According To Their Mythology, Westerners Helped Deter The Apocalypse
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Photo: Punchup/flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

One thing that all of the cargo cults have in common is a series of mythological beliefs. These start with the idea that a terrible event would occur, causing the end of the world as they know it. Since many of the cults are based either on or near volcanic islands, an eruption would mean that they might be wiped out. When the Westerners arrived - in the form of military soldiers bringing supplies to the islanders during World War II - they were heralded as the people who would save the islanders from their prophesied natural disasters.