In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cargo Cults

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Essential Cargo Ethnographies
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Film
  • Journal Special Issues
  • Terminology
  • Cargoism
  • Cargo Cult in Popular Culture

Anthropology Cargo Cults
Lamont Lindstrom
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0108


When the Second World War ended in 1945, anthropologists resumed their studies of Pacific Island societies with new interest in social change and social unrest that had been sparked by wartime turmoil and the impending collapse of colonial empires. Defiant social movements were impossible to ignore. In the Melanesian islands of the southwestern Pacific, anthropologists labeled these political and religious movements, cargo cults, and eventually they would describe several hundred of these political/religious organizations that erupted across New Guinea (today, Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of Papua), Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji. Cargo cult proved remarkably popular as a descriptive term, and ethnographers used it promiscuously also to relabel prewar social disturbances as well as movements elsewhere in the Pacific and beyond. Islanders, in a classic cargo cult, embraced new prophecies and innovative ritual practices that promised the arrival or return of “cargo” (or kago in the Pidgin Englishes of Melanesia). Cult rituals typically included new forms of dance, marching, and drilling, imaginative strategies to contact spirits and ancestors, and new moral codes to secure group unity and harmony. Community ancestors or, in the postwar period, the American military would reward the faithful with shipments of cargo. Cargo, as object of organized community desire, is semantically complex. Sometimes, cargo meant money or Western manufactured goods shipped into the islands in massive amounts particularly during the Pacific War. Anthropologists also interpreted cargo to represent the return of dead ancestors, achievement of balanced exchange relations with Europeans, assertion of a sense of honor and self-worth, desire for political sovereignty, or the transformation and transcendence of everyday reality. Many cults flared up quickly but then burned themselves out when no cargo arrived. Others, however, have been institutionalized and survive today as churches, political parties, and business organizations. Some anthropologists have argued that Melanesian cultures embrace a constant background of imminent cargoism, or expectation of sudden, episodic change. The energy and desire that once sparked cargo culting, however, currently animates island enthusiasm for evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity alongside economic development projects both genuine and spurious.

General Overviews

Comparative overviews of cargo cults soon appeared alongside early monographic descriptions of particular movements. Worsley 1968 (originally published in 1957) is the first and still most influential of these and remains in print (see Lindstrom 2005). Peter Worsley was committed to an analysis of social transformation, and Worsley 1968 was originally prepared as a compendium of millenarian movements everywhere. The publisher cut it down to just Melanesia. Burridge 1969 collects four lectures delivered at the University of Sussex that drew on the author’s field research among Madang cultists in Papua New Guinea, comparing cargo cults with millenarian movements elsewhere to explore more general explanations of cult enthusiasm. Christiansen 1969, a more modest overview, has been less influential. Steinbauer 1979 compiles a catalogue of 185 cargo cults, geographically and historically arranged from Indonesian Papua in the west to Fiji in the east, followed by comments on how cults might be explained and also countered. A former missionary, the author frames cargo cults in salvationist terms and suggests that additional Christian outreach could redirect cargo energy. Overviews and histories of worldwide movements often include discussion of cargo cults. Lanternari 1963, for example, summarizes Melanesian cults along with movements in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Finally, Lindstrom 1993 provides a history of cargo cult—the term itself and the anthropological literature that it stimulated—and the continuing significance of cargo cult discourse within Pacific studies and popular culture. Lindstrom 2019 offers a cargo cult post mortem.

  • Burridge, Kenelm. 1969. New heaven, new earth: A study of millenarian activities. New York: Schocken.

    Burridge compares millenarian movements in Melanesia, Polynesia, North America, India, and elsewhere to explain these movements as outcomes of moral crises and desire for salvation, notably ignited by the spread of colonialism and capitalism.

  • Christiansen, Palle. 1969. The Melanesian cargo cult: Millenarianism as a factor in culture change. Translated by John R. B. Gosney. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag.

    Reviews the panoply of explanations for cult outbreaks and proposes cult subtypes and more attention to local conditions to understand particular cults.

  • Lanternari, Vittorio. 1963. The religions of the oppressed: A study of modern messianic cults. Translated by Lisa Sergio. New York: Knopf.

    A comparative history of messianic movements around the world, interpreted as responses to colonialism and imperialist repression, including Melanesian cargo cults.

  • Lindstrom, Lamont. 1993. Cargo cult: Strange stories of desire from Melanesia and beyond. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai‘i Press.

    A history of cargo cult, the term, and anthropological discourse about cargo cults. Tanna’s John Frum Movement provides a case study. Pursues nonacademic uses of the term by politicians and journalists, noting its spread into popular culture. Concludes that cargo stories maintain unrequited desire as modern expectation.

  • Lindstrom, Lamont. 2005. Trumpet and Road: Two classic cargo texts. In Texts and contexts: Reflections in Pacific Islands historiography. Edited by Doug Munro and Brij V. Lal, 178–188. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai‘i Press.

    Compares two classic cargo cult texts (see Worsley 1968; Lawrence 1964, cited under Essential Cargo Ethnographies), locating these works in the context of their production and noting their significant impact within Pacific studies.

  • Lindstrom, Lamont. 2019. Cargo cult post mortem. In The Melanesian world. Edited by Eric Hirsch and Will Rollason, 359–374. New York: Routledge.

    Updated overview of the origins, anthropological uses, and afterlife of cargo cult—the term—and the social movements it once labeled.

  • Steinbauer, Friedrich. 1979. Melanesian cargo cults: New salvation movements in the South Pacific. Translated by Max Wohlwill. St. Lucia: Univ. of Queensland Press.

    A useful list of 186 social movements, arranged geographically and historically, with brief summaries of each. Classifies each movement as magicomechanistic, religiospiritual, or politicosocial. Originally published in German, Melanesische cargo-kulte: Neureligiöse heilsbewegungen in der südsee (Munich: Delp 1971).

  • Worsley, Peter. 1968. The trumpet shall sound: A study of “cargo” cults in Melanesia. 3d ed. New York: Schocken.

    The classic and influential compendium of Pacific social movement history that begins with Fiji’s Tuka Movement in the 1870s and ends with Madang’s Yali Movement. Worsley argues that movements meld small groups into larger organizations, which eventually will turn to rational politicking. This expanded edition comments on charisma, millennialism, and social theory. Originally published in 1957.

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