Cargo Cult – Religious Movements claiming to obtain material goods (cargo) for indigenous people

A cargo cult was a religious movement that arose in an indigenous society when a charismatic leader emerged to promise that the locals would obtain the same material goods (cargo) as the foreigners if they followed certain religious practices. The earliest cargo cult on record emerged at the end of the nineteenth century in Fiji.

Cargo Cults gained momentum in the Pacific islands with the arrival of Western military forces during World War II, when indigenous people witnessed the abundance of material goods brought by the soldiers, such as food, clothing, and technology. They believed that these goods were a result of magical powers possessed by the foreigners and began to imitate their behavior and customs through rituals like building runways or mock airplanes.

The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of cargo cults as a cultural phenomenon, exploring their characteristics, impact on indigenous peoples’ economic development and traditional culture, controversies surrounding them, along with comparisons with other religious movements.

Characteristics of Cargo Cults

Cargo Cults are characterized by their unique belief systems and practices. Members of the cult believe that the Western material goods they desire are not simply produced by human labour, but rather come from supernatural sources. The rituals and practices that Cargo Cults employ often involve imitating the behaviour of Westerners, such as building runways, using radios to communicate with the spirits, or wearing clothing resembling military uniforms.

Examples of Cargo Cults can be found in various parts of the world, including Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands. One example is the John Frum movement in Vanuatu. This movement believes that a mythical figure named John Frum will bring them cargo from overseas if they follow his teachings and prepare themselves for his arrival.

In comparison to other religious movements, Cargo Cults are unique in their focus on material goods and their incorporation of Western customs into their practices. Unlike many traditional religions which focus on spiritual beliefs and practices, Cargo Cults prioritize obtaining tangible items like food, medicine or weapons as a means of improving their lives.

Examples of Cargo Cults

The John Frum Cargo Cult

The John Frum movement is one of the most well-known examples of a Cargo Cult. Its followers believe that John Frum will return to bring them material goods and prosperity, and they have created elaborate rituals and practices to prepare for his arrival. These practices include building runways resembling those used by airplanes, marching in mock military parades, and raising American flags as symbols of their allegiance to John Frum.

Despite the fact that John Frum was likely a real person – an American serviceman stationed on Tanna during World War II – much of the mythology surrounding him has been crafted and embellished over time, giving him immense supernatural power.

Nevertheless, the movement remains a significant part of Vanuatu’s cultural heritage and continues to attract tourists from around the world.

The Turaga Cargo Cult

The Turaga Cargo Cult is a religious movement that emerged in the early 20th century in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The followers of this cult believe that ancestral spirits will bring them material wealth, including food, clothing, and other goods. They also believe that Westerners have access to these resources because they have been blessed by the spirits.

To attract the blessings of the spirits, members of the Turaga Cargo Cult engage in various rituals and practices. These include building model airplanes out of bamboo and other materials, constructing mock runways, and performing dances and other ceremonies.

The origins of the Turaga Cargo Cult can be traced back to colonialism and the introduction of Western goods into Papua New Guinea. The cult emerged as a response to economic inequality and a desire for access to modern resources.

Today, while many aspects of traditional cargo cults have faded away due to increased modernization and globalization, some elements still remain. The Turaga Cargo Cult continues to be practiced by some communities in Papua New Guinea as a way of maintaining their cultural heritage and identity.

The Impact of Cargo Cults on Indigenous People

Cargo cults have had both positive and negative effects on indigenous people. On the one hand, these movements have often led to increased economic development and modernization in communities that were previously isolated from the outside world.

Cargo cults can create a sense of hope and purpose among followers, which can motivate them to work harder and pursue new opportunities.

However, cargo cults have also had negative impacts on traditional culture and beliefs. Many followers of these movements have abandoned their traditional practices and beliefs in favour of Western-oriented rituals and practices. This can lead to a loss of cultural identity and a weakening of social cohesion within communities.


In conclusion, cargo cults have been a fascinating and complex phenomenon throughout history. They are an example of how indigenous societies have attempted to make sense of the sudden introduction of Western goods and technology.

These movements often disappear once the indigenous people acquire the knowledge or the means to obtain the goods for themselves. In some cases, however, the cults evolved into political movements representing the interests of those with limited access to material wealth.

Related terms:

Colonialism: The political and economic domination of a country by another country.

Indigenous peoples: Peoples who are native to a particular territory and who have their own social, economic, and political institutions.

Tribalism: The social, economic, and political organization of people into tribes.

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