Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Couple of Cargo Cults

     Cargo cults! They spring up like weeds in Melanesia, and mutate like flu viruses. They would be amusing, except that they all lead to futility, and many of them to tragedy. Not that they are really unique to Melanesia. They represent one aspect of the sort of movements which eventuate when primitive societies come into contact with sophisticated ones. The American Indian Ghost Dance had cargo cult features. So did the terrible cattle-killing movement in South Africa, which left thousands of people dead. It has also been pointed out that Westerners beset by the same ignorance of economics tend to go in for socialist utopias. But the particular mindset of Melanesia makes it the centre of the full cargo cult phenomenon.
     They saw the white man arrive laden with consumer goods whose origin they could not imagine. Zoologist Dr Tim Flannery, was frequently asked how he managed to live without working. It was almost impossible to explain to the villagers that his actions - organizing and hiring locals to collect animals for museums - was his work, with his livelihood stretching back to a financial network in another country.
     As an indication of a basic misunderstanding of economies, one might cite what happened on the Huon Peninsula of New Guinea in 1954, when the Kalasa mission station went unoccupied for a year. Thereupon, the native storekeeper introduced a system of "good prices", which satisfied both producers and customers. He would, for example, purchase a netbag of coconuts for three shillings (higher than the market price) and sell them for one shilling. All other trade goods were treated likewise.
Nobody was to be made unhappy, and the store enjoyed increasing popularity. Here was evidence of how smoothly business could be run if only the New Guineans took over the management. Here was proof of the exploitation practised by the Europeans. The people were not mistaken after all in expecting cargo. Naturally it was a European, a missionary, who spoiled things by discovering the debt at the annual stocktaking. (Friedrich Steinbauer, Melanesian Cargo Cults, new salvation movements in the South Pacific, University of Queensland Press, 1979, pp 60 -61, translated by Max Wohlwill from the 1971 German original.)
     The Second World War gave an added impetus to the movement by flooding the area with "cargo" from warships. Where did it all come from? The typical cargo cult explanation was it must have been sent by their ancestors in the hereafter, and the white man had nefariously intercepted it for their own benefit. One cultist, called Batari, found proof positive of this theft. A crate had been unloaded bearing the label, "BATTERIES"
      From this presupposition, cargo cults spring up in an infinite variety. Some are basically magical, some utopian eschatological, some are political, some are definitely anti-white, and a few promise their followers that they will become white! Some reject Western civilisation and Christianity completely, while others incorporate Christian themes. Who can forget the cult of the red suitcases? A hopeful participant would bring to the temple a red suitcase containing seed money, which would then be expected to grow by magic. But for the trick to work, when the additional money was to be collected, the carrier had to be a virgin, and to carry the case home in silence, in arms held out from the body, and without looking left or right. If any of these taboos were broken, the money would turn to stones.
     Here are two further cults worthy of mention. One ended amicably, the other tragically.

     Solomon Islands, 1940
     Constable Pokokoqoro preached that a steamship would arrive bearing "cargo", and charged the faithful ten to thirty pounds each (a terrible sum in those days) to get in on the action. When his ship failed to come in, he moved to Varese, and the Methodist mission preached against him. I shall now quote from pp 76-7 of Steinbauer's book, already mentioned.
     However, he succeeded in gathering around him twelve men who constituted a stormtroop which terrorized the inhabitants of the surrounding villages. They were six Roman Catholic and six Methodists who tried to realize the goal of their cargo ideology by force. Their leader supplied them with a magic article derived from an old magic prescription called Samuka, which was alleged to give each recipient the strength of ten men. Whoever remained faithful to the church was persecuted by this group.
     This unique movement had an abrupt ending, through an equally unique action by several spirited mission assistants. A lame teacher plucked up enough courage to challenge those who had the "strength of ten" and organized a solid fight with them. The mission's "fighters for God" won and thoroughly discredited the braggarts. The victory was looked up as a divine judgement and was honoured by a spontaneous religious service on the coast. The crowd rejoiced: "The Samuka has lost its power! Praise be to God!" Pokokoqoro was finished and he withdrew. Only a part of the collected monies would be repaid, but that was not the main concern of those who had been deceived by him. The decisive factor for them was that their faith in Christ had proved its strength and power. This experience lifted them almost to the heights of the prophet Elijah who on Mr. Carmel was victorious over the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18, 17-40)
     Territory of New Guinea, 1961
     The following took place in the village of Garegut, near Sek in 1961, in the wake of various movements following the activities of a cultist called Yali.
     Lagit, the luluai [village headman] of Sek-Abar and an ex-catechist of the Roman Catholic mission there, planned a sacrifice in honour of the ancestors. The Catholic Bishop Noser was invited to the ceremony. At first a rooster was brought - presumably it was to be slaughtered. Suddenly a man called Lagundemi stepped out of the crowd, knelt down and was beheaded by Lagit with a large bush knife. The public was shocked. However this deliberate sacrifice was consistent with Yali's repeated statements that Jesus had died for the Europeans, that they only had been redeemed.
     Lagit was convinced that at the moment when the blood of the sacrifice touched the ground the world would be wonderfully transformed. He was surprised when nothing happened as a result of the voluntary sacrifice. [Steinbauer, p 54]
    I don't suppose the Australian authorities were very impressed either. Hard luck, too, for Lagundemi, but it doesn't always pay to have the courage of your convictions.
     But lest you start to feel superior to these ignorant savages, may I remind you that in recent decades there have been a number of mass suicides by cults predominantly involving white people from sophisticated Western societies.

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