The first Europeans to arrive in Melanesia, in the late nineteenth century, reported various movements which looked forward to the imminent end of the world. Indigenous religions varied considerably, but often included the myth that, as a result of some primal sin, ‘heroic’ ancestral figures had disappeared from the world of the living. The arrival of the Whites marked the beginning of a new epoch: not just the return of the mythological heroes, but of all the dead ancestors, who would bring with them everything people needed without their having to work to produce them, whether in their gardens or as wage-labourers on European plantations and in mines. Nor, any longer, would they suffer or die. Nature itself would be transformed: valleys would become mountains, and vice-versa.

Colonial Europeans called them ‘Cargo’ cults, from the Neo-Melanesian (‘pidgin’) term, ‘cargo’, used for material goods. They also called them ‘madness’ cults, especially when people began shaking or speaking in tongues and when some leaders claimed to have been reborn. Yet a lot of cult ideas were based on empirical experience. The goods the Whites acquired simply arrived from a world outside, and were taken by them simply by handing over pieces of paper. Melanesians now sought to explain how this mysterious exchange worked.

At first, traditional myths were used to explain the European monopoly of the ‘cargo’. The goods with which the White man’s ships were filled with had been made in the Land of the Dead, by the spirits of the dead ancestors, but had been misappropriated by the Whites.

European missionaries professed to possess ultimate knowledge embodied in the Bible. What impressed their pupils (and their parents), however, out of the entire corpus of ideas contained in the Bible, were the passages about the Apocalypse: about the return of the dead at the millennium, when the virtuous would receive rewards for proper behaviour in this life and for the sufferings they had undergone. To Melanesians, this meant recompense for the exploitation they had suffered on the plantations and in the mines, and for the many-sided inequality between White and Black in social life as a whole. A wonderful future was now assured; so people ceased working on the land and even threw away valued possessions, including European money.

The natives concluded that there must be secret parts of Christian knowledge which gave the Whites this special power over the world. Despite the formal equality of all believers in Christianity, this secret knowledge was being with-held from them. Contemporary anthropologists, therefore, have shown how these cult beliefs constitute a critique of European values, which the natives see as both hypocritical and inhumane.

Movements of this kind rose and fell in one area after another, though not necessarily continuously, throughout the inter-War period, and still do. Yet though the prophecies were falsified, and many people were consequently disillusioned, they were fuelled by unfulfilled hopes, so that the central ideas did not disappear entirely but were kept alive by a core of convinced believers and persisted underground (often literally, when, in many cults, it was believed that the ancestral spirits lived inside the earth).

Melanesians thus drew upon both traditional and Christian ideas in creating their models of the world. They also used their empirical experience of a rapidly-changing world, including new kinds of technology. The original notion that the ancestors would return from the Land of the Dead by canoe, for example, was displaced by a new belief that they would come back by ship, and, later, by aeroplane. So airstrips were built to receive the planes, and lianas served as radio antennae.

There were also different versions of White Christianity, from the larger Catholic and Lutheran missions to the fundamentalist sects which attracted people who already believed that the world would come to an end. Rival mission offshoots; cults which disowned their original European or US origins; and new syncretic cults co-existed alongside persisting paganism: in a recent survey, up to ten denominations were present in some villages, with an average of three. All versions of Christianity, though, subscribed to a belief in the coming of the millennium, the return of the dead, and judgement: reward for righteous behaviour, and punishment for sinners.

After Independence, new charismatic religious leaders emerged to challenge White missionaries, often controlling the lives of whole villages in a ‘totalitarian’ way, demanding not only conformity of belief and ritual, but also strict adherence to a puritanical code of conduct that regulated every aspect of daily life, from smoking tobacco to wearing new shoes.

But the millennium still did not come about, so cult movements lost members or even disappeared. Yet the key ideas could still be re-awakened by charismatic ‘big men’ such as Paliau (see Paliau movement—Melanesia), and reappear after many years, often in new organizational forms and with novel elements in their ideologies injected by the new charismatic leaders who demanded that their followers adhere to these shifts in doctrine.

After Independence, with increased involvement in the world market, cult movements borrowed modern forms of economic organization: village-level ‘community development’; cooperatives and commodity production for the market; and participated in village, regional, and national government. These new ideas co-existed with older, millenarian ones, though the latter were now often hidden because they were thought to be ‘pagan’ or ‘primitive’, and their protagonists lost their appeal, especially among the ‘Angry Young Men’ in the towns who had access to modern sources of information such as newspapers and radio, and who regarded the new governing elite as ‘Lucifer’. But most villagers were still restricted to mission literature and broadcasts for information about the world. So cult leaders (often illiterate) developed their own garbled versions of world and regional events: Chinese communism, the Gulf War, conflict in the Holy Land, space exploration, the election of Lyndon Johnson, or visits to the Pacific by people like Prince Charles, or the devastation of Nature by logging companies or natural disasters such as earthquakes. Contemporary cults, therefore, may retain a diffuse belief that great changes are coming, but this does not necessarily include the coming of the cargo, particularly in areas most subject to Western influence.

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