Cargo cults in Melanesia are focused on obtaining cargo (material wealth) from the Western World through magic and religious rituals and practices. Cargo cult followers believe that cargo, which their ancestors intended for them, was unfairly taken by crafty Westerners.
In the first part of 20 century many Melanesian cargo cults were building, big wooden aircraft, landing strips and bamboo control towers, duplicating white men’s rituals in the hope they would attract real airplanes with cargo to the island. This tradition no longer exists, but some elderly cult followers remember imitating American soldiers they had observed during World War 2.
On Tanna Island in Vanuatu people believe in a mythological man called John Frum, who appeared in 1937. He told the islanders to go back to their old traditions and start to live in customary ways. In exchange for this, all locals would receive cargo.
Every day in Lamakara village, cult followers raise an American flag, which symbolises power and material wealth that is still owned by Westerners. (According to the legend, John Frum was from America and it is thought “Frum” might be a distortion of the word “from”). According to local myth, John should come back with cargo on February 15, so on this day, every year, the people of Lamakara wear US military uniforms given to them by tourists. Many locals paint “USA” on their chests and backs and march with bamboo rifles in US Navy style.
People from Yaohnanen village who follow another Tanna cargo cult, the Prince Philip Movement, don’t go to Lamakara for John Frum’s Day celebrations. They believe that there is another true messiah – Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh – who they worship as a divine person. Legend says the Prince once left the island and traveled to a far-away country, where he married a powerful woman. Soon he will return to Tanna, bringing to his motherland all the power and wealth of the British crown.
In Papua New Guinea, on the remote island of Bougainville in the village of Mewau, there is a cargo cult called Snake Tokii, also known as Cult 666. The locals believe that the island is entwined by a huge snake-god, Tokii, and when the snake moves, it causes earthquakes in Bougainville. After the civil war (1988-1998) Southern Bougainville remained under rebel control and governed by King David Peii II. Cult members support Bougainville becoming a kingdom and believe that praying to their god will help them to achieve independence from PNG and wealth. Mewau residents prohibit the use of alcohol and betel nut, but all the locals, including small children, smoke tobacco.
Cargo cults are dying out very rapidly and today it’s not possible to find people worshiping wooden aircrafts. However, some PNG tribes continue to build wooden airplanes, helicopters and cars and use them during elections or special events when the local politician visits. People believe that if they put a rich, powerful man in a wooden vehicle or a plane and carry him around, his all power and wealth will remain in the village and with its people. During such events, some of the tribes use military costumes and march with wooden guns, guarding the politician’s helicopter or plane.
John Frum Cargo Cult followers during the everyday ceremony of American flag raising. For them, an American flag is a symbol of cargo. Lamakara village, Tanna Island, Vanuatu.
Lamakara villagers paint USA on theirs chests and backs. For many locals the US is a dream country from where they expect to receive cargo that was promised by John Frum.
A boy from Sulphur Bay village, plays with a broken CD during preparation to the John Frum's Festival
Sulphur Bay village is one of the main centres of John Frum Cargo Cult on Tanna Island
Imitating Westerners’ behaviour, cargo cult members carve wooden petrol-powered saws, rifles and aviation headsets, which they dance with during the festival
Chief of Lamakara village and leader of the John Frum movement, Isaac Wan (80), in his house. On February 15 each year he wears a US military uniform given to him by American tourists
Cargo Cult members march with bamboo rifles during the celebration of John Frum's Day in Lamakara village
Customary dance during the celebration of John Frum's Day in Lamakara village
Chief of Lamakara village and leader of the John Frum movement, Isaac Wan, watches the parade with his companions
Leader of the John Frum movement, Isaac Wan, holds a US Navy Officer's peaked cap. On February 15 every year he wears a US military uniform in anticipation of John Frum's return to the Island with cargo
Young Tanna boys with bamboo rifles during the celebration of John Frum's Day in Lamakara village
Tanna islanders during the celebrations of John Frum's Day. Wooden arms represent the power of the West
Villagers dance to modern American music during John Frum's Festival
A follower of the John Frum cargo cult with USA painted on his chest. Lamakara village, Tanna Island
A young man from Lamakara village holds the head of a slaughtered cow. The meat will be eaten during the John Frum Festival
Villagers prepare “lap-lap”, a traditional meat dish, for participants and guests of the John Frum Festival. Every year on February 15 hundreds of people come to Tanna Island’s Lamakara village to see the cargo cult's ceremonies
People near their house in Lamakara village during the John Frum Festival
Kids play at Sulphur Bay village, Tanna Island, Vanuatu
Local women from Imale village dance while young boys play guitars and sing songs about John Frum and his apostles: Jimmy Cowboy, Jerry Cowboy and others
Followers of John Frum Cargo Cult decorating a red cross on the grave of the first leader of the cult, Tom Meles, at Sulphur Bay Village. A red cross is the most sacred symbol of the John Frum movement. The sign was adopted from the Red Cross symbol of the Western military medical corps, when medicaments were distributed locally during World War II
Members of the Cargo Cult sing songs and play guitars during a Friday night ceremony dedicated to John Frum. Their songs are about the messiah, John Frum, and his apostles
Kids from Imale village on Tanna Island play with wooden planes. Although the tradition of building big wooden aircrafts no longer exists, some Melanesian elders still remember imitating the white soldiers they had observed during their first contact with Western civilisation
An old Ni-Vanuatu man stares at a plane at Tanna's airport. Cargo cult followers believe that wealth will come to Tanna from the US by air, as John Frum promised
People during the peace treaty celebration in Kundiawa town, PNG. They made the wooden helicopter to carry Kerenga Kua, the former PNG Minister for Justice, who was born in Kundiawa
Women march with wooden rifles during the peace treaty celebration in Kundiawa town, PNG. Despite cargo cults in PNG dying, in some villages there are remnants of past beliefs
A boy in a skeleton costume at the entrance to Mewau village in southern Bougainville. All village residents are members of the Cargo Cult and worship a big snake, Tokii, as a god. They support the Mekamui Government and believe that the snake-god will help Bougainville Island gain independence from PNG
A boy at the Yaohnanen village cemetery, near the grave of Jack Naiva (1917-2008), the first leader of the Prince Philip Cargo Cult
Followers of the Prince Philip movement in Yaohnanen village, Tanna Island, hold portraits of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. They believe that Prince Philip is a divine person and the brother of John Frum. According to legend, the Prince once left the island and travelled to a far-away country, where he married a powerful woman. After her death, he will return to Tanna Island and bring her wealth to the natives
Kids at the kava drinking ceremony in Yaohnanen village, where followers of the Prince Philip Cargo Cult live
A woman from Sulphur Bay village stands with her kids near her house during the eruption of the Yasur Volcano. Some Tanna islanders also believe that God is hiding inside the volcano, where he makes clouds from the smoke, which then spread all over the world
A member of the cargo cult sect Unity John in Christ travels to Yasur Volcano. The sect was created by Prophet Fred in 2000 and its leaders summon Tanna people to unite their believe beliefs in both the messiah John Frum and Christianity. Members of the sect believe that God lives inside the volcano
Jonathan Tiru (42), the leader of cargo cult sect Unity John in Christ, prays at the crater of Yasur Volcano
A woman cleans her yard in Imale village, where members of the cargo cult sect Unity John in Christ live
© 2019 Vlad Sokhin. All rights reserved.