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  • The Earliest Cargo Cult? March 4, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    cargo cult

    Cargo cults are Melanesian religious movements centred on the ability of the colonial powers to bring the kind of trinkets that fill shopping malls and dollar stores to the some of the virgin corners of the earth. The first references to cargo cults, the Vailala Madness, which began in 1919, for example, saw Papuans preach a new religion in which the recent dead, all ‘white’, would pilot a ghost ship (actually a steamer!) full of ‘goods’ for a grateful community: British rule would then have been removed and the Papuans would have returned to their previous and longed for isolation, but with well-stocked cabins of useless mass produced gadgets. This sincere nonsense lasted into the early 1920s, much to the bemusement of British officials. Now anthropological text books claim that the earliest cargo cults date to the late nineteenth century Pacific. However, Beach ran, today, across an earlier instance, albeit from a different part of the world and with different characteristics: Pacific cults rarely involved blood; save of course when someone cut their fingers on the Walmart potato peelers that were always washing up on the beach.

    A curious superstition is connected with Parrot Island, and is observed with religious punctuality by the natives of Old Kalabar, on the occasion of need arising for its performance. Whenever a scarcity of European trading ships exists, or is apprehended, the Duketown authorities are accustomed to take an Albino child of their own race, and offer it up as a sacrifice at Parrot Island, to the God of the white man. This they do because the island is in view of the sea, ‘big watery’ (to use their own phraseology), over which the God of the nations that sent them articles of European manufacture is supposed to preside. The last sacrifice of this kind was made within the past year; and every one must regret that the increasing trade of the country, together with the teachings of the missionaries and supercargoes, has not put an end to this brutality.

    Source: Thomas Hutchinson Impressions of West Africa (1858), 112

    Of course, there is a long (and continuing) history in Sub-Saharan Africa of albino children being murdered for religious reasons. There are no surprises there. It is the reference to the manufacturing god that is so exciting: can anyone backdate cargo cults further? Drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com Thinking about it there is no reason that cargo cults shouldn’t crop in Roman times: Germanic barbarians impressed by Roman pottery and spearheads start to turn up on the banks of the Rhine and look wistfully across the river.

    25 Mar 2016: Alan L with what I think is an inspired suggestion ‘Having just read your post on cargo cults, I was wondering whether you had noticed the parallels between cargo cultists and some modern believers in extraterrestrial visitation?’

    30 Apr 2016: Alan writes A post-script about the Cargo Cults: Have you ever read about the Raelian movement?  They are definitely a Cargo Cult, even constructing a saucer-shaped “alien embassy” to attract their gods, just like those Melanesians who built wooden models of planes, antennas, etc. Take a look on Google:  And a contemporary example.