Cults and Millenarian Movements in Papua New Guinea

Cargo cults, which included the belief that European goods (cargo) could be acquired by practicing rituals, have been reported since the 1890s. Central to most cargo cults was the belief that Western goods had been manufactured by the spirits of the ancestors and misappropriated by white men, and that the white men would leave when the spirits returned with the goods. One of the earliest well-documented cargo cults is the Vailala movement (also known as the ”Vailala Madness”) in the Gulf of Papua in 1919 which predicted that the ancestors would bring goods by steamship or aeroplane.

In an outburst of cargo cult activity after World War II, people in various parts of PNG ceased hunting, fishing and working in the gardens in the belief that their ancestors would arrive with food. In the Madang district in 1945 Yali founded the Rai Coast Rehabilitation Scheme on the assumption that the Administration would reward loyal PNGans with cargo. When the Administration failed to do so, he formed an influential cargo cult movement. The colonial Administration often confused attempts to establish cooperative and welfare movements for radical reform of village society with cargo cults.

Millenarian cults did not necessarily share the belief in cargo but predicted that their followers would achieve a state of perfect happiness on the arrival of the Millennium. Most cults incorporated some Christian beliefs and practices. Melanesian cults have received much attention from anthropologists, sociologists and theologians.

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