Cargo of the Gods

Cargo of the Gods

by Paul Rydeen
extracted from The Anomalist-1
Summer 1994
from Scribd Website

The cargo cults of the South Pacific islands show striking similarities to certain spiritual currents surrounding UFOs and Ufology, and I intend to demonstrate this relationship with the following short history of cargo cult evolution.

Though many religious sects share similar practices, it seems to me that cargo cults and saucer groups are more closely related, having occurred fairly recently in direct response to outside stimuli. With both the UFO phenomenon and the cargo movement, we have a chance to see what the lasting effects of contact with a higher intelligence may be.

In a sense some New Age groups may be seen as little more than cargo cults themselves.

With the exception of an isolated cult in Samoa now dated to the 1830s, the cargo phenomenon really began to proliferate only after 1871 when the Russian Baron Miklouho-Maclay became the first white settler in the area. The Baron and his crew settled in Madang, New Guinea, and were taken to be the long-dead ancestors of the people returning as gods.

As with most seafaring cultures, the dead were thought to depart in great boats sailing west toward the setting sun. People were born when the tide was coming in and died when it went out. Visiting ships’ crews would naturally be received as gods, which the natives of the Pacific islands considered their ancestors to be.

The Baron presented the awestruck islanders with gifts of western goods or cargo such as knives, axes, nails and cloth, and introduced new food plants which were all well received. The white men were seen as deities embodying the ancestors who had returned with gifts of cargo invented especially for the natives. It seems the settlers did little to discourage this myth and even encouraged it with such practices as hiding their own dead.

The departed white men had returned to heaven (i.e. Europe), the natives were told. Gods don’t die.

The Baron left and German settlers arrived in 1884. At first the natives assumed all would be with the Germans as it had been with the Russians, but by 1900 it became clear that the Germans were not interested in fair trade with the islanders. The Germans established large plantations on the coasts and paid very poorly for labor.

The natives came to see them not as gods but men who had accidentally discovered how to control Kilibob and Manup, the two brothers who were cargo deities identified with the Baron.

Long worshipped as gods, Kilibob and Manup are probably historical persons dressed up mythologically.

Kilibob and Manup are credited with having founded the cultural systems in use in the various islands prior to European rule, systems which left the majority equally wealthy. The misappropriation of wealth under the Germans was now obvious in everyone’s eyes, and it was during this period that native uprisings began. The Germans weren’t shy about using their newly-introduced rifles.

In 1904 a large uprising in Madang was squelched by the white men, and in 1912 the situation was again so bad that many of the islanders were exiled.

The third phase of the cargo movement coincided with the end of World War I in 1918. Most of the German islands were given to Australia, and as German rule was phased out, relations improved somewhat between the natives and the whites.

Proselytizing christians were welcomed, and it was soon decided that the christian God and Jesus lived in heaven (now a suburb of Sydney) with the ancestors, where they all spent their time making cargo. Baptism and devout adherence to the forms of Christian worship were sure to bring the ancestors with ships full of cargo to the islands.

Early cargo devotees had watched for a big canoe, but by this time they knew to keep an eye out for sails. In 1919 the first steamship made its appearance in the area, being the latest vehicle for delivering cargo.

This harmonious coexistence dwindled off over the next twenty years as the natives saw things getting no better than they had been under the Germans. Missionaries became despised creatures, openly opposed for their lies. God and Jesus were really names for Kilibob and Manup respectively, who were being held prisoner by the whites in Sydney.

Services held in formerly christian chapels were again designed to honor the ancestors and bring their return with dancing, feasting and offerings of food. By the time World War II started, virtually all dependence on christianity was gone; the traditional island gods had now been declared full-fledged cargo deities.

A major development in the cargo movement came in the early 1940s when Japanese forces occupied many of the Pacific islands. The natives had been mistaken; the Japanese were the true ancestors and now they had come to drive out the whites, who for the first time were barred from certain meetings meetings where messages of a presumably psychic nature were now being received.

These messages encouraged fervent prayer, intense dancing akin to the frantic whirling of Sufi dervishes, and the use of the mildly hallucinogenic kava. As it turned out, the Japanese were more than willing to fulfill this role for the islanders, promising them abundant cargo if they would help drive out the white men.

The Japanese occupation didn’t last long, and soon the natives were amazed to see black men like themselves fighting alongside the whites in the Allied armies. It was very assuring to the natives to meet these American blacks, who they could see obviously had the secret of cargo. They too could learn the secret, if only they did as these soldiers were doing.

The soldiers were friendly, giving out gifts of chocolate bars, beer and other foodstuffs, and leaving behind abandoned buildings and equipment.

The ancestors would return in airplanes, and to this end the natives abandoned their docks and wharves for newly constructed bamboo radio shacks with grass roofs, wooden antennae and vines for power transmission, ersatz airports with loose dirt runways that would look right at home on an episode of “Gilligan’s Island.”

Templar crosses may be found all over the area in imitation of the American Red Cross.

The natives sit for hours in these shacks even today, or in their chapels, repeating phrases into their imitation radios they had heard the soldiers use to bring the mighty birds:

    “Can you hear me? Roger and out.”

Perhaps they even received messages, just as early telegraph operators recorded detailed transmissions which were never sent.

This is a subconscious process brought on by hours of monotony straining at the headset, akin to automatic writing or channeling. The source of these messages seems to be some facet of the recipient’s mind as yet unrecognized by western psychology – or perhaps even an outside “intelligence.” Who can say?

In Vanuatu, New Hebrides, the John Frum movement arose directly after the war.

Frum was said to have been a black G.I. whom the natives decided was King of America. His field jacket is still in the possession of one faithful group. All the cargo cults now believe the ancestors will arrive by airplanes, as numerous models in every cargo chapel attest. Some groups believe that the ancestors are even more advanced than the whites, and will return in “flying houses” (whatever that might mean).

It can only be a matter of time until it is realized that the ancestors will return from the heavens in their flying saucers, spreading cargo far and wide.

I know for a fact there are white saucer groups in Australia, and there have been contactees in the area since the very beginning of Ufology. What a magnificent chance we have, to watch the development of two parallel traditions in this age of technology, at first isolated and almost mutually exclusive, but now soon to inevitably and irrevocably merge; what an honor we have to witness the birth of a brand new mythos.

Since the war the cults have been fairly stable. Leaders come and go, but with the possible exception of the legendary John Frum, none have achieved messianic status (though one Vanuatu group worships Prince Philip).

Those groups who do retain christian influence are more akin to the Pentecostalists with their healings, speaking in tongues and other manifestations of man’s spiritual side. In their own words the islanders merely want to be wealthy like the white men.

Although certainly not poor by absolute standards – none starve or want for shelter or clothing – who wouldn’t be tempted by such trinkets as portable radios, small handheld appliances, etc.? Many destroy their crops after the manner of potlatch, presumably to show the gods how poor they really are.

Their hope, as absurd as it may seem to westerners who think they know the secret of cargo, is a driving force much like the expectation of a Messiah–a hope they share with the flying saucer contactees.

Though not literally true, perhaps one day it can be made so. I would like nothing more than for the ancestors (read: ancient astronauts, Space Brothers, et al) to return from above and shower us all with more material wealth than we could ever know what to do with; a golden age of brotherhood and spiritual satisfaction would be upon us.

Just as proof positive of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe would have a profound effect on every nation’s culture, even a relatively minor arrival of cargo on the islands would have profound changes on the cults, changes which would be quite exciting to observe.

For once the planes (or saucers) would land at the islanders’ airfields instead of being diverted by the white man’s conflicting radio signals, to mistakenly land at his. Do you read me? Roger and out.

Cargo cults and saucer groups are alike in having a millennial ideal; the forms this ideal takes are remarkably similar. They both have a non-personal entity (the ancestors and the Space Brothers) expected to manifest via mechanical vehicles (planes, ships, UFOs) bringing cargo (chocolate bars, radios, and post-nuclear peacekeeping technology) and a just salvation.

The impetus for both groups is not necessarily the material goods, but the status they bring. Cargo devotees merely want to turn the tables, as it were, and restore a civilization they perceive to be ill. Saucer contactees don’t literally yearn for cargo, but more often for knowledge or wisdom. The changes they desire are sometimes economic, as with cargo, but are also pacifist, environmental and spiritual. In short, they too want to heal our cultural sickness by making us all equals.

They want someone to enforce nuclear peace, do away with economic disparities, fix the environment, and return us to a Golden Age.

One of the most striking features of these philosophies is the “alien” nature of their saviors, echoing gnostic sentiments of two millennia ago. Unlike the usual messianic movements, cargo cults and contactees are singular in expecting salvation to come from the outside rather than arising from within.

The cargo cults arose in response to direct outside influence: colonization and subjugation by an advanced intelligence. So who or what is colonizing us? Are extraterrestrials actually contacting us, or is the cargo parallel inaccurate in this instance?

I’m not saying that we are being visited by aliens; perhaps the whole thing is a psychological response to conditions similar to those that produced the original cargo cults. The “higher” intelligence may only be one more unknown aspect of our own minds, or it may be a defense mechanism against something we don’t understand or can’t accept.

Then again – as the contactees have been telling us all along – it may be the next step in human evolution.


Anonymous, “Primitive tribe worships Prince Philip,” in Sun, April 21, 1992, pg. 4.
Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches. New York: Random House, 1974. pg. 114-132.
Vittorio Lanternari, The Religions of the Oppressed. New York: New American Library, 1962. pg. 161-190.
Peter Lawrence, “Cargo Cults,” in The Encyclopedia of Religions, Mircea Eliade, General Editor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pg. 74-81.
Peter Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound. London: MacGibbon & Kee,1957.