book review

Cargo cult: Strange stories of desire from Melanesia and beyond
by Lamont Lindstrom
1993 University of Hawaii Press

Who is not captivated by the tales of Islanders earnestly scanning their watery horizons for great fleets of cargo ships bringing rice, radios and refrigerators - ships that will never arrive? Of all the stories spun about the island peoples of Melanesia, tales of cargo cult are among the most facinating.

The term cargo cult, Lamont Lindstrom contends, is one of anthropology's most sucessful conceptual offspring. Like culture, worldview and ethnicity, its usage has steadily proliferated, migrating into popular culture where today it is used to describe an astonishing roll-call of people. It's history makes for lively and compelling reading. The cargo cult story, Lindstrom shows, is more significant than it at first appears, for it recapitulates in summary form three generations of anthropoligical theory and Pacific studies.

Although anthropologists' enthusiasm for the notion of cargo cult has waned, it now colors outsiders' understanding of Melanesian culture, and even Melanesians' perceptions of themselves. The repercussions for contemporary Islanders are significant: leaders of more than one political movement have felt the need to deny that they are any kind of cargo cultist.

Of particular interest to this history is Lindstom's arguement that accounts of cargo cult are at heart tragediees of thwarted desire, melancholy anticipation and crazy unrequited love. He makes a convincing case that these stories expose powerful Western scenarios of desire itself - giving cargo cult its combined titillation of the facinating exotic and the comfortably familiar.

pgs. 73-77
Strange Stories of John Frum

Anthropologists fostered the cargo cult, but they were by no means the only ones feeding the discourse. Cargoism as a genre of writing comprises several subtypes. Administrators, missionaries, adventurers, journalists, and others also have had reasons to write about Melanesian social movements. Their several interests, not surprisingly, tinted their writing. The cargo cult of a colonial administrator, concerned to oversee and control, differed from that of the anthropologist (concerned, roughly, to understand), the missionary (concerned to combat), or the adventurer and journalist (concerned to instruct, amaze, and entertain).

All these figures and more have written about certain events and conversations that took place on Tanna Island, Vanuatu (an archipelago which, until national independence on 30 July 1980, was thecolonial New Hebrides). Tannese words and deeds, in this writing, have come to be known as the "John Frum movement." The name John Frum first appears, on paper, in 1940. The writers who herald John's advent, as text, are British colonial District Agent James M. Nicol, Presbyterian missionary H. M. (Jock) Bell, and local "police boy" Joe Nalpin. Over the last half century, John Frum texts have multiplied and inflated as more and more people have written about the movement. This literature is sizable. The Story of John Frum, could all its chapters and verses be collated, would outweigh a Bible.

The discourse of cargoism makes unlikely heroes. Thanks to five decades of cargoist writing, John Frum is famous. He began diffusely as a "one fellow something" (O'Reilly 1949,194) - A man? A spirit? A spook? - but quickly triumphed as a star and leading light of the cargo-cult circuit. Written cargoism captured a dim murmuring from obscure and peripheral island conversations, and broadcast this to the world ... John Frum texts have traveled thousands of miles beyond the oral universe of island conversation out of which the hero first emerged.

In the world of cargo cults, "the celebrated John Frum" (Eliade 1965,136) is a luminary. Nowadays, he is even a classic: "a 'classic example'of cargo cultism in Melanesia" (Trompf 1984, 43). "The Jon Frum Movement has become a touchstone for determination of characteristics of cargo cults" (Calvert 1978, 212; see Burridge 1993, 282). Moreover, Tanna itself has become known abroad, insofar as the island is known, as the home of John Frum. Its culture is now cargo-cult culture. Paul Theroux wanted most of all to visit Tanna because he "had heard that a cargo cult, the Jon Frum Movement, flourished on the island" (1992, 187), Tanna is "the oddest outside-time island in Vanuatu" (1992, 213). With strange propriety, Tanna's nearest neighbors, Polynesian speakers who live on Futuna, a volcanic plug 70 kilometers away call the island that they see on their western horizon gauta, a word that also means "cargo" (Janet Keller, pers comm; .1992). This chapter reads through the prolix John Frum literature to delineate varieties of the cargo-cult story. An assortment of writers with different interests and perspectives have produced John Frum texts. The various subgenres of cargoism are most distinct immediately after the war. By the 1960s and 1970s, the several perspectives on John Frum to a large extent have blurred together. The story lines become more uniform. The tone of the writing settles down into either a sort of mock amusement or earnest admiration. There is now a canonical John Frum story line replete with stock motifs.

Although early accounts of the John Frum movement are stylistically distinctive in important ways, from the beginnin the various cargoist subgenres borrowed cult stories and interpretation from one another. Cross-fertilization among John Frum stories occurred as various secondary accounts all cited the same, limited primary sources. Blurring also occurred where writers assumed dual perspectives. Some missionaries wrote like anthropologists. Some anthropologists borrowed the point of view of colonial administrators.

The several subtypes of John Frum writing begin (and end) in different years, and cross-fertilization among the several sub genres is affected by the dates of their appearance and disappearance over time. Colonial administrators began writing John Frum reports in 1940 and stopped writing in 1980 upon Vanuatu's independence (although little of this material was published). Missionaries began writing in 1941. Their work, too, mostly disappeared by the mid 1980s when Europeans withdrew from or were forced from pastoral roles on the island. The American military produced a brief spurt of John Frum surveillance in 1943. Anthropologists only discovered John Frum in 1949, but their John Frum texts continue to flow. Adventurers and explorers first described John Frum in 1960, although their accounts are irregular until the 1970s, when they flourish. Newspaper reporters and tourist writers both found John Frum in 1968. Finally, local academics and politicians of soon-to-be independent Vanuatu produced occasional John Frum commentary starting in the late 1970s.

pgs. 78-79
Ironically, at the very moment of its discursive triumph, anthropology now denies its own achievement. Having written up John Frum as a cargo cult; anthropology now wishes it could erase those early, overly enthusiastic statements that, in the Iight of more and more and more anthropological understanding of Tanna, appear painfully crude and inaccurate. Anthropology's recent message is that John Frum is no cargo cult. Once it may have seemed so, but we now know far too much about Tannese culture and mentality to be able to apply the simplistic cargo-cult label with any measure of intellectual or political comfort.

But it is too late. Everyone already knows that John Frum is a cargo cult. The stock motifs of cargoist writing reproduce this knowledge each time Tanna is described. If cargo cult is anthropology's monster, then the discipline's good Dr Frankensteins may find themselves engaged in a mortal pursuit across the globe, from steamy Melanesia to icebound Arctic seas, in a vain attempt to obliterate their own adopted creation. Like the monster, cargo cult has escaped and is on the run.

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