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0182 | Road Belong Cargo – Peter Lawrence

Context: The first book I read in a new pile of hard to find anthropology and linguistics books from Cambridge University Library which my resourceful helper found for me.

When I told my friend I’d spent the day reading about Cargo cults, she thought I was organising some shipping of household effects overseas. I took it that Cargo cults aren’t widely known outside the anthropological or missiological communities too well and, even within the latter, are likely to be known only if there’s some risk of encountering them. After reading this though, I’m inclined to believe that the basic tenets of Cargo cult beliefs are alive and well in our own western communities.

Lawrence’s book was written in 1965 and is still a vitally important book for anyone looking to head to PNG. In it, he painstakingly describes the Cargo cult movements that began with the first settlements of Europeans in the late 19th century and gained widespread circulation during the periods leading up to and immediately after WW2.

I’ve read enough about beliefs in modern PNG though to realise that the beliefs are still seriously influential throughout particularly rural PNG.

The basic idea of Cargo belief is summed up neatly by Lawrence in his introduction as

natives’ belief that European goods (cargo) – ships, aircraft, trade articles, and military equipment – are not man-made but have to be obtained from a non-human or divine source. It expresses its followers’ dissatisfaction with their status in colonial society, which is to be improved imminently or eventually by the acquisition of new wealth.


except in minor matters, they dismissed the principle of human intellectual discovery

Thus, all knowledge or technological achievement (including language) was seen as being given by deities to the people who had no hand in their development. Instead

they accepted myths as the sole and unquestionable source of all important truth. All the valued parts of their culture were stated to have been invented by the deities, who taught men both secular and ritual procedures for exploiting them… even when a man composed a new melody or dance, he had to authenticate it by claiming that it came from a deity rather than out of his own head

On reflection, I wondered whether this was so very different from our view of ‘inspiration’ – particularly in Christian circles.

As a result of these beliefs, they see only two reasons why they lack material goods while whites abound in them. Either they aren’t practicing the rituals deities require for them to release the goods or, in a belief that led to much social disruption, the gods have released the goods but the whites are preventing them from getting through.

The second half of the book chronicles the life of Yali, the charismatic leader of the southern Madang region, a man influential even beyond the grave in PNG today. Yali, some of you may recall from the introduction to Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel.

Lawrence met Yali many, many times and his description of his life and him being swept away into Cargo belief and promotion made for fascinating reading.

I came to realise that I cannot underestimate the seriousness of Cargo belief nor the impact that it has on society in PNG, even today. And not just in PNG.

When I consider the basic tenets of theologies such as the “name it and claim it” prosperity gospel preached today throughout both the UK and the US, I see the same ideologies: perform the right rituals and you will gain materially.

From now on then, I’ll be changing the way that I label this from prosperity gospel to prosperity cult. It seems only fitting. This led me to wonder whether Cargo cult ideologies simply reflect a universal human pursuit for material improvement. Either way, it’s worth careful reflection on both my own and my intended host culture.

I rated it as excellent. It was heading confidently for a rare “superb” rating until the last three pages when it careered off the rails and finished resembling something from a Victorian school essay. It’s such a shame that a wonderfully balanced and insightful work of such value to anthropology should finish thus:

We must so co-ordinate and introduce our programmes of development that the mass of the people have no alternative but to accept them as the only logical solution to the problems of modern living.

I guess Lawrence was a product of his time just as much as those he observed then.

The New Guinea cargo cult has attracted a great deal of public attention since the last war.

Their pride and self-confidence assured, they may undertake their journey into the future with greater chance of success.

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