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Kago, Kastom and Kalja: The Study of Indigenous Movements in Melanesia Today

Marcellin Abong
Marc Tabani

Chapter 1. What’s the Matter with Cargo Cults Today?

Marc Tabani

Texte intégral

Complex Movements in Contemporary Melanesian Anthropology

1What has happened to those indigenous movements in Melanesia that, over six decades, have been categorized – somewhat imprecisely – as “cargo cults”? Have they simply vanished in the wake of modernization, globalization or nation-building? Have they disappeared without passing on any tangible contemporary legacy to the peoples of countries such as Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands or the Republic of Vanuatu? Or do they persist, not as a matter of fact, but merely as a post-modern metaphor of desire? According to Lindstrom, the answer to both questions depends on what precisely we are talking about: the “real thing” in its “ethnographic accuracy” or “the stories we tell about [them]” (1993: 12-13). Indigenous social movements are still occurring in southwest Oceania – where their precursors have been observed for decades – even though some anthropologists now consider that it reduces their social complexity to call such movements “cargo cults”.

2A recent trend in anthropology has been for specialists to embrace a deconstructionist perspective in reaction to the wide public fascination and appetite for “Western writings on cargo cults”. In this approach, ethnographic data are subordinated to a main theoretical goal to treat cargo stories as mere archives of past colonial hegemony. Jebens observes that, according to some current critical appraisals, cargo cults “even do not exist as an identifiable object of study” (Jebens 2004a: 2). It is difficult in this perspective to imagine any persistence or continuity in these movements, or any future. Here, cargo cult stories are examined to study the Western Self: why and how did We create Them? Cargo cults or millenarian movements are seen as Western popular and academic reifications – “neither Cargo nor cults” (Kaplan 1995) – even if they do exist as Western phantasmagorias (Kaplan 2004). Cargo cult writings are assumed mostly to be intended to pathologise Melanesians’cultures to better repress them. However, despite their “uncertain and confusing ethnographic reality [they]… after all, cannot be claimed to exist in the minds of Western observers alone” (Jebens 2004a: 10).

  • 1 Participatiants included Joshua Bell, Terry Brown, James Clifford, Rick Feinberg, Christine Jourda (...)

3Attendees and participants in our ASAO session1Kago, Kastom, Kalja: Old Theories and New Realities in the Study of Melanesian Movements” (meeting in Santa Cruz 2009 and Alexandria 2010), took a different approach. Most were convinced that classic cargo cult studies have been quite heuristic and useful for a comparative understanding of culture contact, Christianisation and social change in Pacific societies. Despite its derogatory and colonial connotations, however, there was less consensus on whether the concept still efficiently serves analytic and descriptive functions. The participants debated the validity of the concept, since this appears as a necessary stage for discussing the continuity of these phenomena. Like former cargo cults, most indigenous movements flourishing in Melanesia today are responses to disturbing cross-cultural challenges, and continue to involve ritual organization. All these movements take place in context of and in relation with an embracing globalization, especially since “cargo” has become historically “a symbol of the breach between whites and natives” (Keesing nd.). According to late Keesing, the Kwaio’s kastomu in Malaita provides a key to better scrutinize the complexity of the concept of cargo as expression of hostility towards the colonial whites and not just of simple materialism. To relate the study of Melanesian movements with the more recent issues of kastom and kalja is an innovative analytical strategy. It also helps solve what Keesing, in his posthumous writing, considered as “remaining problems” in the study of these movements: “Why are they so similar, why do they appear in certain places and not in others, how to turn their creative energy in a more constructive direction?” (Keesing ibid.).

4This volume was inspired by a desire to establish the past and present status of “cargo cults”, or whatever label or expression we choose to apply to such movements in order to emphasize in their factuality the material manifestations of ongoing beliefs, via things–stuff, objects, matter–that are evident in their particular social and ritual processes. The question of materiality is embraced in many of the papers (Dalton Ch. 2, Biersack Ch. 4, and Lindstrom Ch. 7). These beliefs, often fraught with millenarian ideas, intermingled with neo-traditional cosmological knowledge, gave rise to complex social movements and continue to do so. Sometimes they may persist as outdated beliefs, harking back to the colonial period, now waiting to be incorporated in, or discarded from, emerging regional or national popular narratives, even though in every case numerous field reports over a long period attest to their “ethnographic accuracy”.

5Indeed, on the island of Tanna (Vanuatu), for example, it is “true” that people built airstrips in the 1950s to await the landing of planes loaded with Western commodities promised to them by a spiritual guide, prophet or spirit called John Frum. Those expectations involve complex aspirations that extend beyond coveting fridges or cars, but their material manifestation is undeniable, even if not sufficient at all. In regards to globalization process the factuality of past and present movements once labeled as cargo cult “should be understood as an encounter between materialism and something beyond materialism which might be called ‘religious’ but which probably needs another name, since that term doesn’t make much sense anymore because, for so many people, it isn’t a matter of ‘belief’ but instead of knowledge” (Dalton Ch. 2).

The Continuity of John Frum Beliefs and Practices

6To illustrate this from my own experience, when I started to study millenarian ideologies on Tanna at the beginning of the 1990s, I thought that the beliefs surrounding them had already been consigned to the past. My first field observations led me to conclude that the enduring elements of the so-called “John Frum movement” were undergoing a process of folkloricization; that symbols of John Frum peoples’ historical struggle, like the protection of kastom, had been appropriated by state ideology as a precursory nationalist claim. I had to wait until events in 2000, and those of the following year, changed my mind.

7After a natural disaster on the island and in the wake of many church sermons about the “end of the world” that was to occur in 2000, a new John Frum prophet arose. Prophet Fred predicted the immediate end of the world. He insisted that people must climb the mythical hill of Yenkahi and rebuild Noah’s Ark, proclaiming that all the followers of the movement would be safe, while the non-believers would perish. Faithful supporters would win eternal life, regaining their youthful selves – they would change their skin like crabs. A few weeks later, the bush in Yenkahi had been cleared. Houses were built and for some years the village became the largest on the island. Over 3000 people lived there, without working gardens, because an abundance of supplies was expected. Hundreds of pigs were killed in a day, for sacrificial purposes, without being consumed. Every day the prophet Fred reported new signs and visions. Among the followers, many were educated ni-Vanuatu citizens, teachers, nurses and other public servants who had resigned from their jobs, some of them coming from the capital Port-Vila and even from other islands.

8The movement gradually declined after strong action by the government of Vanuatu, which sent armed forces to suppress its activities. The “ethnographic accuracy” of some tangible aspects of the muvmen blong Fred has also been recorded on film. This documentary (Tabani 2005) is based on real events. It shows real people expressing their intimate thoughts and heartfelt beliefs. It reveals how they organized into social movements that manifested many similarities with classic, old-school “cargo cults”. The birth, the development and the repression of the movement bears many similarities to the initial emergence of the John Frum movement in the 1930s, even though nobody invoked the “cargo cult” label to describe this revival. Several offshoots of this recent movement arose, bidding against each other with different millenarian promises: the impending arrival of billions of dollars (movement of Joe Keydu, middle bush Tanna); the resurrection of the dead (movement of Karis, north Tanna); the renewal of the “true kastom” (in all the John Frum movement’s different branches).

Persisting Divergence in the Use of a Classic Label

9Several papers delivered at the Santa Cruz 2009 and Alexandria 2010 session retraced movements that expressed quite similar beliefs, accompanied in some cases by profound social consequences. However, the strongest expansion in the field of cargo cult studies is occurring in the realm of cargo stories and images, where a strand of contemporary anthropological argument contests the label “cargo cult” as an analytic category (McDowell 1988; Hermann Ch. 6) and even sometimes challenges its factual accuracy or ignores regular warnings to preserve “an ethnographically grounded anthropology” (Robbins 2004: 258; see also Tabani 2007). Today there are a wide range of Melanesian voices who themselves, whether they use the expression (kago kalt) pejoratively in relation to their fellow citizens (Sullivan 2005, Jebens 2007) or adopt it as a criticism of Western consumerist practices (sometimes called kago kalja in Vanuatu), also contribute to the burgeoning literature and scholarly debate on the topic. Indeed, it became evident in the sessions that “Cargo cults won’t die quietly” (Lindstrom 1993a: 163; see also Dalton Ch. 2, Biersak Ch. 4, Macintyre Ch. 5), either narratively or factually.

10Despite the diverse characteristics and multiple orientations of all these movements, since their birth in colonial times in the wake of Christianization processes, significant family resemblances have prompted the need to categorize them by means of an encompassing label (see Dalton Ch. 2). Although semantically weak or vague, the strength of the “cargo cult” label has been its propensity to become familiar, if not famous, and occasionally notorious (Lindstrom Ch. 7). The “Western fascination” with cargo cults is as old as the interest shown in them by academic anthropology and Pacific Studies; but “their presence in popular, pre-Internet media accounts and texts (journalism, music lyrics, art, novels, and the like)” (Lindstrom ibid.) has been given a new platform through the blogosphere. Previously a synonym for economic and political irrationality in liberal ideologies, the notion of cargo cult has now become part of a post-modern spiritualist movement – lying somewhere between virtual global voodoo and New Age sustainability.

11As Clifford observed during a 2009 ASAO session, when the papers which make up this volume were first discussed, among critical anthropologists, it is still the case that “even if different participants disagree about the use of the term, nevertheless everybody who hears ‘cargo cult’ immediately knows what we are speaking about”. Scott too, even though he rejected the label in his analysis of Makiran stories, reminds us that:

“Readers familiar with the literature on so-called ‘cargo cults’ in Melanesia will immediately recognize elements from a well known repertoire: an underground town full of modern infrastructure and technology controlled by autochthonous powers or the dead; claims to be in communication with this realm; Americans as ancestor-like liberators bringing development; and expectations of imminent transformation from relative poverty to prosperity, from relative obscurity to centrality” (Scott 2010b).

12Nevertheless, he adds, “even if the concept of ‘cargo cult’ had not been under critique for several decades, the term would not accurately describe the data. I found no evidence of any cultic activity or movement relating to the Makiran underground” (Scott ibid.). Abong (Ch. 3), like Scott, does not make use of the “cargo cult” label to examine the history of the Nagriamel movement in Santo and in the Northern Islands of the former New Hebrides. However, even in Abong’s account, the reference to America – associated with movements or mythologies influenced by World War II experiences that appear to be founded on rational apprehension of material differences – also frequently invokes supernatural sources for the disparity:

“On Ambae, people shared the story of Anqa Tagaro, a tradition of a civilization that existed in a previous time. This was identified as ‘Bali Hai’ in the novel Tales of the South Pacific by the American writer James Michener. These myths are connected to beliefs about the [Ambae] island’s Manaro volcano. They tell the story of the kidnapping of the guardian of wisdom and knowledge, someone by the name of Moltare. Moltare was later said to be kidnapped by the Americans during World War II. He was taken to America and it was thanks to his knowledge that the United States succeeded in becoming the world’s most powerful nation” (Abong Ch. 3).

13It is the coupling of the fantastic and mythical elements with the mundane realities of economic disparity that remains a source of interest – both for participants and for anthropologists.

14However vague and imperfect the notion of cargo cult is, our longstanding familiarity with it should at least encourage us to return to the Melanesian field and to ethnographic facts. Both cargo and associated phenomena and stories have undergone radical transformations since World War II, and especially since Melanesian countries gained independence. Accordingly, the first aim of the papers in this volume is to present different analytical approaches to the study of social movements in Melanesia with regard both to their current situation and to continuities with the past (see Abong Ch. 3 and Macintyre Ch. 5). The persistence of cargo cults, as real things, and as concepts, either “derogatory or celebratory”, has remained a central theme in contemporary Pacific anthropology: “although these movements continually transform themselves at the local level, on a global scale we should consider it to be a liminoid category – a permanent state in a transformative global process of which we are a part – a kind of essential friction” (Dalton Ch. 2). This involves, paradoxically, retaining the concept at the same time as we are beginning to relinquish it; using it, even though it is “under erasure” (Hermann Ch. 6, Dalton Ch. 2), in order to break with its colonial connotations, as well as with its postmodern Western legacy.

Cargo Cult Terminologies

15Even when abstracted from its connections to “cults”, cargo persists as a narrative or conceptual syndrome. “Cargo”, as such, is a polysemic notion, in English and also in related Melanesian pidgins. Referring both to the container (boat, sip) and to the content (shipment, kago), it provides at least two opposed but dynamically related meanings. Furthermore, cargo is also a modern concept used to describe industrial processes and goods, to refer to things produced by Western scientific rationality and political economy, in the context of liberal exchange ideologies and the development of heavy industry. However, for Melanesians in early colonial contexts these could not initially be perceived either as “modern” or “Western.” They were simply the totally new and unseen part of a metaphysical and strategic secret, a part of the explanation of the essential secret of white men’s wealth, of the mystery of their material abundance.

16Converted into a symbol, a shared vision of the surpassing of new realities, cargo cults should be considered as total social facts (see Dalton Ch. 2). The technological specificities of the foreign goods and their incredible quantity would become evident through their massive acquisition via autonomous ritual processes. Cargo is not necessarily an imperfect notion when used in this way to signify symbolic aspects of the Melanesian desire for foreign technological goods or money. Kago continues to be used in Melanesian pidgins as a synonym for great quantities of imported goods and commodities.

17Since contemporary Melanesians still use notions of kago or kago kalt, it is interesting to correlate present-day pidgin terminologies with former vernacular terminologies relating to traditional notions of abundance, goods and belongings, or of gaining benefits through the use of supernatural powers. In the case of Tannese society Lindstrom mentions the notion of nauta. He defines nauta, a word shared by several Tannese languages, as “possessions, goods, cargo, stored food” (1986: 96). My own informants elaborated it thus: nauta applies to food, but also to having a woman, children, pigs or fowls, gardens; all kinds of indigenous wealth which can be propitiated by means of Tannese ancestral magical stones (kapier). Nauta applies to “everything which makes our life easier” (even those things for which there are no stones, such as manioc, sweet potatoes and bullocks, goods that were assimilated to Tannese nauta through their cultural appropriation). Not simply a collection of material objects, like kago, nauta is the product of supernatural powers (paoa, see Lindstrom 1990). The Bible has also been classified as nauta, even though it is shared by Tannese and foreigners. Foreigners could also have their own nauta, “wealth belonging to their culture”; but since foreigners have lost most elements of their “former kastom,” their power today is based on kago, on what Tannese called sisar.

18For the Tannese, Sisar is every kind of wealth that lacks ancestral magical stones. Sisar might also be considered as a supernatural power. But today, more prosaically, it has become just a means of making money. Even new churches today, suspected of encouraging the cult of money, are considered sisar. This notion illuminates the power or dynamic of the “rod blong kago”, namely maximizing profits (kwik kas in Bislama). In Lihir, McIntyre (Ch. 5) stresses that ideologies of “bisnis” and “winmani” are also subject to such magical control: “The use of the Tok Pisin term pawa (power) is significant of the relationship between knowledge, especially esoteric knowledge, and the capacity to exert control over people and things.”

19Indeed cargo, as a label, can hardly be suppressed as such precisely because it refers to a process of categorization, of affirming rules of conduct, applying cultural codes on to foreign or unknown things. It might be compared with using barcodes on manufactured commodities, or with using another software program to decrypt esoteric values: “There are several reasons for anthropological wariness. First is the fact that ‘cult’ is a term that has two meanings, one pejorative, the other not. Historians and people writing in Religious Studies have no problems with the term–it simply refers to the organised adherence to a particular set of ritual practices that people believe affect and effect temporal and material aspects of their lives. Ancient historians can write about the ‘Cult of Mithras’ and nobody bats an eyelid; medieval historians write of the rise of the ‘Cult of Mary’ and people recognise that it refers to a specific movement within broader (Catholic) Christian ritual traditions during and following the 12th century. It has acquired some of its pejorative associations in 20th century America where it is used to refer to (often bizarre) new religious movements” (Macintyre 2010). Anthropologists have always considered that the cult of the dead was the main religious set of beliefs and practices in ancient Pacific societies.

20As cults, cargo movements also share many similarities with those mystery cults that existed in Hellenic and Oriental antiquity (Rohde 1925, Dodds 1959) and also with many of the nativist movements that appeared in different colonial contexts. They are mass initiatory and oppositional movements; ritual organizations that seek to assist their followers to grasp the nature of cultural shifts, face the challenges engendered by new and disturbing events and adapt to radical sociopolitical, economic or religious changes. Contemporary aspects of Melanesian neo-ritual organizations seem to conform to the same cultural model that moulded them during the colonial period and in the context of culture contact in which they arose.

21In French, the word “culte” is much more neutral than in English. It simply refers to the ritual elements of any religious organization. But there is another related notion that has become clearly derogatory in French, that of “secte”. The official discrimination against sects has increased since 1995, when the French Parliament began compiling an extended list of “dangerous” sects based in France. According to a parliamentary committee of enquiry, sects can be defined as posing two kinds of threat: “Threats to the individual: mental destabilization; the exorbitant nature of the financial demands; causing the individual to break with their social environment; inflicting bodily harm; the indoctrination of children. Threats to society: making pronouncements of a more or less anti-social nature; disturbances to public order; the serious nature of legal proceedings; potential bypassing of conventional economic networks; attempts to manipulate legal authorities” (Commission d’enquête sur les sectes, Alain Gest and Jacques Guyard, 22 December 1995). That is why I feel upset whenever I read or hear people referring to the John Frum movement as a “sect”. However, if we leave the political field, setting aside its common associations, and restrict ourselves to sociological terminology, the John Frum movement is based on a cult, defined as the totality of external religious practices and observances, as well as being organized like a sect: a subdivision of a larger religious group.

22The ethical and semantic problems arose, as several researchers assert, through the juxtaposition of the words “cargo” and “cult” (Hermann Ch. 6 and Dalton Ch. 2). This symbolic association has been intuitively extended and resonates with other terms such as hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo, conjuring up notions of magical nonsense formulae. The forging of the “cargo” and “cult” association quickly led to the justification of the repression of social movements by colonial powers and more generally to converting “cargo culting” into a symbol of the strangeness and inferiority of Melanesian cultures. In a context where Enlightenment notions had tied rationality to civilization, these activities came to represent archetypes of the “primitive”. According to Hermann (Ch. 6), colonial discourses on cargo cults shared a “propensity for associating ‘Cargo cult’ with pejorative ideas, as for example when they spoke of ‘madness’, ‘primitiveness’, ‘heathendom’ and ‘backwardness’ … What none of these discourses did, however, was recognize the existence of links that might have promoted a dialogue between the indigenous people and the Europeans”.

23Once cult, in its association with cargo, became so heavily fraught with irrational, agonistic and primitivist ideologies, cargo cult cultures were stigmatized. They were interpreted as, and reduced to, the illusionary beliefs of Melanesians that they might assume control over the supernatural power of cargo (see Macintyre Ch. 5). By extension “cargo cults” gave birth to “cargoism”; this expression gained even more currency: “‘Cargoism’ is the great bugbear of Melanesian development. Having derived from ‘cargo cultism’ (the greater bugbear of colonial Melanesia) ‘cargoism’ has jumped regional boundaries to become a popular English language reference to all kinds of raised expectations, any general devotion to materialism and, most surprisingly, the slippage between investment and return for everything from environmentalism to economics” (Sullivan 2005: 1). Ritual means associated with cargoism have been identified as “cargo mentality” or “cargo thinking”. All the derogatory aspects of the “cargo cult” label, with its evolutionist connotations, are the direct inheritance of the colonial period.

Classifying Melanesian Movements Today

24Among scholars who still consider that ethnographic studies of cargo cults have provided a heuristic device for the comparative understanding of culture contact, Christianization and social change in Pacific societies, the attempt to provide an encompassing definition of real phenomena has not yet been abandoned. Such definitions rely strongly on the Melanesian characteristics of these movements; this is justified by the fact that, in the history of Oceanist anthropology, the concept of cargo cults has very seldom been applied to Polynesian, Australian or Indonesian cultural contexts (about the frequent and widespread occurrence of millenarian movements in Melanesia as compared to their rarity in Australian societies, see Tonkinson 2004). Indeed, during the conference, Martha Macintyre offered for discussion the following defining characteristics:

25“In both places where I have encountered cargo cults they have included practices and beliefs that are characteristic of other movements that have been designated ‘cargo cults’ in Papua New Guinea:

  • They involve ritual activities that in some way imitate or mimic actions associated with whites/Europeans.
  • These activities are aimed at effecting transformations and/or reversals in status (often associated with skin colour), wealth and power for adherents.
  • They involve stories of the ‘loss’ of skills, goods and knowledge to white people (often those who colonized them) through some moral failure or offence. Some of the rites or practices aim to redeem these failures in order to effect the transformation.
  • They have (charismatic) local leaders.
  • They have strong nativist elements – that is, they aim at advancing the political interests of local people by appealing to the reinstatement of specific ‘traditional’ practices and they see their movement as one that reclaims self-determination and independence from (white) foreign control.
  • They entail beliefs in the return of ancestors bringing wealth in the form of money, European goods etc –‘cargo’.
  • They include utopian and/or millenarian ideas of a future in which people will not have to labour.
  • They have continued over many decades, changing slightly, but maintaining core beliefs and practices.

The cluster of attributes marks these movements out as ‘cargo cults’ in many respects.

The blend of elements that can be considered ‘political’ and ‘religious’ is typical of similar movements in Papua New Guinea.” (Macintyre 2010).

26This proposal reminds us of the need to specify more precisely which set of ethnographic facts we have in mind when we refer to the notion of cargo cult, both in its geographical delimitation and in its historical continuity. I expressed the same need while presenting my findings on the long-lasting John Frum movement, which has continued to flourish since at least 1937. Even if most anthropologists studying this movement in the field have refrained from presenting it in terms of a cargo cult, their ethnographic work has nevertheless contributed to giving the John Frum movement a place in the Top Ten of the most famous cargo cults. Therefore, in order to be more precise about the past and present attributes that the John Frum movement shares with other movements that had put much emphasis on the theme of the cargo appropriation and still frequently do so, I propose the following elements of classification:

  • They are mass phenomena, totalistic and federative. Their mythic and ritual features facilitate the extension of the usual limits of local collective identification processes. Their proselytism provides their followers with an individuated dimension that enables the supplantation of traditional affiliations. Different attitudes, marks and bodily signs are used to personify these transformations.
  • While encouraging the emergence of prophetic figures of authority, indigenous Melanesian movements accompany and accelerate drastic changes of the pre-existing order. This overthrow ideally coincides with an upheaval of the whole world: the social landscape, political frontiers, mythical topography and environment will be totally transformed.
  • They suppress or deeply modify the existing ritual organization: they can destroy or rehabilitate elements of the existing material culture; at the same time they ritualize foreign commodities or technologies. In their oppositional dimension, they accentuate the spiritual consequences of ongoing changes.
  • Their syncretic and millenarian aspects attempt to redefine and validate new links between indigenous and foreign transcendent representations. In the special conjuncture effected by these cultic movements, reconnection with ancestral powers together with the suppression of foreign domination are concomitant events and could be seen as the key to immortality. Thus, the agenda of their followers is framed by a new vision of temporality (see Tabani 2008a), trying to start and accelerate a metaphysical countdown.

27However imperfect and incomplete such attempts at definition or classification of family resemblances in a “well-known repertoire” might be, they express the need to pursue a comparative approach in the study of these indigenous and/or millenarian movements across geographic and cultural space as well as through time. Some participants in the Kago, Kastom and Kalja ASAO sessions expressed reservations about the risk of becoming diverted, where attempts at definition might be sidetracked into adopting an exclusively “typological” approach. While Scott (2010a) acknowledges that his recording of Makiran stories implicitly relies on something similar to the definition of cargo cult that Tabani and Macintyre are developing, he adds:

“I have several reservations about explicitly foregrounding such a list in isolation. 1) I’m concerned that a typology reifies cargo cult as something that is iconic of Melanesia (creating what Appadurai [1988: 37] would term a ‘metonymic prison’). 2) Such a typology risks, furthermore, holding Melanesia in the ‘savage slot’. 3) Perhaps most importantly, creating a single typology in isolation privileges cargo cult as the presumed starting point for any comparative work in a way that may foster a tendency to assimilate other phenomena to cargo cult, rather than allowing differences to emerge and contribute to more nuanced theorization.” (Scott 2010a)

Kago, Kastom, Kalja

28A promising direction for the reanalysis of both the cargo cult concept and its underlying social facts could be to link and compare it with other similar or related notions. Leaving aside the notable tabu, mana or big man concepts, there is only one concept that has emerged in the history of Melanesian anthropology that has a core status on a par with the idea of the cargo cult. This is the concept of kastom which gained currency in the 1970s, coinciding precisely with the period when Melanesian nations gained independence. While, as Clifford commented concerning cargo cult, everybody immediately knows what we mean by the term, this can be hardly claimed for the notion of kastom. Nobody would disagree about the usefulness of the notion of kastom as a condition for understanding the genesis of contemporary Melanesian ideologies and cultures. Even so, whether we focus on the various different ways Melanesians brandish their kastom as a cultural symbol, or on the interpretations of foreign analysts who try to determine which kind of indigenous characteristics apply to kastom, it is as hard to find any agreement on the scope of its precise meanings as it is on the social practices to which it refers.

29Both concepts have been integrated into Melanesian pidgins, but as related to social movements: kago kalt is currently fraught with negative colonial overtones, while kastom is more frequently praised as embodying positive aspects of postcolonial processes of collective identification. Nevertheless, both concepts have been used by anthropologists to describe theoretical and practical constructions, ideologies or social movements specifically relevant to Melanesian cultural contexts. Indeed, even when they are strictly set apart, they appear historically and culturally complementary. According to Jeben’s definition, “since the cultural recognition of otherness is more central to kago, in the context of kastom we deal with the objectivation of one’s own traditional culture, that is self representations” (Jebens 2007: 10). And a major project remains: to interrogate these concepts in order to determine if kago and kastom are linked to the same historical origins or whether they are distinct products from two different time periods.

30Lindstrom, for example, analyzes the developments of exegesis on cargo and kastom as subsequent rather than as parallel, even though both concepts are ideologically connected. He proposes to seek Melanesian kastom’s genealogy in former “cargo cult culture” (1993b). More recently, in an article contesting acultural critiques of kastom, Akin tries to analyze how kastom has been transformed into what anthropologists used to call “culture” (2004). According to the Solomon Kwaio example studied by Akin, kastom is not just an ideological selection of pre-colonial cultural traits, practices and institutions turned into an identifying symbol, politically used by nationalist elites for nation-building purposes. He considers how, through a long process of revitalization, reorganization and reinvention, kastom has become a visceral part of community cultures. That kastom ideology can follow different or opposite directions is a point which has been regularly asserted. Some of these ideological constructions could of course succeed in becoming part of popular social reality and a basis for new imagined communities. Kastom as culture, even at a national level, is an ideological and even anthropological fiction which over time could become real.

31Less clear is Akin’s claim, that his “critique of acultural approaches does not of course hold for studies of Melanesian ‘Cargo cults’, an extensive literature notable for its invisibility in most writings about kastom despite much topical overlap” (2004: 318). Indeed, anthropologists have abundantly culturalized cargo cults in the past, while later, they have over-politicized kastom debates. Claiming that the transformation of kastom into culture is the consequence of the oppositional developments of the Maasina Rule movement, Akin does not seem to consider kago either as kastom or as culture.

32A possible reason for Akin’s reluctance to explore these connections himself is that if cargo cults are Melanesian, they have generally been considered as the hallmark of a deep cultural break with Melanesian societies’ pre-colonial cultural past. Cargo movements were frequently laden with anti-traditional nihilism (the Vailala madness became the main example of the destruction of the old ceremonial complex, Williams 1923, see Tabani 2008a), while kastom has frequently been promoted as a clear sign of continuity, of the indigenization of modernity or of cultural revitalization. Within the semantic field of cargo cult, the metaphorical dimension of the challenge posed by drastic social change is something which persists. When cargo cults are assimilated to “indigenization of modernity processes” (Sahlins 1999), to what extent might such “developman process” (Sahlins 1993) be claimed to be similar to that of the ideological rise of kastom?

33Lindstrom has suggested in his writings that we consider kastom as comparable to cargo cult: “The making of the new-culture-in-the-making necessitated a discourse of kastom, or at least something like ‘culture’ […] The public political re-establishment of tradition, or the invention of novel ritual that occurred within cultic contexts, solidified and fortified notions of local culture and convention in general” (1993b: 501). In the John Frum movement for example, kastom and John Frum cultic activities have been closely associated by colonial delegates and missionaries and in turn condemned together as incompatible with the diffusion of the Christian faith and the Condominium legal order.

34The John Frum movement, for example, has continued to present itself as the guardian of kastom, even if the cultic practices and syncretic imagery and beliefs of the movement rely on strong Christian principles and reinvented traditional patterns (see Tabani 2008, 2010). We could certainly extend this self-characterization to other post-World War II movements such as Maasina Rule, the Paliau movement or the Yali movement. Scott also insists on the link between the assignment of the supernatural dwarfs of Makira’s underground and the kastom issue: “the kakamora are not only the source of the army’s extraordinary powers, they are also the custodians of a lost true Makiran language and kastom which the army will one day assist them to restore” (2010b).

35Cargo cults in Melanesia could be seen as the first colonial occurrences of a large-scale and intensive production of neo-traditions, in a period where the concept of kastom had not yet received any scientific, ideological or mass media coverage. Kago as kastom may have been the initial process of claiming the defence of local sovereignties before the official reinvention of such “cargo cult kastom” and the widespread use, in the 1970s, of the notion of kastom for political purposes in the nation-building context, up to its latest incarnation as “State kastom” (Tabani 2002, Babadzan 2009). Cargo cult-kastom was fragmentary and selective, as is modern official state kastom today. But while Cargo cults focused on “strange gods bearing gifts”, official national kastom focuses today on state regulation, law and order and on politicians, technocrats and NGOs providing development help. We wonder also how far the Makira matter which Scott is proposing as an alternative to the Cargo cult explanation is also the product of such precursory “cargo cult kastom”: a kastom discourse that precisely reproduces in a post-colonial Melanesian context both proto-nationalist and millenarian stances that have been assigned to classical cargo movements in colonial times (Scott 2012: 117; 121-122).

36To return to Akin’s analysis, we cannot forget that the question of cargo cults coincided with the very beginning of the “kastom as reinvented tradition” debate: “The ideologies of our time, unlike Cargo cult ideologies, are phrased in terms of ‘culture’ and other anthropological concepts, as they have passed into Western popular thought and intellectual discourses” (Keesing 1989:33). With the replacement of cargo cults as “developman processes” by kastom-sustainable development (also labelled kastom ekonomi in Vanuatu), we do not just acknowledge a change in the source of expected abundance, but also one that entails the replacement of different “semiologies of sovereignty” (Keesing 1989: 28). These political ruptures could have a significant influence on the process studied by Jebens in which Melanesians themselves have appropriated the negative charge of cargo cults: “‘Colonial usage’ [of the term ‘cargo cult’ ] does now seem to be reproduced in indigenous discourses… to derogate opponents. Here [in Melanesia] ‘Cargo cultism’ continues to be an ideological weapon of exclusion: the cargo cultist is always ‘the Other’” (Jebens 2004b: 157). Indeed, this reinforces the need for enquiry into the historical relationship between kago and kastom.

37Today, in Vanuatu for example, many movements which in the past have been called “cargo cults” are frequently redefined by Melanesians as “kastom movements” or, even more neutrally, by outside observers as “indigenous or social movements”. But for some neo-evangelical churches operating in the Pacific today these movements are purely and simply the products of “Satan’s work”. Moreover, examples from PNG show, too, that different groups sometimes adopt the label of kago kalt – and as one that is inherently powerful, not shameful (see Lattas 1998 and also Macintyre Ch. 5).

Kastom Movements, Globalization and Nation States

38In order to provide answers to some of the questions raised in this volume, we should assess the deep implications of cargo or kastom movements for the agendas and governance of independent Melanesian states. It is not enough to speak about “marginal cargo cults” or “micronationalisms” if we wish to evoke the actual directions of movements like the Nagriamel, the Turaga nason or Melanesian Brotherhood, just to take examples from Vanuatu and the Solomons. The leaders of these movements denounce fraudulent schemes initiated by state rulers, or even the excesses of modern consumer society, as cargo cults or even as kago kalja, and oppose them to kastom ekonomi and indigenous governance principles. To what extent does land speculation rest on the expectation that uneducated island man ples or man bush will exhibit cargo behaviours and sell their land for insignificant sums of money?

39For former anthropologists, movements like John Frum were intended to generate new forms of collective identity. From their point of view, ritual means to ascertain identity were doomed to be overtaken by new modes of pragmatic action and rational organisation. Cultic contest emanating from ‘pre-rational’ politico-religious movements would dissolve during the political process of decolonisation and nation-building. Peter Worsley (1957), who, with Jean Guiart (1951), was one of the main propagators of this argument, adds to his thesis that the factor of “protonationalism” in Melanesian post-contact societies sums up a process of integration or centralization encompassing different traditionally non-united social groups. According to Worsley, this federative process is central to the dynamics of most Melanesian pre-World War II politico-religious movements. Historically, their rationality is supposed to lie in their becoming (Kilani 1983), in their transformation into bureaucratic forms of organization and unification. This ineluctable process of secularisation, which leads from lower class religions to anti-colonialism, should also open the way to the invention of a wider identity based on shared feelings of a community of culture.

40This proto-nationalist theory, formerly used to explain different sorts of indigenous movements usually classified as “cargo cults”, is contradicted by the facts. It is a matter of fact that the observed direction of most of these movements since the World War II period went from immediate political reaction (disobedience to colonial and mission domination) to sophisticated religious changes. The more virulent the initial spontaneous opposition (seen as irrational by a former generation of anthropologists), the more prolific and complex the syncretistic processes that succeeded to it and extended it. Currently, in Tanna, political innovations are mostly seen as socially disintegrative, while religious innovations are generally considered integrative (Tabani 2002:121). According to the proto-nationalist theory, Melanesian millenarian movements are specific to colonial contexts; thus, their future should be examined in continuity with post-independence nationalist claims.

41Movements like John Frum have generally been opposed to nationalism, to the centralisation of power and to national integration. Of course, one can find some similarities between cargo cults and manifestations of state nationalism. Lindstrom, for example, noted that:

“Like cults, the new states organise and attempt to regulate bodily experience by means of parades, military drilling, hygienic public health and anti-Aids campaigns, and national sports competition. Like cults, the new states institute novel regularities of space and time in the form of national capitals/headquarters, flag bedecked parliament houses and other ritual centres, and state holidays. And like cults, the states demand both national harmony and unity (1993b: 507)”.

42However, one cannot infer a sociological equivalence from symbolic similarities between the integrative scope of indigenous movements on the one hand and the nation-building assimilation model on the other, nor can a shared ideology be identified; the continuity between both models of social construction is not obvious. The amalgamation of cargo cult, kastom and national cultures does not present any evidence of historical continuity. Frequently, when national political leaders promote the idea of national integration and community harmony, their speeches are filled with mythological and messianic metaphors; during their electoral meetings they promise cargo symbols and then proceed to ritualized rice distributions. Producing miracles and preparing cult followers for salvation are usual activities for bush prophets, but these goals do not fit in well with modern politicians’ official statements, nor are they a requirement for state leaders’ legitimacy. Unfulfilled cargo prophesies do not weaken the faith of cultic movements’ followers: the millenarian hopes they raise are just postponed, unlike false electoral promises, which are publicly denounced as political propaganda or corruption and can provoke social protest and civil riots.

43A recent tendency for national politicians is to claim for themselves some oppositional aspects of the legacy of former indigenous movements. It is remarkable that, if the proto-nationalist analysis of cargo cults has lost much of its explanatory efficiency, it is still used politically by ni-Vanuatu political leaders. Barak Sope, for example, former cofounder of the nationalist Vanuaku Pati and later of the Vanuatu Republic, was one of the most virulent opponents of cargo and indigenous movements (especially the John Frum movement in Tanna and the Nagriamel movement in the northern part of the archipelago). He largely contributed to the imprisonment of Jimmy Stevens, leader of the Nagriamel movement and instigator of a secessionist rebellion, for eleven years (Abong Ch. 3, Tabani, 2008b), though in 1991 Sope’s National United Party concluded a political alliance with the Nagriamel. When he was appointed Prime Minister in 1999, Barack Sope attended the annual ceremonies of the John Frum movement in Tanna that followed. The talk he gave in the village of Sulphur Bay asserted a convergence between the rebel movement and his own political ideology:

“The constitution of Vanuatu declares clearly that there is enough space left under the sun of Vanuatu for all of our customs, or for the John Frum movement or for the Nagriamel movement, or for any movement or organisation. And any movement has the right to go on. Everybody has the right to follow them, as well as to vote, to go to school, to use roads or to go to the hospital. The constitution is the guarantee for these rights and everybody must respect it. I came for the first time to Sulphur Bay when I was at the university, writing my book, to speak with Mweles and some other old leaders of the John Frum movement. In these times, the Vanuaaku Pati didn’t exist and neither did the National United Party nor any other political party. No one but the John Frum and Nagriamel movements were yet present. And in those times, these old peoples had already spoken about independence, about this independence which has become our present” (personal recording 15th February 2000).

44In any case, if today’s nationalist representations of the nation in Melanesia use and abuse a reinterpreted tradition along with other essentialised symbols of the past, it has proved more difficult to assimilate syncretistic religious imagination inspired by millenarian movements.

45If it does not make sense to speak about proto-nationalism, could movements like John Frum be characterised as micro-nationalisms instead? After all, they handle state symbols (government, flags, headquarters and uniforms), and their leaders declare themselves ready to die for their kastom. Nevertheless, the charismatic power that is their cement is mostly expressed in religious terms. Theirs are nativisms that largely focus on millenarian hope. Their main goal is to transcend the contradictions between Christianity and earlier pagan beliefs (Keesing 1989). A nationalist view of the state cannot furnish a key to such local and non-shared quests for identity.

46The John Frum movement did not lead to any routinisation of the charismatic power of its leaders. The Tannese proclamation of a ‘ Tanna nason’(Tanna nation) or references to the ‘ John Frum kastom pipol’(customary people) are conceived along the lines of biblical models such as the idea of ‘God’s chosen people’ or of the preserved spirituality of ‘Israel’s lost tribe’. The people of Tanna are seen by John Frum followers as a spiritual model for all nations in the world, and this spirituality (wan speretual) is considered to be the source of great powers (paoa) permitting global action.

47Followers of the John Frum movement reject state kastom and the kago label for complementary reasons–unless kago is applied to others (in this negative sense cargo cultists are always and inevitably “others”): “tru kago kalja i stap long Vila, long saed long politik” (true cargo emanated from the politicians in Vila), “Jon hemi no kago” (John is not the cargo) is a current leitmotiv in the speeches of some John Frum leaders. But for Tannese, as well as for anthropologists, the less they speak about cargo the stronger the impression formed by initiated observers that nothing resembles the John Frum movement as much as other Melanesian cargo cults: “John didn’t say that we would receive all goods for free, but all goods finally came.” “We only believe in kastom, but to receive millions of dollars from our ancestors we need plastic member cards attesting to our true kastom filiations.” If some analysts still question whether cargo cults have been anything more than mere illusions or an anthropological mirage, there can be no doubt that, through ultraliberalism and state practices, they have attained a substantial reality as well as considerable mythic force. In a globalized world, cargo cult, like kastom, has become a metaphor for the domination of capitalism and the general homogenization of nation state governance.



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1 Participatiants included Joshua Bell, Terry Brown, James Clifford, Rick Feinberg, Christine Jourdan, Eben Kirksey, Maria Lepowski, Michael Scott, Joel Robbins, the eight contributors to this volume and many more observers.


Senior Research Fellow at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and affiliated to the Centre de Recherche et de Documentation sur l’Océanie (CREDO) and to the Vanuatu Cultural Centre as Honorary Curator. He has conducted research in many islands of Vanuatu since 20 years. His main topics have been politics of identity and tradition, cultural change, millenarianism. Many of his writings have focused on ni-vanuatu indigenous movements, especially the Nagriamel and the John Frum movements. After being based since over three years in Vanuatu he has extend his researches to such topics like commodification and commercialization of cultures, globalization and national politics, monetarization of domestic modes of production based economies. Among his different achievements in project managements, he became the cofounder with Marcellin Abong and Jacob Kapere of the TAFEA Kaljoral Senta. This branch of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre is located in Tanna and focused its cultural and artistic activities on the societies of the southern province of Vanuatu (islands of Tanna, Aneytium, Futuna, Eromango, Aniwa). Marc Tabani has published several articles in french and English and edited two volumes in French (2002, Les pouvoirs de la coutume à Vanuatu: traditionalisme et édification nationale and 2008, Une pirogue pour le paradis: le culte de John Frum à Tanna). He is also editor and co-author of the french version of Histri blong yumi: an history of Vanuatu in four volumes (2010-1012) and editor of a special issue of the Journal de la Société des Océanistes dedicated to the 30 years of Vanuatu’s independence (2011).

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