Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Large-scale millenarian movements centered in Melanesia.

In the language of the peoples of Papua New Guinea, cargo is the word for the trade goods and supplies—such as tinned meat, steel tools, military equipment, cotton, and motor vehicles—brought by missionaries, traders, planters, and colonial administrators. Members of cargo cults await the arrival of an abundance of goods as well as the restoration of power of their ancestors. Cargo cults proliferated at the time of initial contact with Europeans (1860-1970), when as many as 200 separate cults were reported. Peter Worsley (1957) suggested that cargo cults represented an embryonic form of class struggle against economic and political oppression and gave expression to anticolonial sentiments, while Kenelm Burridge (1969) stressed the importance of cargo cults in maintaining the dignity and equality of Melanesians in their encounters with Europeans. Peter Lawrence (1964) provided a balanced intellectual analysis of cargo cults with attention to the natives' point of view, and his study is by far the most sophisticated.

Although some revitalization of the cults took place during World War II, when planes often "dumped cargo," the number of cargo cults has declined dramatically since the 1960s. The meaning of cargo has gradually expanded to encompass all good things that people want and in some societies has come to signify the establishment of a utopia.

Stephen D. Glazier


K. Burridge, New Heaven, New Earth (New York: Schocken, 1969)

P. Lawrence, Road Belong Cargo (Manchester, U.K.: University of Manchester Press, 1964)

P. Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound (New York: MacGibbon and Kee, 1957).

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