On cargo and cults — and Yali’s Question

As we suggested in our first posting, Yali and other PNGuineans became preoccupied with the refusal of many whites to recognize their full human-ness — to make blacks and whites equal players in the same history. In their efforts to establish the exchanges on which the elusive equality would be based, many PNGuineans sought, often through magical and ritual means, the European things — the “cargo” — that whites so evidently valued. It would be an error, however, to believe that it was the things alone that interested them. Rather, with these things, they hoped to become interesting and socially significant (exchange-worthy) to the Europeans.

In Road Belong Cargo, Lawrence describes the attempts of Yali and his neighbors to acquire this cargo with a definition of what is now known as the cargo cult:

“It is based on the 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 the followers’ dissatisfaction with their status in colonial society, which is to be improved imminently or eventually by the acquisition of new wealth. It has, therefore, a disruptive influence and is regarded by the …. Australian Administration … as one of the [its] most serious problems ” (1964: 1).

Deeply resenting their inferiority in colonial society, PNGuineans sought for decades to improve their status by gaining access to cargo. In fact, during Fred’s early PNG research in New Britain on the island of Karavar (in 1968 and 1972) local people remained preoccupied with gaining long denied respect from Europeans. In discussing their contemporary cargo activities (which focused on learning how to place an order such that a small payment would elicit a shipload of manufactured items), they described a history of their efforts to compel Europeans to recognize mutual human-ness. In particular, they referred to the “dog movement,” a series of meetings they held during the 1930′s. The question addressed with perplexity and anger at these meetings was why the Europeans persisted in treating them with contempt — driving them away, telling them to get out, as if they were unwelcome dogs. Through obtaining cargo, they sought to win European respect by having that which Europeans so obviously valued.

Over a considerable period of time, hence, PNGuineans frequently sought to acquire and master the ritual techniques by which Europeans accessed cargo. Influenced by Yali or other cargo-cult leaders, they tried a combination of recalcitrance and ritual experimentation. They interrupted and transformed normal routines: they refused to pay taxes, repudiated the directions of colonial administrators, established alternative governments, wrested theological control from missionaries, and mobilized villages, if not whole regions, in fervent invocation and prophesy.

Diamond, hence, misunderstands what many PNGuineans desired when he explains the background to Yali’s question (about the differences between white and black people). In Diamond’s words: “whites had arrived, imposed centralized government, and brought material goods whose value New Guineans instantly recognized, ranging from steel axes, matches, and medicines to clothing, soft drinks, and umbrellas. In New Guinea all these goods were referred to collectively as ‘cargo’” (1999: 14). Because Diamond misunderstands that Yali really was asking less about cargo per se than about colonial relationships between white and black people, he describes the introduction of centralized government as almost parenthetical to the indisputable fact that whites and their goods had arrived. Thus, he presents local resentment as directed not at the nature and use of concerted colonial power so much as at the differential access to goods.

We might also note here that in using the term “goods” Diamond implies that such items were inherently desirable — instantly recognizable as worth acquiring. In defining cargo as goods, Diamond suggests that local people will do whatever it takes to get such things: that in their desire for goods, local people are the agents of their own domination. In so doing, he displaces our attention from the nature of colonial power relations. These relationships are not vested in the “nature of things.” They are not inevitable because of the instantly recognized value of manufactured items. Instead, colonial relationships have been forcefully imposed, often to the resentment and resistance of local people.

PNGuineans such as Yali wanted cargo not because of its inherent and instantly recognizable value, but because of a desire to transform the relations of inequality between whites and blacks that were pervasive in colonialism. They wanted cargo primarily because they objected to the ways in which the centralized, colonial government used power and, correspondingly, diminished their relative worth.

20 thoughts on “On cargo and cults — and Yali’s Question

  1. Fred and Deborah,

    I have not yet read your book about Yali’s Question so I might be missing quite a bit here, but I wanted to clarify something. I gather, more or less, that your mail problem with Diamond’s interpretation of Yali’s question is that it basically misses the point; in other words he fails to see what Yali really meant by not looking at the broader context. Would you argue that this presents problems for his entire argument? It seems to me that even if Yali’s question was interpreted as you have described in this post Diamond would still be searching for the same answers, in your scenario coming by way of understanding Colonial relations.

  2. I think it transforms the arguement from a materialistic and purely economical one into one that is concerned more with social relationships between the colonizer and colonized.

    Yali wasn’t merely asking why the Europeans had so much stuff, per se. It mattered little that the stuff being talked about was cargo, it could have been anything. There was no intrinsic value to the PNGuineans of the cargo. It was important to them because it was important to the Europeans. The unequal possession of cargo represented an unequal attitude of respect between Europeans and PNGuineans.

    Is this a fair restatement?

    I think it still doesnt detract from the main theme of GG&S that much, or the answers he comes up with. It just means Diamond didn’t really answer Yali’s question. Or maybe he did to some extent.

    Diamond sees cargo as something with intrinsic value, and Im sure the colonizers did as well. The PNGuineans had little “cargo”, and to the Europeans little to respect.

    Perhaps Diamond was being inadvertantly ethnocentric in his own right, which lead him to answer not Yali’s question, but a question that Yali’s question triggered in his own mind.

  3. PNGuineans such as Yali wanted cargo not because of its inherent and instantly recognizable value, but because of a desire to transform the relations of inequality between whites and blacks that were pervasive in colonialism.

    Were the cargo cultists not interested at all in “cargo” for its usefulness to them? (i.e. a steel axe would be useful to almost anyone.)

  4. “In defining cargo as goods, Diamond suggests that local people will do whatever it takes to get such things: that in their desire for goods, local people are the agents of their own domination. In so doing, he displaces our attention from the nature of colonial power relations. These relationships are not vested in the “nature of things.” They are not inevitable because of the instantly recognized value of manufactured items. Instead, colonial relationships have been forcefully imposed, often to the resentment and resistance of local people.”

    This paragraph is weak. The fact that colonial relationships have been forcefully imposed does not negate the possibility that the local people may become agents of their own domination in the way in which they react to the arrival of colonial powers.

    The presence of the stick does not negate the existance of the carrot.

  5. Thanks for your responses. To Will and Itsalljustaride, let us say for now that we really do think that Diamond’s misunderstanding of Yali’s question displays a perspective that makes important aspects of his argument in GG&S seriously flawed — and that we’ll be developing this point in our next one or two posts. To Henry, yes, perhaps, but steel axes were, of course, more useful to some than others — mostly to men in the PNG case. This is to say, there is always a political economy at work which must be understood when interpreting what is useful for whom and why — and often a gendered political economy. Usefulness, we think, is never absolute nor asocial. Laurstan Sharp’s classic article, Steel Tools for Stone Age Australians, is very good on the problematics of the introduction of steel tools among the Yir Yoront. They were welcomed by some and detested by others. In any case, what really irked PNGuineans was not the mere fact that Europeans had superior things, it was that the Europeans thought that they were superior by virtue of their things, thus holding the PNGuieans in contempt.

  6. I am blown away. In the early years of
    the Industrial Revolution, so I have read, the rich prized the industrially manufactured. Because it was rare. With the passage of time, the rich prize the hand-made. Because it is rare. Do you -really- think some suit prizes his Blackberry -only- because it lets him be more efficient? Really?

    What naivete. We’re all cargo cultists.


  7. It sems to me that the acceptance of cargo as a means of accruing status already implies at least a partial acceptance of the terms of colonial domination. In some sense, it seems necessary that colonized people be in some way “the agents of their own domination” — the coercive power necessary to dominate even a smallish population of colonial subjects would be too great for any of the colonial powers to extend over the entirety of their holdings otherwise.

    What’s always struck me about the cargo cults is the way they intersected with and interfered with colonial work regimes, and what that said about local understandings of the working of capitalism. Though my understanding is somewhat minimal, I’ve always thought it interesting that many cargo cult movements involved the forbidding of “work” — that the cargo would only come when the spirirts/gods/whatever saw the people’s absolute faith in the cargo’s arrival. The evidence for this was fairly plain — the colonialists, who got all the cargo, didn’t work (at least in a way that would be obvious to those whose labor on the plantations enriched the colonialists). In this perspective, work –> impoversihment, non-work –> cargo wealth.

    Finally, though clearly there is a magical/ritual component to cargo cult movements, it bears noting that they were often coupled with revolutionary/anti-colonial military movements. This suggests either an awareness that the colonialists were appropriating cargo that rightfully belonged to the locals, and that once removed the cargo would be distributed to its rightful owners, or that at least some of the locals understood at least some of the terms of colonial domination and modernist nationalism. That is, these movements were not about returning to some pre-contact state but were about seizing control of the apparatus of the modern colonial state — creating a “cargo nation” without the colonial domination.

  8. I guess the key question your posts so far provoke for me is (and I’ve only read 1/4 of Diamond’s book and haven’t gotten to yours yet so excuse me if this is something you’ve already discussed): even if Diamond accepted that he misinterpreted Yali’s question, might he not still claim that his overall analysis about the causes of inequality stands? That is, suppose his first chapter was renamed “Jared’s Question” – how would this effect the rest of his argument?

  9. We appreciate Oneman’s thoughtful comments — three in number, actually.

    In response to his first, we think that cargo is as cargo does. Certainly both Marshall Sahlins and Nick Thomas — as much as they might disagree about lot of issues — recognize that “things” offered as commodites can be accepted either as gifts or as commodities. Marshall, for example, writes of galoshes and how various PNGuineans recongigured them within what he calls “develop-man” rather than “develoment” systems. (This is to say, systems of mutual entailment rather than systems of individualistic enhancement.) Nick writes about the ways in which the objects given by colonizers (pieces of black glass, even guns) were not necessarily the same in significance/use as the objects received by local Pacific peoples. In addition, the fact of colonial domination has, we think, to be understood as resting — not in the acceptance of “cargo” per se — but in the presence of what was, at least in the Pacific, overwhelming military force. Throughout the Pacific, local populations which did try to resist European control found themselves dealing with entities both inspired by (we would argue — and will argue in posts to follow) particular, historically rooted, expansionist agendas, and able to mobilize vast numbers of men and resources for prolonged periods of time. That being said, it is true that — at least in PNG — many local peoples, especially women, did see benefits to a European-imposed peace.

    Concerning the disruption of colonial regimes of work, it’s not so easy. Many “cargo cults” involved people in marching like soliders marched; in following rigid time schedules like Europeans followed. It must not be forgotten that colonists were also sometimes missionaries and that local people often obeyed mission injunctions, including the need to labor on mission plantations, so as to please a European God in whose eyes all men were supposedly created equal.

    And, yes, yes, yes, there was little talk/interest of returning to a pre-contact state — certainly not by Yali. We hope no one thought that we were saying as much. But, a post-contact state might have remained for some time one committed to “develop-man” rather than “development.” This is to say that — at least in retrospect — many PNG people were sometimes/often willing to accept the benefits of European pacification and administration, but would have wanted it to come about it ways that enhanced rather than diminshed their sense of worth in the world.

  10. Why are some people so rich and others so poor? Are the two related? In what ways? How can it be that we produce enough food to go around and yet some people are starving? How will we, as the human species, survive the next 100 years (or 1,000 or 10,000 or 1 million years)?

    The problem here is pride and selfishness. Pride and selfishness have always been the downfall of great nations. People get prideful and think that they should somehow be lifted up above people they feel are less than themselves. When people do this, they totally discard any usefulness “the lesser classes” might contribute. When a nation or society humble themselves and recognize the worth of each person, they are able to work together to the overall benefit of that nation or society. Even smartest or wealthiest of people need the assistance of others in some way. Everyone contributes and everyone has what they need.

  11. Ok, is this post about cargo cults as an economic topic or as a human geography topic? Because apparently cargo cult refers to many different things in different subjects.

  12. Having had lengthy conversations with Papa Yali I’m of the opinion that you all have missed the point.
    It’s all about Power and Sex.
    Yali was taken by the Allies from his reasonably remote coastal village, by submarine (the first of amazing sights, sounds and smells to be had over the next few months) to eventually end up in Brisbane Australia.
    He was given some basic training and instructions on how to gather his people and those nearby to fight the Japanese when the time came. He was also taken to other coastal parts of the whole island of New Guinea (including the Dutch part) to assist in intelligence gathering.
    Whilst in Australia and through bad interpretation (or perhaps deliberate!) Yali and other were encouraged to think that if they assisted the Allies in defeating the Japanese then “All you see here could be yours.” “Once we win the war then this type of development will follow and as you helped us you’ll be a ‘big man’.” “See these factories making vehicles, clothes, tools, guns, food etc. (cargo) this could all happen in your country.” Yali’s country was his village and surrounding area where his language was spoken (one of the 800 distinctly different languages in PNG).
    Yali was also taken to local brothels for some R&R (something quite unknown to him as prostitution was no a common practice in PNG) and it was there that he first encountered condoms.
    “Powa bilong man istap insait something bilong em” A man’s power is in his penis.
    Control this power and you’ve got him but the “balls” as a famous American General once said. Hearts and Minds People. Hearts and Minds.
    Yali set up his brothels when he returned ‘making’ his flower girls do what he demanded and gave then condoms to provide to the men of the area. He was only interested in gaining power over the most influential of these men so they were the first invited into the cult.
    Once the girls gave these used condoms back to Yali he held them in glass jars with an identifying mark to know which was whose. Having this most intimate property of a man gave him power over him from a ‘sanguma’ point of view. The men, with a great deal of caution lest the power be used, accepted the fact that when the war was over the ‘cargo’ would come.
    When it didn’t Yali still had the power. Many men came from all along the coast as far as the mouth of the Ramu River to join the cult and get the cargo only to have their power taken from them. Of course they were not going to admit this as their enemy could approach Yali for some of this power and have a sanguma man work his magic.
    This is why the cult lasted to today and once these old men died there was no power left. Yali’s son James tried to resurrect the cult and used it to gain election to the position of Governor of the Madang Province. He was charged and convicted of rape and is currently serving a 12 year jail term.
    As for the distribution of shells to the Highlanders (another blog) these were not acquired to be given away again as in mentioned but to pay for a wife.
    The more shells you had the more wives you could buy the bigger your gardens could be the more pigs you could own the more shells you could buy etc.
    In the Highlands in particular there are the three most paramount ‘values’ in life. And in descending order they are.
    Shells were a means to an end of acquiring all three and once acquired the owner had power and sex.
    Hope this helps you academics sort a few things out in your minds.
    The KISS principle works every time.

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