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.