What happened was during the nineteenth century and up until World War Two, native islanders in the Pacific would see the white people with things. But they never built these things, and when they broke they were sent off somewhere and were replaced (in cargo). As humans naturally do when they don’t understand something, they assumed that the cargo was supernatural.
The natives also noticed that the whites never seemed to do any real work, (at least by their standards). But they did see them do other odd things:
They built tall masts with wires attached to them; they sit listening to small boxes that glow with light and emit curious noises and strangled voices; they persuade the local people to dress up in identical clothes, and march them up and down – and it would hardly be possible to devise a more useless occupation than that. And then the native realizes that he has stumbled on the answer to the mystery. It is these incomprehensible actions that are the rituals employed by the white man to persuade the gods to send the cargo. If the native wants the cargo, then he too much do these things.
There are many different cults, as many as 67 totally independent from each other.
One particularly interesting one comes from the island Tanna in the country now known as Vanuatu. According to legends (which, of course, vary), John Frum was a short man with a high voice and bleached hair who wore a coat with shining metal buttons. He turned the local people against the missionaries, and made strange prophecies (some of which bear remarkable resemblance to Biblical prophecy, most likely do to the Christian influence from Missionaries). He foretold his own return, with bountiful cargo and a new currency. The local people quickly spent all of their money and refused to work, sending the economy tumbling.
But nothing the government did (including arresting cult leaders) stopped the cult. The local churches and schools stood empty, deserted by the natives.
The arrival of American troops did not help the situation (as John Frum was rumored to be King of America). The presence of black troops “as richly endowed with cargo as the white soldiers” sent excitement throughout the island.
The day of the apocalypse was imminent. It seemed that everyone was preparing for the arrival of John Frum. One of the leaders said that John Frum would be coming from America by aeroplane and hundreds of men began to clear the bush in the center of the island so that the plane might have an airstrip on which to land.
The airstrip even had a control tower made of bamboo, complete with controllers wearing wooden headphones. Fake planes stood on the runway to make it look more real.
David Attenborough (the anthropologists whose book Quest in Paradise contains most of this information) traveled to Tanna in the 1950’s and met with the high priest of John Frum, a man named Nambas. Nambas claimed to have a “radio” that belonged to John, which was an old woman with a wire wrapped around her who would go into a trance a speak gibberish, which Nambas interpreted. Naturally, the “radio” foretold the arrival of the Anthropologists, and they couldn’t see it.
The islanders believe that John Frum will return on the 15th of February, and gather dutifully on that date every year, anticipating and welcoming his return. Attenborough asked one native, called Sam, “It is nineteen years since John say that the cargo will come. He promise and he promise, but still the cargo does not come. Isn’t nineteen years a long time to wait?” Sam replied, “If you can wait two thousand years for Jesus Christ to come an’ ‘e no come, then I can wait more than nineteen years for John.”
The religion still exists today, and no one really understands how it was founded, despite it being about 70 years ago. That the true beginnings of a religion less than a century old could be lost to myth testifies to how easily this occurs. For example, no documents exist that mentions anyone by the name of “John Frum” in the area. Wikipedia hypothesizes that John Frum could be a modification of the way some GIs introduced themselves, as “John from America”. But really, it doesn’t matter to its followers if anything in the religion is true.
I found this whole thing (which I read about in Richard Dawkins’ newest book, The God Delusion) to be an intensely interesting bit of history. It may very well represent ways that religions get started, if at least their ability to spread and to obscure their origins. It’s also a testament to the way the human mind attributes to the supernatural those things it doesn’t understand. There is much we can learn from these little cults.