Cargo cults: a strange religious movement that grew up in Melanesia in the late nineteenth century. Pacific islanders watched colonial officials sit at desks and do nothing but write papers, which then led to deliveries of consumer goods and technological items: “cargo”. While the Melanesians worked hard in their gardens for everything they got, these colonial officials received far more without apparently lifting a finger. The solution to the Pacific Islanders was obvious: cargo arrived via magic.
In the wake of this assumption, local people created cults so that they could get some of the magical cargo too. They mimicked the ways of the foreigners by making imitation objects such as wooden rifles. They also cut runways in the jungle to receive the fabled cargo when it would finally arrive by plane. The cargo would be sent by legendary demigods from overseas, such as John Frum (whose name may actually be a corruption of ‘John from America’).
Most bizarre of all, some of these cults started worshipping real people. On the island of Tanna, which is part of Vanuatu, a cult even sprang up worshipping the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, or the ‘Man blong Missis Kwin’ of this book’s title.
At least, that is the usual story. Matthew Baylis set out to find out the truth about this Prince Philip-worshipping cult. His journey is hysterical. Baylis is neither a trained anthropologist nor an investigative journalist. In fact, he is a woefully incompetent researcher. Arriving in the village which will be his base, not only can be not speak the local language, but he has little more than a fistful of postcards for note-taking. In his short sojourn on the island, the local people quickly see through him and brand him as little more than a ‘tourist’.
Thankfully, Baylis realises this himself. His struggles to adapt to the local way of life are hilarious. I was laughing out loud reading this book on the underground. I particularly like Baylis’s egregious guide, Nako:
the only thing he’d say was that everything in his village, for a man like myself, would be free. Once I had acknowledged this with a gracious nod – it wasn’t the first gracious nod I’d been required to give on the subject – he asked for several thousand vatu to pay for the truck.
For much of his time, Baylis is forced to take a natural hallucinogen called kava, which seems to be the precursor to almost any meeting (tok-tok) around. Kava is made of fibrous roots which are pre-chewed by local children before being mashed into a reality-altering paste. The power of kava may well be responsible for a lot of Baylis’s difficulties in understanding what is going on.
It was quite refreshing to read the adventures of an ordinary suburbanite rather than the heroic gentleman travellers of yore, like Wilfred Thesiger. Nevertheless, Baylis is on a journey of discovery and he is perceptive in explaining why the local people continue to recognise the cult of Prince Philip. The fact is that it does actually bring “cargo” to their doorsteps.
At the very end of his journey, Baylis starts to get an insight into the belief systems of the islanders. This comes from a moving speech by the village chief, who clearly feels sorry for his visitor from overseas:
Every one of our stories is like a stone thrown into a pond. It sends out ripples, getting bigger and bigger all the time, so that in the end you can only see the last of the ripples and not the stone or the place where the stone went into the pond
In this short passage, we get an inkling of how much more could be learned from the people of Tanna. I picked up this book expecting an amusing journey into the world of cargo cults, but I came away from it with a very different way of viewing the world.