It was by chance that Theodore Schwartz found himself on Manus Island in 1953-54, in what was then the Australia-governed Manus District of the United Nations Trust Territory of Papua and New Guinea, among people engaged in an intense millenarian effort. Two decades later, in 1973, I accompanied him to Manus as his student and research assistant. More recently, our long association led to us collaborate on Like Fire: The Paliau Movement and Millenarianism in Melanesia, released by ANU Press on June 1, 2021.* To illuminate the Manus case we had to address millenarianism in general; as we worked it became clear that we also had to consider the relationship between millenarianism and conspiracism, for – as in millenarianism – people enmeshed in conspiracy thinking embrace cognitive worlds which leave little or no room for chance and impersonal causal forces.
As a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, Schwartz did not intend to study millenarianism in the Pacific Islands; he was preparing to study sociolinguistic topics in Africa. But Margaret Mead needed a research assistant for a trip to Manus, her first since 1928, when she conducted research there with her then husband, anthropologist Reo Fortune. She planned to investigate reports that Manus people had initiated a program of radical social change, led by Paliau Maloat. Among other things, Paliau (as people called him) had convinced Manus people living in houses built over lagoons to join people from Manus Island’s interior in settlements on the beach, once a no-man’s land between these chronically hostile groups. Not yet funded for research in Africa, Schwartz applied for and got the job with Mead.
Mead, Schwartz, and Schwartz’s then wife, Lenora Shargo, arrived in Manus in mid-1953. Mead focused on the social innovations Paliau was promoting, including interethnic cooperation, gender equality, and instituting a new economic system. Mead returned to New York City at the end of the year to write her account of the Movement, published in 1956 as New Lives for Old. Schwartz and Shargo stayed for several more months, giving Schwartz time to examine the Paliau Movement more closely. Paliau began rallying support for his reforms in 1947, aiming to equip Manus people for a rapidly changing world, for Australia was charged with preparing the Territory for independence. But even as Paliau promoted secular change, prophecies circulated among his followers that the ancestors would soon return from the dead, bearing limitless quantities of the material goods the few white people in the Territory acquired apparently without effort – the food, clothing, machinery, building materials, and other goods that arrived in cargo ships and airplanes. (Hence, the label often given such a millenarian effort: cargo cult.) The ancestors would also bring magical knowledge for creating such wealth, knowledge – it was alleged – that white settlers conspired to keep secret from the black indigenes. In some versions of the millenarian lore, the return of the ancestors would herald a world without sickness, pain, or death. Manus people tried to hasten this by throwing their belongings into the sea, even destroying the seagoing canoes on which they depended for fishing and trade. Despite this and near-constantly propitiating God and Jesus (Christian missionaries arrived in New Guinea in the late 19th century) as well as the ancestors, neither cargo nor revenant ancestors appeared. Many participants, however, said they had felt God’s presence, manifest in their violent trembling. Manus people thereafter called the entire episode the Noise, adopting a word in the Territorial lingua franca for shaking of all kinds.
They avoided talking with Mead about the Noise, and she did not press them. New Lives for Old shows the Movement striving to modernize Manus society, inspired by Christian ideals and the example of the massive American military presence on Manus during World War II. While Mead wrote, Schwartz was discovering that many of Paliau’s followers regarded their leader’s social innovations as mere cobbles in the road to a grander, supernaturally mediated transformation. Furthermore, shortly after Mead left, a Manus man let slip to Shargo that a cargo cult had been swirling around the Mead party since their arrival, hidden in plain sight. Once the secret was out, they were allowed to see all, a task that fell to Schwartz, who was already in Paliau’s confidence.
Deeply involved in the Territory’s pre-independence electoral politics, Paliau successfully subdued the cult, but without undermining people’s belief in his supernatural power. Although he had no formal schooling, Paliau initially excelled in the new political sphere, serving two terms in the national House of Assembly. But by the early 1970s, younger, better educated competition (and his own miscalculations) scuttled his career. When he made a comeback, it was as the prophetic leader of an overtly millenarian endeavor, eventually called Wind Nation. Its doctrine mirrors Christian themes but claims an independent revelation. By the end of his life, Paliau did not demur when people called him a new Jesus. He died in 1991; in 2015, when I last visited PNG, many Wind Nation adherents awaited his second coming. “You watch,” one older Manus woman told me, “things are going to happen!”
We address some matters in Like Fire largely because there are anthropologists who share Margaret Mead’s discomfort with cargo cults. They find the term cult demeaning (cargo millenarianism is an adequate alternative), or they argue that material goods (cargo) are unimportant aspects of the phenomenon (Schwartz replies that if revenant ancestors had come empty handed in 1954, they would have disappointed people grievously). An issue of more general interest is the way social divisions and political faction influence people’s support or opposition to millenarian efforts, irrespective of their attitudes toward the doctrines and promises. The Manus data also support scholars who question portrayals of millenarianism as “religions of the oppressed,” as Vittorio Lanternari (1963) famously characterized “modern messianic cults.”
Some weakness in anthropological thinking about cargo cults probably comes from trying to understand them without reference to millenarianism as a pan-human phenomenon. In Like Fire, we argue that susceptibility to millenarian ideas rests on near universal human tendencies, among the most important: difficulty accepting the role of chance in the world and a complimentary tendency to personify causation (that is, to assume that there is conscious intention behind events; for instance, by attributing illness to sorcery or postulating the necessity of a creator being). Some scholars propose that a human tendency to personify causation is a product of cognitive evolution (Atran 2002; Barrett 2000; Boyer 2001; Dennett 2006; Guthrie 1993). But this does not explain why the tendency is more highly developed in some contexts than in others. Schwartz (1976, 1978; cf. Smith 1994: 44–69) proposes the relevance of scale to the strength of the personifying tendency, a small-scale social context providing a stronger “plausibility structure” (Berger 1967) for finding conscious agency behind events. We must also consult history. The mere possibility of thinking of the world’s workings in terms of impersonal forces emerged in the West only over several centuries, the result of many social forces (not simply the march of science), as Charles Taylor (2018 ) shows. But for many people today, even in the most technologically advanced countries, it is still not the default form of understanding. This is only one among many factors accounting for rampant conspiracism in the United States, but it is fundamental
Cargo millenarianism often assumes conspiracy. In one version of the Manus lore, white people know the secret of limitless wealth and eternal life but, contrary to God’s will, they have withheld it from black people. That conspiracism has been integral to Manus millenarianism accords with political scientist Michael Barkun’s (2006 : 10) thesis that millenarianism and conspiracy thinking are symbiotic: “Conspiracy theories locate and describe evil, while millennialism explains the mechanism for its ultimate defeat.” And, like millenarianism, conspiracism eschews impersonal causation and chance. In Barkun’s words, a “conspiracist worldview” assumes “a universe governed by design rather than by randomness” and “a world based on intentionality, from which accident and coincidence have been removed” (Barkun 2006 : 3–4).
Conspiracism and millenarianism go hand in hand in the United States. Many Americans embrace the idea that a vast conspiracy caused Donald Trump to lose the 2020 presidential election and that an uprising of apocalyptic proportions (“the storm”) will set things right again (Goldberg 2021). But millenarianism has many faces. Wind Nation doctrine – now printed in a booklet – makes no mention of a white conspiracy. Rather, Wind Nation promotes world brotherhood. And Wind Nation leaders appear to be pushing Paliau’s second coming into an indefinite future. In 2015, they were preoccupied with building Freedom House, on Baluan Island, Manus Province, where Paliau is buried. (Wind Nation doctrine promises “True Freedom,” meaning freedom from sickness, aging, and death.) The octagonal structure, built to an architect’s specifications, is to be the “spiritual center” of Wind Nation International. This is the opposite of destroying canoes.
I shudder when I think of the direction right-wing millenarian conspiracism in the United States may take. But I am eager to see what happens to the kinder, gentler millenarianism of Wind Nation.
*Sadly, Schwartz died in May 2021, at the age of 93.
Atran, Scott, 2002, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
Barkun, Michael, 2006 , A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Barrett, Justin L., 2000, “Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4(1): 29–34.
Berger, Peter, 1967, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor Books.
Boyer, Pascal, 2001, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.
Dennett, Daniel C., 2006, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York and London: Viking.
Goldberg, Michelle, 2021, “A Smaller, Angrier Christian Right.” The New York Times, July 10, p. A19.
Guthrie, Stewart Elliott, 1993, Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schwartz, Theodore, 1976, “The Cargo Cult: A Melanesian Type-Response to Change.” In George De Vos (ed.), Responses to Change. New York: Van Nostrand, pp. 157–206.
Schwartz, Theodore, 1978, “The Size and Shape of a Culture.” In Fredrik Barth (ed.), Scale and Social Organization. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, pp. 215–52.
Smith, Michael French, 1994, Hard Times on Kairiru Island: Poverty, Development, and Morality in a Papua New Guinea Village. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
Taylor, Charles, 2018 , A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
As an applied anthropologist, Michael French Smith specializes in designing and evaluating grass-roots income generation and health initiatives, working in the U.S., the Pacific Islands, and Latin America. In his spare time, he continues the ethnographic research he started in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1975. He describes forty years of change in a PNG village in: Hard Times on Kairiru Island (1994), Village on the Edge (2002), and A Faraway, Familiar Place (2013), from the University of Hawai’i Press. He is co-author, with Theodore Schwartz, of Like Fire: The Paliau Movement and Millenarianism in Melanesia (ANU Press, 2021).
Header photo by Vika Chartier on Unsplash.