All material on this site is (c) copyright to the respective authors.  ISSN - 1481-3440 



Posted 5th Sept 1999 Last edited 23 September 2005



The Significance of Modern Cults in Melanesian Development

Cyril Belshaw

Reprinted from The Australian Outlook Vol 4 No 2 June 1950

Cyril Belshaw


To republish something that is so old may be egocentric, but when you younger people reach my age you will understand that when you were young (that is now) you wrote some stuff that (you will think) has messages. Of course there is now an enormous literature on Cargo Cults and Melanesian millennia.  Perhaps what I say is a nonsense. But if anthropology is to be more cumulative (in the propositional rather than the ethnographic sense)  we can look forward to refinements, contradictions to the underlying propositions.

This piece is a mixture.  It was written for the "intellectual" and "politically astute" public of Australia.  I wanted somehow to influence thought, and this was the only way open to me. Such a method is open to you also.

But at the same time. as an ambitious young Ph.D., my mind was challenged by the lack of explanation. How is it that messianic movements, cargo cults, arise?  Is there discernible "causation"?

I already knew that the local popular European explanation was for the birds. As an administrator I had been confronted with a movement's hysteria directed against ME, not personally, but as the symbol of all that was wrong with their world. I had sat on felled coconut trunks, waited for the hysteria to stop, and talked -- with rational people, living in a world convulsed by a global war that was beyond their comprehension.

But what did anthropology have to say?  At that time not a great deal, except scads of second-hand but sensitive description. Much by wonderful men who gave their careers to understanding.

The first element in the mixture was a set of value judgements about what Solomon Island life was about, not as a Solomon Islander, but as an observer.

The second element was a wish to refine the comparative method (somewhat despised in the elite seminars) so that it revealed something.  This, I assert now, has not caught on. Anthropology has become so swamped by thick ethnography (which is yet essential) that it seems it can't see the wood for the trees. It cannot reduce the material to its essentials.

The third element, though I did not apply it at the time, was to deal with the issue of prediction. There are two kinds of prediction -- theoretical and temporal (the latter being forecasting rather than prediction). What I was writing contains primitive elements of each.

And the fourth element was the application of anthropology to solve real life problems. Application is not gut feeling, though that may be useful. It is the use of theoretical knowledge to interpret events and their outcomes. Perhaps I am wrong -- I hope so. But this aspect of anthropology is almost non-existent now because of the lack of abstract, theoretical, knowledge - knowledge of propositions.  If (a) emerges does (b) follow????

There is a vast indigestible amount of ethnographic knowledge. We need Ph.Ds  who write about it. Field work is an important self-informing experience.  As such it is in danger of becoming self-indulgent - the "intellectually self-identified"s equivalent of living-with-the-natives back-packing.

Ooops I've gone overboard. Well, why not?  There's one good reason why not. Young anthropologists are serious, they are motivated, they need encouragement and nurturing rather than elderly cynicism. Go to it your own way. You will find it. But search wide and far for inspiration.

Around the time this piece was published the administration of the Solomon Islands did a wise thing. They sent in an "Expeditionary Force" to the Masinga Rule area of Malaita consisting of Fijian troops under the command of Dr. John Dove. Without too much incident they arrested the leaders of Masinga Rule. Ouch! The heavy hand of colonial imperialism!  Well, what did they do with those convicted and gaoled people? They sent them to Fiji and Australia to show them what in fact industry, commerce and shipping was. When they returned the prisoners stood for election to District Councils -- and won.

This experiment is in total agreement with my hypothesis.  I wish I could claim that the hypothesis influenced policy. But I can't.

Of course one continues to think of these things. So every now and then further thoughts erupted in later writing. Later, I'll put some of that in subsequent pages.

And here's a thought for you older colleagues.   Put some of your early stuff on line with "AnthroGlobe" !!!!!!!!!!