In 1944, villagers in Bagasin, Madang district, New Guinea (then under Australian occupation) revolted against their colonial masters. They were driven by a charismatic leader and a new variation on a popular religion. The rebellion was brief and deeply weird. It’s great material for the gaming table!
The jungles around Bagasin, 5°23'S 145°27'E
New Guinea, like much of Melanesia, has seen many cargo cults over the years. These remarkable religions center around the idea that European goods – canned food, steel hatchets, woven cloth, even rifles – aren’t man-made. Instead, they are gifts sent by European gods upon completion of certain European rituals, just as the gods of New Guinea send gifts like a bountiful harvest upon completion of certain New Guinean rituals. This idea isn’t outrageous. The New Guineans lived in a stone age society without any concept of technological development. They maintained secret religious rituals of their own that compelled their gods to grant certain gifts. In this context, the idea that Europeans (who freely admitted to having their own gods, like Jesus and God the Father) possessed their own secret rituals that compelled gifts of cloth and food isn’t just possible. It’s actually sensible.
Southern Madang district, a sliver of coastal northeastern New Guinea, saw the proliferation of a Christian cargo cult in the 1930s and ‘40s. The idea was spread by native converts to Christianity, who filtered their new faith through the worldview they learned in childhood. This cargo cult held that the local deities provided rubbish gifts: taro, yams, pigs, and the like. But if you ignored the local gods, embraced the new god of the Europeans, and practiced their rituals – attending Sunday services, following the ten commandments, singing hymns, and baptism – the god of the Europeans would send better gifts: canned meat, sacks of rice, steel hatchets, and modern cloth. This religious movement fell apart when no amount of Christian ritual caused cargo addressed to native villages to appear aboard the steamships pulling into port in New Guinea.
Some folks blamed the mariners on those ships. God, they maintained, was creating the cargo and loading it onto the ships in Heaven-Sydney like he was supposed to. But the mariners on the ships were going into the holds and painting over the addresses to native villages, so the cargo never reached its destination. Other folks argued that they’d been deliberately deceived. The missionaries were intentionally holding back some facet of the ritual, so God would not be compelled to send cargo, and the Europeans could keep control over the New Guineans.
From this conflict arose a new cargo belief, spread by a man named Tagarab. He preached that the missionaries were tricking everyone by calling God ‘Anut’ (the pidgin word for a popular local deity), when God was actually the same being as a different local deity, Kilibob. But God-Kilibob was preparing to punish the missionaries for their duplicity. He would come from Heaven-Sydney with ships full of cargo, carried by the spirits of the New Guineans’ ancestors, who would come in the form of Japanese soldiers.
When Japan invaded Madang district in 1942, Tagarab’s followers welcomed them. Relations were good until 1944, when Australian and American forces invaded the area. The Japanese demanded ever more unpaid labor from the New Guineans. When the Japanese supply lines failed, they started stealing food. When the food ran out (so the New Guineans say), the Japanese shot and ate the locals. Tagarab severed his ties with the Japanese, and they executed him. When Australian forces recaptured Madang district, few folks were particularly thrilled to see their old masters return, but at least these guys didn’t eat people.
Still, there were some areas in which the Japanese hadn’t committed atrocities, like Bagasin, in the low foothills west of Madang town. Here, the locals retained their pro-Japanese sentiments. More interestingly, the Japanese had pulled out of the area so quickly, they’d left behind some military supplies, including quite a lot of hand grenades. A New Guinean named Kaum knew Tagarab and was a devotee of his religion. In 1944, Kaum seized the abandoned Japanese supplies. He gathered some 2,000 followers in a palisaded camp. Their goal was to throw out the Australians and invite the Japanese back in.
Kaum told his followers that God-Kilibob had already sent the equipment they currently possessed. More would follow if folks followed the right rituals. Folks sang Lutheran hymns and prayed to God-Kilibob. They held public confessions. They went to the cemeteries to put food offerings to their ancestors on tables decorated with cotton cloths and flowers in bottles. And they slaughtered their pigs and destroyed their gardens to shame their ancestors: “Look how poor your descendants are! Come, bring us the cargo!” Kaum’s followers drilled with wooden dummy rifles so they would be ready when the real rifles came.
To keep those perfidious Australian mariners from stealing their cargo, Kaum and his followers constructed an airstrip in the jungle. Cargo that came by air could not be robbed! First would come the rifles, then food, then Japanese soldiers. For proof, Kaum pointed to two Japanese stragglers living in the camp.
As months passed and no planes touched down at the airstrip, Kaum’s prophecies grew grander to compensate. He predicted that an island near Madang town would be destroyed in fire. His sermons grew incoherent. He declared himself captain, then king, then Jesus Christ.
The Australian Army took notice of Kaum’s activities. They sent New Guinean spies to infiltrate his camp, and reconnoitered the palisade. On November 4th, 1944, a band of soldiers led by a man named – and I’m not making this up – Captain N.B.N. Blood seized the compound and arrested the cargo cult’s leadership. Kaum served nine months in prison for spreading false reports and illegal possession of firearms. After he was released from prison, Kaum started a succession of new cargo cults. The theology of each was a variant on whatever cargo belief was popular at the time. Each proved less popular than the last. Eventually, he disappears from the record.
Madang town being bombed, 1943
Now, let’s acknowledge up front that it’s hard to figure out who the good guys are in this conflict. (We’re assuming a priori that colonialism is bad.) Australian rule was pretty tame by colonial standards, but it was still rule imposed by force, and valued the New Guineans (up to this point) really just as souls to convert and labor to exploit. On the other hand, Kaum’s rebellion sought to bring a return to Japanese rule, and Kaum’s people were pretty much the only ones in southern Madang who hadn’t suffered terribly under Japanese oppression. On the third hand, the Japanese were already defeated in the South Pacific, so – while Kaum didn’t know this – if he had somehow succeeded, he would have freed southern Madang district from one colonial master without replacing it with another.
While you can run an adventure based on Kaum’s rebellion with the PCs on either side, I would put my PCs with the Australians, because that’s where the bulk of native sentiment was. Kaum’s behavior after his rebellion failed shows him (in my view) to be more interested in maintaining personal power than in freeing his comrades. If I’m building a fictional version of this scenario with a fictional villain, I’m comfortable basing that villain on Kaum.
Kaum’s rebellion fits easily into any setting with a foreign imperial power or influential religious figures. That’s pretty much every setting. Someone’s teenage child may have been suckered away by the cult, and her parents ask the PCs to bring her back. If the PCs are comfortable representing the imperial authority, they may infiltrate the camp to report on the cult’s order of battle, sabotage food supplies, or blow up the hand grenade stockpile. They may also try to convince Kaum’s lieutenants to defect, open the gates for Captain Blood’s forces, or undermine the palisade wall.