Volume 57 1948 > Volume 57, No. 4 > Naked cult in Central West Santo, by J. Graham Miller, p 330-341
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Some time about 1944 or 1945 a curious wave of feeling which we shall call the Naked Cult in imitation of the Santo bushmen themselves, passed over the bush communities of central Santo (i.e., Espiritu Santo). They refer to the followers of the Cult as the malamala (naked) folk. It is the purpose of this report to state what it was possible to learn about the Cult in our recent trek among the central Santo bushmen, many of whom are in active association with the movement. After our trek of 1947 I was inclined to take the view that the Cult was of small proportions and not influential. The reasons for that view were: (1) The fact that we found only two small villages who were in the Cult; (2) The fact that these followers had been cut off by their surrounding people as freaks; (3) The fact that they seemed, on the whole, rather ashamed of themselves.

Our trek of 1948 has put a very different complexion on the whole movement. We found that the further we penetrated inland in a westerly direction the more we discovered the people to be affected. We passed through quite a number of villages where the people were openly practising the Cult, and had greatly modified their traditional heathen ways. We even met a measure of hostility—which is significant in trying to analyse the character of the driving force behind the movement.

It is not easy to judge of the approximate numbers of active followers, but I should estimate it at not less than 500. This represents a proportion of about one-third of the heathen population of those parts of Santo which are affected. Although we called at villages with more than 100 of these followers in them (all told) we did not really penetrate far enough into the western highlands to get to the heart of the movement. What follows here is, however, the testimony of native chiefs who were intimidated into brief - 331 participation in the Cult, or who managed to resist its emissaries when they visited their villages.

At its greatest extent the Cult operated in a rough crescent, with the left tip of Tava Masana in the western mountains, its base about twenty miles from the sea at south Santo, and its eastern tip in the low mountains behind Shark Bay on the east coast. It was directed from west central Santo, but the further villages were from this point, the greater was the difficulty in retaining effective hold over them; and I am now told that the villages in the Cult on the eastern side of Santo have reverted to their old status again, and resumed their loin-cloths.


Last year all that I could get, in reply to enquiries, was the fact that a man called Tieka (English—Jack) was the moving influence behind the Cult. When I asked where he lived I was vaguely told “on top”; which is pidgin for “further inland.” This year I got more information about him. He lives on the Bierai river on the eastern slopes of Tava Masana and has two villages about six miles apart, called Naku and Lori. He is a young man, whom I judge, from inquiry, to be between thirty-five and forty. He has not, so far as my informants knew, ever worked for whites, but some of his people have done so, in the past. He is married to two wives (but one informant says only one).

The war was already well towards its close when he started the Cult by sending about thirty of his men—from villages near to his own—on a crusade through the villages of inland Santo. Their message everywhere they went was the same:

  • 1. Take off your loin-cloths. Women take off their leaf coverings. Take off your bead necklaces and armlets. All these things make you dirty.
  • 2. Destroy all your property which you have taken from the white man—calico, money, implements; in addition destroy all your own bush crafts such as basket-making and mat-making. It is best to be free from these.
  • 3. Burn down all your present houses and build on the following new plan:
  • (i) Two big community houses to be erected in each village—one for the men to sleep in at night; and
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  • another for the women to sleep in at night. No cohabitation of families at night.
  • (ii) Build a large kitchen with each community house. No cooking to be done in the community houses.
  • 4. All food is to be cooked in the morning. No night cooking.
  • 5. Do not work for the white man.
  • 6. Destroy all animals in your villages: dogs, cats, pigs, etc.
  • 7. It also appears that they were promised that soon “America” would come; they would receive everything good; they would never die; they would live for ever.
  • 8. A common language, called “Maman,” was adopted among all Cult followers even though the villages represent widely separated language groups.
  • 9. Many old taboos have been scrapped: the prohibition on marriage within the totem-group; the segregation period after childbirth; the necessity for buying brides; and the burial custom has been changed so that now the corpse is exposed on a wooden platform in the bush (as on parts of Malekula) instead of being buried in the floor of the deceased person's house (as is the tradition in central Santo).

Not every village fell for this. The basic thing was the taking-off of the loin-cloth. In three different villages we were given an interesting account of what actually ensued when the intimidation party arrived. They were strong enough to overawe the average bush community of twenty to forty souls, and the fact that they repeated their visits showed some determination to force their viewpoint.

TONDILA: In this village of forty people, three days' journey from south Santo coast, the old chief and three of his sons were all for giving in to the Cult, fearing the consequences of any other attitude. But the old chief's eldest son, a man named Malo, refused to agree. He told the Cult party that they would not come into line because they did not practise the Cult in the past and they did not see why they should take off their “clothes.” All around them we saw the villages, perched on the crests of the high hills, which had capitulated. Several of these, however, seeing that Tondila stood out, took back their calicos again after - 333 a short period of nakedness; and these have since remained outside the Cult. Such villages are Latono and Nipumotiere, both with forty people, and both of which we visited.

TONVARA: Another village of about forty people, with a fine old chief named Karai-uta (which means that he belongs to the Flying-fox totem). He gave way to the Cult party and for about ten days all his village were naked, and one or two houses were burned. Then he learned that other villages had stood out, and he himself did not want the Cult, so the people resumed their old status again. He was very well-informed on the Cult, having two daughters in the neighbouring Cult village, whom he now refused to visit. It is from him that much of this material is taken.

NAVURUMORUA: Before the Cult broke this village up it had about one hundred people but they have split into three fragments—two of Cult people, and one of traditional heathen. Vosavos, a very muscular man of this village, described how he replied to the Cult apostles:

“If you want us to take off our loin-cloths, come and do it, and see what happens!” Knowing Vosavos, from a brief acquaintance, I am not surprised that they were left alone. But the nearby Cult villages—so near, in fact, that you can see the people walking about just across the river gorge—have severed themselves completely, a severance which cuts right across all family and totem ties.


In passing through villages we found that the facts were very much as we had been told. In the Cult village of Batuturuposi we saw the charred posts of no less than seven houses that had been burned down. There were the two big community houses in their place, and the two regulation kitchens for all cooking. In the Cult village of Morokiripu we found no men at all (they were all away getting injections from the Mission at the coast—and had dug up loin-cloths too for the occasion!) but the women were devoid of all adornment. While we were having a spell a woman walked into the village, entirely naked, and carrying a heavy load of water-taro on a long pole over her shoulder. The native guide drew my attention to this fact: “See that! They have destroyed their baskets and now the women must carry, just as the men.” In this village I could not help - 334 being amused at the partial way they had carried out the order to get rid of all the white man's belongings. In the house we entered here I saw a bucket and glass water bottles, and some plates. At Worotasi, where a big community house was being built, the sections of the long roofing poles were being joined with six-inch nails. All the workmen were stark naked, without so much as a bead necklace. I called one of the more aggressive ones over—a man who had been quite self-assured when we met him the previous year—and pointed with a cynical smile to the nails. He gave a grin and said, “For before,” meaning, I assume, that it was no offence against the Cult discipline to utilise existing assets, where they were likely to prove useful. This kind of rationalisation is what astonishes people who are used to some sort of consistency between belief and practice; but all native life is shot through with the same kind of inconsistency. It is apparent that it does not appear to them in that way. It seems true to say, however, that their animals have been killed. The mangy dogs which pester you in all traditional bush villages are not to be seen, and that is all to the good. Pigs had already been killed out deliberately some few years ago.

The spirit of division is very strongly marked. Old villages have been split in half by the Cult and there is no coming and going between the two sections, even though they may be only a mile or so from each other and are intimately related. Crossing the valley from Tonvara to Morokiripu—distance of four or five miles—we found the track quite overgrown through lack of use, even though the two villages were intimately connected through intermarriage previous to the Cult's intrusion. The function of the Cult seems to be to break all existing ties, of whatever description, and unite people on the exclusive basis of the Cult. Many times we asked people, “Do you know how many people there are in such-and-such a village (naming it)?” and the only reply was a shrug of the shoulders, implying both ignorance and deliberate disregard. That is quite characteristic of the attitude of all the traditional bushmen towards the followers of the Cult. Cult people have their own special routes through the bush, avoiding the old paths which might take them through non-Cult areas, and the non-Cult people are just as particular about keep- - 335 ing off the Cult areas. The attitude of studied isolationism is entirely mutual.

To compensate for the loss of their old social links the Cult people have become very clannish among themselves, and visit each other over widely scattered areas. We found that men from a radius of about ten miles had gathered to build the big community house in Worotasi; and ten miles as the crow flies take a long time to negotiate in the broken terrain of inland Santo. The only places where we found the two parties—Cult and non-Cult people—living on friendly terms were places where the transition from allegiance to the Cult back to traditional bush ways was in progress, such as we saw at Tonvara (where only one or two Cult people remain) and at Batuturuposi (where half the village has already returned to their old ways, leaving the other half as adherents of the Cult a few hundred yards away). I am told that there is no organised dancing among the Cult people. Among the traditional bushmen this is the principal social interest of their lives, and dances draw folk from wide areas and take place frequently. They always last several days—until the food runs out, when everyone goes off home again. I imagine that the Cult proscribed these dances to secure a complete break with the existing order.

As regards the collapse of other traditional customs among the Cult people it needs to be mentioned that already inland Santo was well on the way to cultural impoverishment before the Cult stepped in to complete the process. The slaughter of pigs, noticed during last year's trek, at once put an end to the caste system of progressive fires for those who had killed the requisite numbers of pigs. Compared with this revolutionary step the rest seem relatively insignificant. It is said that in his disregard for the forbidden degrees in native marriages Jack has married one of his own “brothers” to one of his “sisters” but I do not know their precise relationship.


I have tried to state most of what I know to be relevant to any attempt to assay the character of this movement. It is obvious that it has many points of resemblance with - 336 similar movements elsewhere in the western Pacific. Let us try to set down the elements which seem to make up the driving power of the Cult. In doing so we are thrown back upon conjecture a great deal.

1. HEALTH: There is no doubt that the killing of pigs some years ago was a health measure. The bush people believed that the eating of pigs spread the epidemics of dysentery which wiped out so many of their people. The original word ordering the killing of the pigs may have come from Jack, and I think that I remember an old bush-man telling me so last year. At all events the order was obeyed everywhere in the inland communities. The people themselves do not regret the extermination of the pigs. They say that they caused them much trouble. Now Jack has ordered the killing of all other quadrupeds and this, too, is a good move from the purely health standpoint. Then again the reason given for the order to take off the loincloths and leaf “aprons” is that they are dirty. The old houses, mats and baskets have to go, for the same reason, perhaps. It is possible to see an underlying motive of survival behind this aspect of the Cult. The same remark may apply also to the widening of the scope for marriage, and the removal of the segregation taboo after childbirth.

2. “DEFILEMENT”: Is it possible that the health factor is only the superficial aspect of a much more subtle urge for cultural “purity”? It seems to me that here is a real truth which can be paralleled from Oriental religions as far back as Manichaeism. Does the Cult aim to achieve the elimination of all material media of contamination? Does it, in this way, seek that release of self-conscious superiority and vigour which comes with the attainment of a higher way of life? There is no doubt that the Cult prefers its way of life, is indifferent to those who are outside, and is opposed to those who would interfere with it in any way. It is relevant here to mention the Cult rules re domestic life. All cohabitation of parents in their own houses is forbidden, and rendered impossible by the destruction of their private houses. Instead, they live as a community—women all together in one house, men all together in the other house. Marriage continues among the Cult people; polygamy is not forbidden; but I could not ascertain whether any degree of promiscuity was practised. - 337 If it is, it is against the whole current of their ancient customs. According to Karai-uta (the old and responsible chief of Tonvara) cohabitation must take place during the period of light, and is not to be discouraged. As the people are now completely naked, so cohabitation is to take place as a natural part of their public lives—like animals (the chief's own words). Here is a baffling aspect of the Cult, but I am of the opinion that it is relevant to the aspect under consideration now—that of “defilement.” Is it an attempt to stamp out the feeling of shame or guilt as unworthy of those who have been liberated from the gross material forms of contamination? Indeed does it not display the subtlety of the whole movement, and of all such movements in their attempt to interfere with the individual conscience, and the “public conscience”—traditional customs and taboos—by imposing a rule which is, prima facie, more exacting, but turns out to be more lax and indulgent?

3. INSISTENCE UPON SEGREGATION: Followers of the Cult must break with all their existing associations and make a new start in the environment of a Cult society. There is tremendous power in such a policy. Unity means strength and enables the novitiate to lose at once the feeling of impotence and loneliness which is a living death to a bushman. The old family ties are snapped with complete disregard for totem and blood. There is absolutely no display of regret, or wistful desire for a sight of old faces. The Cult is imbued with a stern sense of the badness of the old order and the worth of the new order, and this swallows up all feelings prompted by natural yearnings. And not only is there segregation from their old associations, but there is every endeavour to preserve complete independence from all alien influences. The Cult has its headquarters in villages where probably no white man has ever gone. In many of the villages visited by us we were the only white men they had seen there. They feel safe in this isolation and immune from interference. It may seem a curious contradiction to add that last year we saw the “road” which many of the Cult people had hewn out of the bush for many miles towards the sea at Tasimalum, South Santo—the point at which they hope to welcome their - 338 mysterious benefactors. It is another curious fact that Jack seems to have succeeded in superimposing elements of an alien culture (Malekula) in such matters as the method of burial on raised platforms, and the songs used by the Cult. Is this not precisely the same baffling contradiction as characterises the other aspects of the Cult, as mentioned above?

4. RELIGION (“SCHOOL”) IS OFFICIALLY REPUDIATED: Several times on this last trek we were made to feel that we were not wanted, because we were “school” people. That attitude is never displayed in the traditional bush communities. On the contrary they invariably show the utmost kindness in giving us food and a house in which to spend the night. We usually have ex-bush people with us as part of our team, and they are always made a great fuss of by their bush friends. This genial attitude is just reversed among the Cult people. This may best be illustrated by an example. Near the end of our trek we were spending the week-end in Mavurumorua and, on the Sunday, divided into two parties to visit the villages, in opposite directions. My team had an uneventful day, but the team in the charge of my lieutenant—a native teacher, who himself was brought up in the bush as a child—ran into opposition. They called at three of four Naked villages and found very few people, until they came to Leviso where they ran into an organised meeting of opposition.

The women and children had all been sent away into the bush, and only the men were to be seen. The most important of them were sitting in a row—about ten in all. They were all outside the huge community house. Triev (the teacher)—as our custom is—went forward to shake their hands. They refused him, and something like this conversation took place:

  • “Shake hands!”
  • “No! We don't shake hands with you people.”
  • “Why won't you shake hands? We come as friends, and have already visited many villages.”
  • “We have orders to “kill” all “school” people who come to our place.”
  • (“Kill” is pidgin for “beat up.”)

Thereupon the leaders of the Cult stood forward and spoke violently against the party and the “school” for - 339 some minutes. When the storm had subsided, Triev asked if he could say a few words.

They said that he had liberty to say what he liked, but he must on no account enter their houses, and they didn't want to hear any “school talk.” He asked if he could speak and pray in the clearing near the house and they said that it was his own business what he did there; because they supposed they could not block him from doing what he liked in the open air.

How much of this hostility arises from fear of interference with their Cult, and how much is actively directed against the white man and his agencies (such as the “school”) it is not easy to judge. At the time when we were visiting some of these villages a large company of the Cult—all men—were visiting the Mission at Tangoa for NAB injections for yaws. They were given a house and food in the Mission village and shown every kindness, and it is hard to imagine that any natural impulse should so overlook this traditional attitude of mutual goodwill.

But other factors, already mentioned, make it plain that the Cult has an anti-white bias. And this bias is allowed to colour their attitude to Christian natives from the coast. It is possible that, in this aspect, the Cult is but perpetuating the underlying feelings (whatever they may be) which led to the murders of the Greigs at Tangis in 1908 and John Clapcott at Tasimalum in 1923? Both murders were carried out by bushmen of the areas concerned in this report.


Perhaps we should be encouraged to find enough racial vitality to gear such a movement among people whose old culture is already impotent. But there are enough sinister elements in it to lead one to hope for its early demise; and this tendency seems already to be well on its way. Some of the Cult people told our men that they have been waiting for Jack to issue new orders, but nothing has come from him for a long time, and they see that the hopes of a speedily-realised Utopia are not being fulfilled. But, in spite of this hint of growing disillusionment it needs to be remembered that the Cult has had to fight its way against the inherent conservatism of the bush and has actually made - 340 astonishing inroads on the old way of life. Had the culture been more virile, and less fragmentary I am sure that the Cult would have made little or no headway. But it got success at a time when something was needed to fill the social vacuum. In my opinion, unless something more wholesome than the Cult supplies this obvious want the last state of inland Santo will be worse than the first. It is for this reason that I am concerned that the Christian Gospel, with its new world of deep and satisfying interests, should be effectively planted in inland Santo. Now could be the appointed time.


Since typing the above I have had the opportunity of speaking at length with the Christian teacher of the village of Unapion, inland west Santo. This village of about one hundred people is a Christian community one day's walk from the coast at Wusi, West Coast. The present teacher is a graduate of the Teachers' Training Institute, Tangoa, and has been teacher in that village for about eight years. He is in a unique position to observe the activities of the Cult, has taken journeys among some of their villages, and has been worried a good deal by their emissaries at times.

He confirms most of what is written in my report, though on some minor points he says he has no information to enable him to say whether my information is correct or otherwise.

Most significantly, however, is his assertion that the original reason for the taking off of the loin-cloth was to open the way for unrestricted sexual promiscuity. This is the crux of the movement. He says:

  • (i) That the leader has told the people that they must carry on all their sex life in public—“like dogs and fowls.”
  • (ii) That all women are accessible to all men. There is no restriction whatever; no fines; no reprisals.
  • (iii) Little girls of eight and nine years of age have to submit to this order. Two such girls have run away from these conditions to Unapion and have found asylum with the teacher there. One has since been taken away after frequent threatening visits by the Cult people; the other is still there.
  • (iv) The Naked people themselves are sick of these things. The teacher told me that for various reasons: among them the feeling that their present mode of life is abhorrent; some of these Naked Cult men have told him that they do not want
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  • it any more; they are angry with Jack, the leader. They say that they want their old ways, with its traditional taboos. They want to revert to the old restrictions upon marriage within the forbidden degrees.
  • (v) The Naked people—or some of them—now speak openly of taking revenge on Jack for the destruction of their property—pigs, fowls, muskets, calico, etc. Jack himself is reported to have said that he will deal with any Police who come to his village.
  • (vi) A few days ago some of these Naked Cult men went to work for a Frenchman at the Segond—in open defiance of the Cult rules. The teacher thinks that this is evidence of the breakdown of the leader's authority.

Finally it may be of interest to quote the tenor of the words of these Cult men as reported to me by the teacher. They are saying:

“Jack has spoilt us; he has spoilt our heads; he has spoilt our lives. We know that these things we do now are not right. We don't want to do them any more.”
Surely a striking instance of St. Paul's dictum in Romans 2:14-15; as the sex-cult of Jack is an equally striking illustration of the teaching of Romans 1:18-32!