Obituary: Chief Tuk

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The Independent Online
Chief Tuk of Oakukak village, Tanna: born 6 May 1933; Minister of Tourism for Interim Government of Vanuatu 1979; founder, Duke of Edinburgh Cult 1982; died 2 January 1994.

CHIEF TUK was, with Chief Jack Niava, co-founder of the 'Duke of Edinburgh Cult' on the South Pacific Island of Tanna.

The Duke of Edinburgh Cult and the Jon Frum Cult are the two remaining cargo cults of Melanesia and both unique to Tanna. In fact one grew out of the other.

Jon Frum first appeared on a beach on the south coast of Tanna in 1938; a mysterious little man with bleached hair, a high-pitched voice and a walking-stick that 'shone'. He said he was from America and that he would come to the island's aid, free it from the British and deliver the 'cargo' from America.

Amazingly, three years later the Americans did arrive, tens of thousands of them, to set up the forward base for the invasion of Guadalcanal. Aeroplanes, trucks, army stores - the island was overwhelmed with 'cargo' just as Frum had predicted. Above all, unlike the islanders' colonial masters, the Americans treated them as equals. Informal, generous and anti-colonial, the Americans gave the people of Tanna a taste of a 'life without taboos'. The Jon Frum Cult flourished right up to independence in 1980.

Anthropologists have described Tanna as a 'conversational marketplace'. Men gain power and prestige by their ability at 'storying'. Tuk demonstrated his talents at an early age and by the 1960s was one of the acknowledged leaders of the Jon Frum movement.

In the 1970s, with independence looming, the British administration found themselves saddled with the age-old question - 'What to do about the French?' The New Hebrides (soon to become the Republic of Vanuatu) was the only colony jointly administered by the British and the French. The Condominium, or 'Pandemonium' administration as it was called, was as usual pulling in two different directions, the French backing one political pre-independence party, the British another. An interim administration was in power advised by both countries. Tuk was Minister of Tourism. The election result for the first post- independence government hung in the balance between the Anglophone and Francophone parties. The island of Tanna held the key.

Portraits of the Royal Family were liberally distributed around the island, and in particular a portrait of Prince Philip holding a revered Tannese chief's baton. Tanna votes swung the election and the 'British' party was duly installed on Independence Day.

What the outgoing colonial administration had not anticipated was the effect that this burst of royalty-mania would have on the people of Tanna. As independence brought few benefits, so under Tuk's leadership a cult surrounding the Duke of Edinburgh grew up based upon promises that the Duke was supposed to have made about the future welfare of the people of the island. Inevitably the Duke became linked to their other prophet Jon Frum, a link first suggested by the consummate fabulist Tuk.

When I first met Tuk five years ago his little church was already full of gifts from visitors: photographs, china busts, portraits and biscuit tins of the Queen and the Duke. He was especially delighted with my gift - a small model of Buckingham Palace. I returned a couple of years later to make a film about Tanna for BBC Everyman, in which Tuk's fantastic flights of imagination stole the show.

However my own efforts to portray the extraordinary world of the Tannese were eclipsed by the brilliance of a more recent visitor to the island. Ken Campbell based much of his recent one-man show Jamais Vu around the Duke of Edinburgh cult. I am sure Tuk would have been quite delighted by it and it deservedly won the Evening Standard 'Best Comedy of the Year' Award last year.

(Photograph omitted)