Waiting for the second coming – of Prince Philip

In a remote corner of the Pacific, the Duke of Edinburgh is revered as a living god. Kathy Marks meets the residents of Vanuatu who believe he will return 'home' before the year is out

Saturday 13 February 2010 01:00 GMT

In a jungle clearing, at the top of a steep, rutted track, a group of South Pacific tribesmen convey an unusual request. "Can you tell Prince Philip we are waiting for him?" asks Siko Nathuan, the village chief. "We are his family and we really want him to come home."

"Home" is Tanna, one of the 83 islands that make up Vanuatu, formerly the Anglo-French territory of the New Hebrides. For reasons difficult to decipher, the islanders believe the Duke of Edinburgh is a descendant of one of their spirit ancestors. For the past half-century they have worshipped him as an unlikely god. Now they are convinced he is about to return.

The key date is 10 June, when the Duke will turn 89. "He made a promise that in 2010, on his birthday, he will arrive in Tanna," says Mr Nathuan, seated beneath a giant banyan tree, in the remote village of Yaohnanen. "We know he is a very old man, but when he comes here he is going to be young again, and so will everyone else on the island."

In 1974 Mr Nathuan's grandfather, Jack Naiva, then the village chief, travelled 150 miles by sea to the New Hebridean capital, Port Vila, to watch the Duke, resplendent in a white naval uniform, arrive with the Queen on the Royal yacht Britannia. Some say that Mr Naiva – or "Chief Jack", as he was generally known – met Prince Philip, who gave him a pig. Others claim that the Prince, when he came ashore, only shook hands with men from Tanna.

What is certain is that in Yaohnanen – and in a cluster of neighbouring villages, where men wearing penis gourds hunt wild pigs with bamboo bows and arrows – Prince Philip is revered. Mr Nathuan, 35, escorts visitors to a modest hut, from which he emerges with three signed portraits of the Duke.

The earliest, a black and white print now damaged by mildew, was delivered by the British Resident Commissioner, J S Champion, in 1978, two years before Vanuatu was granted independence. A decade later, Buckingham Palace sent out a photograph showing the Prince clutching a ceremonial pig-killing stick, a gift from the villagers. The most recent framed picture arrived in 2000.

For now, the hut, standing next to a carefully tended garden, is a shrine. As well as the photos – the tribesmen's most treasured possessions – it contains newspaper clippings about His Royal Highness. One, from the London Evening Standard in 2007, is headlined: "Prince Philip health fears". The villagers used to keep letters from Buckingham Palace, too, but they did not survive the heat and damp.

When the Duke returns to Tanna, as the locals are sure he will, this bamboo hut, with its thatched roof and dirt floor, will be his home. Like other dwellings in Yaohnanen, it has no running water or electricity. "I've been preparing this place for when he comes to live among us," says Mr Nathuan. "I know that in England he has a palace and servants. But here he will just live simply, like us."

The curious adulation of the Queen's husband is believed to date back to the 1960s, and to have been created by several factors: the villagers' traditional belief in ancestral spirits said to inhabit an active volcano on Tanna, the notion of a returning messiah-like figure, inculcated in them by Christian missionaries, and their assimilation of colonial-era respect for the royal family.

Although anthropologists say it is not strictly a "cargo cult", it does bear a resemblance to the dozens of cults that sprang up around the Pacific following the arrival of Westerners.

Elsewhere on Tanna, some people worship a shadowy American figure they call John Frum – probably a legacy of the GIs stationed in the New Hebrides during the Second World War, who brought large quantities of cargo (equipment and material goods). Hundreds of men from Tanna were recruited by the Americans to build roads, airstrips and bases.

Decades on, John Frum's followers daub "USA" on their chests, don GI-style uniforms and march barefoot around a parade ground, beneath a Stars and Stripes. (Some believe "John Frum" is a contraction of "John from America".)

The people of Yaohnanen, whose village is situated on the upper slopes of Tanna, surrounded by thick bushland, are certain that Prince Philip is from their island. They heard that he was neither English nor French nor American; that being the case, it was clear to them – as Kirk Huffman, an anthropologist familiar with the country, once explained – that "he's got to be New Hebridean".

The conviction ties in with an ancient Tanna legend about a man from the island who travelled to distant lands and found a powerful woman to marry. The locals have heard that the Queen – or "Missis Kiwin", as they call her in pidgin – is the most powerful woman in the world. With their traditional beliefs about gender, they extrapolate that her husband must be a god.

Mr Nathuan leads the way to his grandfather's grave, on the outskirts of the village, where children in ragged clothes chase squealing piglets. Chief Jack died in 2008. A photograph of him holding a picture of the Queen and Prince Philip, encased in glass, is embedded in his headstone.

The Duke was born in the same year as Chief Jack, and the villagers believe he will bring great changes, as well as the gift of eternal youth, when he returns. According to Mr Huffman, who wrote an explanation of the cult for British authorities: "At the very moment that he sets foot ashore, mature kava plants [from which an intoxicating spirit is brewed] will sprout all over the island; all the old people will shed their skins like snakes and become young again; there will no more sickness and no more death ... a man will be able to take any woman he wants."

In Yaohnanen, locals plan to welcome Prince Philip with a feast, traditional dancing and kava drinking. "Every year, on 10 June, we celebrate his birthday," says Mr Nathuan. "We get together and talk about him. We feel happy. We can feel his presence. Now we're waiting for him to honour his promise to come back in 2010. Everybody is getting ready and preparing for him coming."

At the village school, children are taught about the god who lives in England, and who, Mr Nathuan believes, is one of his ancestors. "One of the grandfathers has died, so we want the other grandfather to come home," he says.

If Prince Philip is tiring of the role of royal consort after 58 years, he might consider Tanna's invitation. Mr Nathuan says: "When we plant something in the garden, we have to respect it. It's the same with Prince Philip, and when he comes from England, we will respect him like a King of Tanna."

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