In the days after the Duke of Edinburgh’s death, there was much eagerness to hear from a particular group of royal watchers: the folk of a few tiny villages in the South Pacific where the late Prince was venerated as a mountain god.
When a video message did eventually surface, rolled out among the broadcasters, the world saw a gathering of bearded faces sending solemn condolences. The depth of sentiment probably surprised a few viewers. After all, the ‘Prince Philip cult’ is often framed rather frivolously in our media. But the feelings among these people for the Duke are genuine.
I’ve spent time in Vanuatu with the Yakel tribe who believe Philip’s return was prophesied. Life there, in a village dappled with light beneath a banyan tree, remains traditional. For visitors, the elders will reverently unwrap a woven-leaf bundle of photographs of the Prince, including one that shows him holding a club, used locally for sacrificing pigs. (The photo was sent by Buckingham Palace, in the 1970s.)
But amidst the recent flurry of attention, an important thread was overlooked. For believers, Philip is an avatar of something older than royalty, and not just Mount Tukosmera nearby. It’s a rebellious spirit, anti-establishment. To understand Philip’s totemic power in Vanuatu, one has to plumb its origins.
At the start of the twentieth century, Vanuatu – or the New Hebrides as it was then inaccurately known – was jointly ruled by the French and British. With them came a legion of missionaries who taught at village schools, mandated the wearing of clothes and prohibited kava – an intoxicating juice made from a local root.
During a particularly austere period in the 1930s, a rumour went around Tanna island that a great change was coming. A man in a coat with shining buttons had appeared to some locals on a beach saying that, when he eventually returned, the old would become young, mountains would part, and the cargo arriving into the New Hebrides on white men’s boats would be given back to them, its rightful owners.