On a South Pacific island, a British prince is a god

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Let's turn the corner now, for a story about royalty. Some members of Britain's royal family are very popular around the globe. Queen Elizabeth, for one. Also the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, AKA William and Kate.
But Prince Philip? You wouldn't think the queen's stern looking husband would have his own cult, would you? Well, he does, in Vanuatu, in the South Pacific. Specifically on the island of Tanna, where some 1500 Philip devotees live. British writer Matthew Baylis traveled to Tanna to meet them, and he's written a book about the cult. He says the islanders' fascination with the Duke of Edinburgh started more than 40 years ago.

Matthew Baylis: Well, I think it probably has something to do with his two visits to the area, particularly the first one. He came in 1974, and he was without his wife, the queen. He was with his uncle, Lord Louie Mountbatten, who was something of a father figure to the prince, and they had a jolly old time. They wore Hawaiian shirts, they swam in lagoons, they took part in rituals, they sat on plastic chairs with throne chalked on them. They rubbed noses with Tahitian lovelies. In general, they sort of showed themselves to be very, very different from the colonial officials of which the people of that area had had the most experience. They showed themselves to be easy going, rough and ready all-action guys, and that's exactly the kind of man who they most admire in that part of the South Pacific.

Werman: And that's all it took for a Prince Philip cult to emerge?

Baylis: I'm not sure that's all it took, no. But I think at the same time, there was a lot of turmoil in that particular area. They were preparing for independence, and people were casting around for allies, and the village that specifically ended up supporting Prince Philip is kind of off the trail really. It's called Yaohnanen Village, and it's on a mountain ridge, and kind of felt that they needed a symbolic and significant relationship with some sort of outside power in order to help them. So at the same time as Prince Philip was there, sort of being a rough and ready all-action guy, these people were thinking, "we need to find someone who can be a patron and a figurehead for us."

Werman: Do they idolize any other figures from this period? I mean, did they actually have kind of like an audition, like "who are we going to choose as our idol?"

Baylis: [Laughs] No, no. But they do as a whole view foreign visitors in a very sort of significant way. For instance, on the island of New Hanover, which is part of Papua New Guinea, in the 1960s the islanders invited one of your former presidents, Mister Lyndon Johnson, to come and represent them in their house of parliament. The reasoning behind it was a quite deliberate slap in the face to the Australian authorities who were ruling the area quite badly.

Werman: So what does this look like, like visually? Have they carved idols of Prince Philip?

Baylis: For a very long time, Philipism as I call it in my book, was a very quiet, sort of pietistic faith. In fact, on Tanna it really is much more about what they would say, "talk talk more tink tink," talking and thinking. But recently, sort of since about 2009 when the last chief died and the new one took over, you know, they have a ceremony and they've built a little shrine and that kind of stuff.

Werman: Prince Philip though, Matthew, he's not exactly the most lovable of the royal family. He's uttered some pretty racially charged comments in the past. Do the good people of Tanna, Vanuatu know about this side of him?

Baylis: Oh yes, they do, and they have a perfect explanation for it. You know, when I was there, I sort of said, "well, you know, he's not tremendously sort of popular in Britain." They said, "Yes, exactly, that's because he's from Tanna."

Werman: Does the Prince know how they feel about him down in Tanna?

Baylis: Oh, he certainly does. I mean, back in 1978, as Britain was really preparing to leave the area for good, they received a message from the British residency out there saying, "could you please make some sort of gesture to these people on this village." And they sent a signed photograph, and I think three or four signed photographs have been sent since then, along with a number of letters. So yes, Philip certainly knows about it.

Werman: Matthew Baylis, the author of the new book, "Man Belong Mrs. Queen: My South Sea Adventures with the Philip Worshippers." Matthew Baylis, good to speak with you, thank you.

Baylis: Thank you.

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