Vanuatu islanders pray for fabled prince's return


YAOHNANEN, Vanuatu — In a jungle-clad village on a South Pacific island, a group of tribesmen produce their most treasured possessions: three signed portraits of the Queen of England’s husband.

“Can you tell Prince Philip we are waiting for him?” asks the village chief, Siko Nathuan. “We are his family and we really want him to come home.”

Improbable as it seems, the prince — whose royal title is Duke of Edinburgh — is worshipped by the inhabitants of Tanna, one of 83 islands that make up the nation of Vanuatu, formerly the New Hebrides, an Anglo-French territory. The islanders believe he is the descendant of one of their ancestral spirits, and that he will one day return to live among them.

One of dozens of “cargo cults” found around the South Pacific, the adulation of the 88-year-old prince is thought to date back to 1974, when he and the queen traveled to Vanuatu on the Royal yacht Britannia. While they did not alight on Tanna, news of their visit reached its shores, and was woven, it seems, into an ancient story.

The heart of the Prince Philip movement is the village of Yaohnanen, on Tanna’s upper slopes, reached via a tortuously winding, rutted track. Here, children in ragged clothes play hide and seek among giant banyan trees, and men in nambas — traditional penis gourds — hunt wild pigs with bamboo bows and arrows.

Nathuan shows off a simple hut with a thatched roof and dirt floor. Like other dwellings in Yaohnanen, it has no electricity or running water. Next to it is a carefully tended garden. “I’ve been preparing this place for Prince Philip,” declares the village chief. “I know that in England he has a palace and servants. But here he will just live simply, like us.”

After waiting nearly four decades, the locals believe the Duke’s return is imminent. The key date is June 10, when he will turn 89. “He made a promise that in 2010, on his birthday, he will arrive in Tanna,” says Nathuan. “I’ve read it in a document somewhere. 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.”

For now, the hut serves as a shrine to this unlikely deity, best known in the English-speaking world for a string of indiscreet gaffes. Most recently, the prince asked an English naval cadet whether she worked in a strip club. In the past, he has quizzed Australian Aborigines on whether they still throw spears, and warned British students in China: “If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.”

Buckingham Palace, aware the prince is revered in this obscure corner of Melanesia, sent out the three photographs. They include a black-and-white print delivered by the British Resident Commissioner in 1978, two years before a group of islands known as the New Hebrides became the independent nation of Vanuatu, and a framed color picture of Prince Philip grasping a ceremonial pig-killing stick, a gift from the islanders.

Kirk Huffman, an Australian anthropologist who has studied Vanuatu for decades, recounts the story of two spirit figures — one dark-skinned, one lighter-skinned — who, long ago, emerged from a still active volcano on Tanna. The former is considered the ancestor of the island’s tribal clans, the latter the forebear of the world’s white races.

“That [second] figure disappeared overseas,” says Huffman. “So the clans have been thinking: ‘Where has that guy gone, and who are his descendants?’”

Then came the royal visit, and the vision of the prince resplendent in his white naval uniform. The islanders also heard that the queen’s husband was from neither England nor France, nor Australia nor the United States.

“They’ve heard about these islands, and if he’s not from there, there’s only one place he can be from: Tanna,” explains Huffman, who dislikes the term “cargo cult.” He says: “I would call it a visionary movement. It’s just one aspect of an incredibly sophisticated and very profound culture.”

Elsewhere on Tanna, certain tribes venerate a shadowy American figure called John Frum — possibly a legacy of the U.S. servicemen stationed in the New Hebrides during World War II, who brought with them large quantities of equipment and material goods. Hundreds of Tanna men were recruited 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.

Huffman believes such movements originally took root as a reaction against efforts by Presbyterian missionaries to ban traditional customs and beliefs. “These cultures are taking elements of the outside world and slotting them into their own belief systems in a way that’s useful to them.”

According to various stories that have become tangled over time, Nathuan’s grandfather, Jack Naiva, met Prince Philip when he visited Vanuatu and presented him with a pig, or vice versa — a highly significant gesture in Vanuatu. It is also said that when the prince went ashore in the capital, Port Vila, he shook hands only with dignitaries from Tanna.

Naiva died in 2008 and is buried on the outskirts of Yaohnanen. A photograph of him holding a picture of the royal couple is embedded in his tombstone.

Describing what the islanders believe will happen when the prince returns, Huffman once wrote: “At the very moment that he sets foot ashore, mature kava plants [from which the local spirit is brewed] will sprout all over the island; all the old people will shed their skin like snakes and become young again; there will be no more sickness and no more death ... a man will be able to take any woman he wants.”

On June 10, the islanders will stage a feast, traditional dancing and kava drinking. “Every year we celebrate his birthday,” says Nathuan. “We get together and talk about him. We feel happy. We can feel his presence. Now we’re waiting for him to honor his promise to come back in 2010.”