The people of Vanuata must be breathing a hefty sigh of relief this week at the news that the Duke of Edinburgh is recovering his health, because this week’s wacky religion is the Prince Philip Movement…
The Yaohnanen tribe on the southern island of Tanna in Vanuatu believe that Prince Philip is a divine being; the pale-skinned son of a mountain spirit and brother of John Frum (or ‘John From’ America – a WWII serviceman who the locals believe will bring health and prosperity to the people if they follow him).
According to ancient tales, the son travelled over the seas to a distant land, married a powerful lady and would in time return. The villagers had observed the respect accorded to Queen Elizabeth II by colonial officials and concluded that her husband, Prince Philip, must be the son from their legends.
Their beliefs were bolstered in 1974, when the Queen and Prince Philip made an official visit to the New Hebrides. Here was their ancestral spirit, resplendent in a white naval officer’s uniform, come back to show off his bride.
The next direct contact came in 2007 when five members of the Prince Philip movement visited Britain to take part in a Channel 4 documentary. They were invited to Windsor Castle where the Prince gave them a new picture of himself. The five returned home to a heroes’ welcome.
Later a problem arose when the tribesmen thought the Prince’s birthday was the date of a “Second Coming”. On the day of his 89th birthday in June 2010, they gathered together expecting his arrival.
Realizing their disappointment, Marc Rayner an 18-year-old Scottish gap-year student, stepped in to explain that the Prince’s many responsibilities prevented him from being there in person but that he would rest in spirit on the island one day.
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.