The Sunday Telegraph
Pacific tribe that worshipped Duke has plan to enter politics
Mourning island villagers have been inspired by rival cult that got an MP elected to Vanuatu’s parliament
THE island tribe in the South Pacific that has worshipped the Duke of Edinburgh as a god for decades is considering establishing a political movement after his death.
A cluster of villages on the volcanic island of Tanna in Vanuatu held griefstricken meetings yesterday to decide how to commemorate his life.
Their plan to set up a political party is not as unlikely as it sounds: a rival cult on Tanna called the John Frum Movement formed a political party some years ago and managed to send an MP to the national parliament in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu.
The islanders who worshipped the Duke live in a remote part of the forest but were informed of his death by an anthropologist who lives on the island.
Jean-Pascal Wahé drove up to the villages of Yakel and Yaohnanen in a fourwheel-drive from his base on the west coast of Tanna.
He said that the villagers would be “very upset” to be told of the death of the Duke, to whom they refer in pidgin English as “number one big fella him bilong Misis Kwin [Queen]”.
Kirk Huffman, a British anthropologist who worked for many years in Vanuatu, an archipelago of more than 80 islands, and is in contact with the people of Tanna, said that it was hard to say when a funerary ceremony for the Duke would be held.
But the details will be thrashed out over endless cups of kava, a mildly narcotic drink resembling muddy water that is made from the crushed roots of a pepper plant.
“It could be days from now, it could be weeks. They are meeting to decide how to proceed with the funerary rituals and to figure out how to pay their respects to Prince Philip,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “There are two slightly antagonistic groups that have come together. They will iron out their differences and come to an agreement. They’re experts at conflict resolution – that is the Vanuatu way.”
He added: “I have had messages from the son of one of the big chiefs and it seems that what may come out of this is that they will try to form a political party, just like the John Frum Movement across the island.”
The John Frum Movement is a cargo cult that emerged in the 1930s when islanders rebelled against the proselytising of Presbyterian missionaries and put their faith in a shadowy figure called John Frum.
The cult was strengthened during the Second World War when the Americans arrived with huge quantities of “cargo”, from aircraft and tanks to medicine and food.
The Tannese were impressed to see black and white American soldiers working together, in contrast to the treatment they had received from British and French colonial officials. The Messiah-like figure of John Frum slowly morphed into that of a mysterious American soldier.
In a village at the foot of an active volcano, they still hold a ceremony each year in which the local men dress up in home-made US army uniforms, drill with bamboo rifles and parade beneath the US flag in the hope of enticing a delivery of cargo once again.
“For these islanders to establish political movements, it is just a modernised version of traditional power politics,” Mr Huffman said. “There is constant jostling between the clans.
“The John Frum Movement managed to have an MP in parliament. The Prince Philip Movement has been discussing doing something similar. They see that Christianised groups have representation and for them Christianity is just another cargo cult.”
The Prince Philip Movement originated decades ago when Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides, an AngloFrench condominium or colony.
The islanders came to associate the Queen’s consort with an ancient prophecy that said a spirit from Tanna would venture far away in search of a powerful woman to marry.
Elements of Christianity such as the second coming of Christ, taught to the islanders by missionaries, were blended into their beliefs.
The origin of the Duke’s cult-like status on the island is unclear, but it received a boost when he paid a state visit to the New Hebrides in 1974, six years before independence was granted to the condominium, nicknamed “the pandemonium” by cynics because of the confusing clash of French and British language, police forces, judicial systems and schools.
The Duke became aware of the belief in his divinity, and he sent the islanders a signed photograph of himself, which is now a prized possession among his followers. In return the villagers sent him a traditional pig-slaughtering club called a nal-nal. He in turn sent back a photo of himself holding the club.
It is not only on Tanna that the Duke’s life is being mourned.
People on Malakula, another island in Vanuatu, are also “very sad”, Mr Huffman said.
“The Prince visited the island and took part in traditional rituals. They gave him titles and set up dolmen stone monoliths in his honour.
“In Vanuatu, if you want to solidify your position you have to take part in rituals and receive titles.”
‘They are meeting to decide how to proceed with the funerary rituals and to figure out how to pay their respects’
‘The prince visited the island and took part in traditional rituals. They gave him titles and set up dolmen stone monoliths in his honour’