The Prince Philip Movement: Pacific Tribe Mourns Loss of Living Deity
The death of Prince Philip has brought sorrow to people throughout the United Kingdom. Surprisingly, those feelings of loss and sadness are even shared by people living on the opposite side of the globe, on one tiny island that belongs to the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. The Vanuatu people of Tanna island have been worshippers of the Prince Philip Movement since the mid-1970s.
While Prince Philip was respected as a man of honor and dignity in his homeland, in the villages of Yaohnanen and Yakel on the island of Tanna he was revered as the living embodiment or avatar of an exalted spiritual being . For this reason, the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh, last week has been a big moment for the Prince Philip Movement of Tanna island, Vanuatu.
For reasons that remain obscure, the villagers were convinced that the Duke of Edinburgh was “a recycled descendant of a very powerful spirit or god that lives on one of their mountains,” explained Kirk Huffman, a British anthropologist who has spent more than four decades living and working in Vanuatu.
Vanuatu has been independent since 1980, but for most of the 20 th century it was a territory under the nominal and shared political control of France and Britain. In 1974, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip paid a visit to the island nation, then known as the New Hebrides, and the Prince conferred with village leaders from Yaohnanen at that time.
The villagers’ beliefs about Prince Philip’s true identity did not originate as a result of this visit. But the prince’s physical presence in their midst undoubtedly reinforced those beliefs and helped guarantee the Prince Philip Movement would remain a vital force on the island of Tanna in the years to come.
“The connection between the people on the island of Tanna and the English people is very strong,” said village elder Chief Yapa, in a statement issued after he received news of the Prince’s passing. “We are sending condolence messages to the Royal Family and the people of England.”
Over the next few weeks, the people of Yaohnanen and Yakel will be holding a series of ceremonies and ritual celebrations, to honor Prince Philip’s memory and acknowledge the profound effect he had on their lives.
In the spiritual lore of the people of Tanna island there is a story of a mountain spirit that descends to earth in human form. And this is the "spiritual" basis of the Prince Philip Movement. (Wmpearl / Public domain )
The Mythological Origins of the Prince Philip Movement
In the spiritual lore of the people of Yaohnanen and Yakel, there is a story told of the son of a mountain spirit who comes to earth in human form. After travelling across the ocean, he meets and marries a powerful and influential woman, and together the two of them devote their lives to achieving peace and teaching respect for traditional ways of living. Once his mission was complete, the son of the spirit would be free to return to the islands and to his people, where his presence would continue to bring good fortune. This legend became the basis of the Prince Philip Movement.
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Crop of photograph of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, by Allan Warren ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Prince Philip Movement was born in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when the villagers of Tanna became convinced that Prince Philip represented the fulfillment of the mountain spirit prophecy.
In general, the English were more disposed to granting the New Hebrides its freedom and independence than the French, and consequently English leaders may have been viewed more favorably by the people as a whole during the late colonial period.
Whatever the origin of the villagers’ belief that they were spiritually and metaphysically connected to Prince Philip, they were convinced of the righteousness of his intentions.
As their holy messenger, the Duke of Edinburgh ’s purpose was “to literally plant the seed of Tanna kastom [traditional Melanesian culture and beliefs] at the heart of the Commonwealth and empire,” said journalist Dan McGarry, the Media Director of the Vanuatu Daily Post. “It is a hero’s journey, a person who sets off on a quest and literally wins the princess and the kingdom.”
At the height of its popularity, the Prince Philip Movement had thousands of followers on Tanna. The numbers are lower now, but the movement still persists and there has been recent talk among its followers of starting a new political party with the prince as its eternal patron.
Cargo Cults: The John Frum Movement Came First
Despite the prominence of the person upon whom it was focused, the Prince Philip Movement is not the largest or most influential grassroots religious sect in Vanuatu. That distinction belongs to the John Frum Movement , which first introduced the idea of an outside savior or redeemer to the people of Vanuatu in the late 1930s or early 1940s.
The three flags of the John Frum Movement, a cargo cult that dates back to the late 1930s or early 1940s AD. The John Frum cargo cult is seen as the predecessor of the Prince Philip Movement. (Flickr user Charmaine Tham / CC BY 2.0 )
At various times, Frum has been alternatively identified as an American World War II era servicemen (many were stationed in the New Hebrides), an island native named Manehivi who assumed the alias “John Frum,” or a spirit being that manifested during a kava-drinking session. Regardless of his origins, followers of the John Frum Movement believed he would return to the islands at a future date, showing gifts and other blessings on the people who had believed in his message and his goodness.
This movement and the Prince Philip Movement are examples of cargo cults , millenarian belief systems in which adherents perform rituals which they believe will cause a more technologically advanced society to deliver goods to them. These cults were first described in Melanesia in the wake of contact with allied military forces during the Second World War.
While not quite as large as it once was, the John Frum Movement has continued to exert an effect on island affairs, both as a religious group and as a political party, the latter of which has been in existence for more than 60 years.
The Prince Philip Movement can perhaps best be seen as an offshoot or derivative of the John Frum Movement. While Frum himself seems to have been a mythical figure, Prince Philip was obviously very real and could therefore personify the archetype of the redemptive figure that the people of Vanuatu craved.
This desire for a savior or redeemer may have been triggered by the sense of repression people felt while Vanuatu was under European control. But even after the colonial era ended and independence was achieved, these vibrant and inspiring movements obviously continued to bring meaning and purpose to the lives of those who embraced them.
Is the “Prince Charles Movement” Next?
After Prince Philip’s Vanuatu visit in 1974, letters and photos were exchanged, including one treasured image that showed the prince carrying a traditional war club known as a nal-nal, which the people of Tanna had given his as a present. It was often said that the prince would return to Vanuatu again once his mission was complete, bearing gifts and rewards that would bear testament to his successes and dedication to his people.
“We are so sad that he will not come now,” said Movement follower Joe Ketu, during an interview with the Daily Mail . “But we have already begun to see some of his promises coming true, because roads are being built and medical facilities are being built.”
Prince Charles, the son of Prince Philip, is expected to take over the British throne by the islanders of Tanna, Vanuatu. (Palácio do Planalto / CC BY 2.0 )
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Even though the prince will not be returning to Tanna in physical form, followers of the movement are pleased to know that his spirit has been set free and will now be able to return to its true spiritual home, according to Huffman.
Despite the death of its inspiration, the Prince Philip Movement will live on, with Prince Charles most likely anointed as his father’s successor.
“We have hope that before he died Prince Philip told Prince Charles and all the rest of his family to look after us - yes, I'm sure that is something he would have done,” Ketu said.
Prince Charles visited Vanuatu in 2018 . He was warmly welcomed by a representative of village of Yaohnanen at that time, and they spoke about the movement that had elevated his father to such a lofty and unique position. That movement could soon do the same for Prince Charles if he ascends to the British throne.
Top image: Two Yaohnanen tribesmen, who are followers of the Prince Philip Movement, show framed pictures of their 2007 visit with the Duke of Edinburgh. Source: Christopher Hogue Thompson / CC BY-SA 3.0
By Nathan Falde