Improbable as it seems, the newly knighted 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 93-year-old prince is thought to date back to 1974, when he and the queen travelled 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.
Buckingham Palace, aware the prince is revered in this obscure corner of the world, 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 colour picture of Prince Philip grasping a ceremonial pig-killing stick, a gift from the islanders.
After waiting nearly four decades, the locals believe the Duke’s return is imminent.
“I’ve read it in a document somewhere,’’ said a local “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 village serves as a shrine to this unlikely deity, best known in the English-speaking world for a string of indiscreet gaffes.
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’’.