YAOHNANEN VILLAGE, TANNA, VANUATU (AFP) – Pacific villagers who worship Britain’s Prince Philip are considering whether his son, Prince Charles, should be anointed his successor as the remote jungle communities hold a marathon mourning ritual.
Chiefs from the villages of Yaohnanen and Yakel on Vanuatu’s Tanna island gathered this week to remember Prince Philip, who died last Friday (April 9) at Windsor Castle at the age of 99.
For the next 100 days, the elders will gather at a clearing shaded by an ancient, massive banyan tree to air thoughts and drink kava – the peppery, mildly intoxicating root drink that is a vital part of important ceremonies in the islands.
While most chiefs wear little more than a penis gourd, proceedings unfold with the gravity of a papal conclave, as worshippers mull over the future of their spiritual movement without its figurehead, Prince Philip.
“The connection that we’ve had with the royal family will endure,” chief Jack Malia said.
Access to Yaohnanen and Yakel still involves a gruelling drive on a potholed road running through lush volcanic jungle, but these days, trucks roar along a newly constructed highway just a few kilometres away.
Such modern developments hold little interest for the villagers though, as they proudly maintain a “kastom”, or customary, way of life that has changed little in 3,000 years. It is a rich tradition of story-telling and legend, replete with magic and spiritualism, giving rise to the firm belief among the Tanna villagers that Prince Philip is one of them.
While Prince Philip – renowned for his gaffes and hailed as “legend of banter” by grandson Prince Harry – may seem an unlikely deity to Western eyes, his role is deeply ingrained in Tanna’s “kastom” belief system. Most worshippers favour Prince Charles to take his father’s place in their heart, but they fervently want him to do something Prince Philip never achieved – visit the island dwellers that hold him so dear.
Chief Malia said that spiritually, Prince Philip was always part of the villagers’ lives, but “we never got to see him” as the royal consort never set foot on Tanna. “We never got the chance to meet face to face like you and me right now,” he said. “If (Prince Charles) would agree to come some day, then he must come down here, so that we can sit together and talk.”
The so-called Prince Philip movement is believed to have arisen in the 1970s, as a response to the increasing encroachment of the modern world. In appropriating Prince Philip, the man who stood at the right hand of Britain’s ruler when it was still a world power, their narrative subverted its power by planting the seed of Tanna “kastom” in its heart.
According to them, Prince Philip was the embodiment of a powerful spirit that brought fertility and wealth to the people of Tanna. British officials have speculated that the spiritual movement was inspired by a state visit the Duke of Edinburgh made in 1974 to Vanuatu, then known as the New Hebrides.
But chief Willie Lop, head of the Tanna island council of chiefs, is clear about the origin story.
“Prince Philip is from Tanna,” he said. “He rode his horse down to the south of the island, and leapt into the sea.” Asked how a white man can come from Tanna, he replied flatly: “Prince Philip is a black man. If he turned white, it happened in some other country. But Prince Philip is a black man.”
For many, Prince Charles sealed the succession in 2018 when he attended a kava ceremony in Port Vila and was given the title Mal Menaringmanu – signifying a high chief sitting like an eagle on a mountaintop, watching over his people. Others are not so sure. “The spirit of Prince Philip has left his body, but it lives on – it is too soon to say where it will reside,” another chief, named Albi, told AFP.
The leaders will seek consensus over the next 100 days and, if successful, they are likely to stage a major celebration to map out the future of the movement. In the meantime, half a world and 3,000 years away from Buckingham Palace, the Union Jack flies at half-staff over Yaohnanen village.
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