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Prince Philip, they hardly know ye

A South Pacific 'cargo cult' petitions its deity for bags of rice and a Land Rover.

By Correspondent / June 8, 2007

Yaohnanen, Vanuatu

Mildewed and damp, they are an incongruous sight in the middle of a jungle. But the three portraits of Britain's Prince Philip, husband to Queen Elizabeth II, are the most prized possessions of a cluster of villages in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu.

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As unlikely as it sounds, a few thousand villagers on the island of Tanna worship the 85-year-old prince as a deity, holding hope that he will one day appear among them, dispensing gifts. For years, they say, he has moved among them in spirit.

"He is a god, not a man," says village chief Jack Naiva, a wiry, elderly man with graying hair and broken teeth. "Sometimes we hear his voice, but we can't see him."

The unusual beliefs held by the inhabitants of Yaohnanen and surrounding villages in the jungles of Tanna first emerged in the 1960s, anthropologists say. Villagers took an ancient prophecy that the son of a mountain spirit would venture faraway in search of a powerful woman to marry and melded it with what Christian missionaries had taught them about the returning Messiah.

Their convictions were bolstered by the respect accorded the Duke of Edinburgh by the colonial authorities of the Anglo-French territory of the New Hebrides – as Vanuatu was known until independence in 1980. Villagers were used to seeing the prince's portrait, and that of the queen, in police stations and government offices.

Their veneration for the queen's consort is tinged with irony, given Philip's history of politically incorrect gaffes about foreigners and minorities. He once asked a group of Australian Aborigines if they still threw spears at one another; he inquired of a black British member of parliament what country he came from, and he advised some British students in China not to stay too long for fear of developing "slitty eyes."

But such faux pas are unknown to the villagers of Tanna, who have very little concept of the outside world. Their lives could hardly be further removed from the opulence enjoyed by the prince and "Misis Kwin," the pidgin name for the queen. The village – situated on an 80-island archipelago – lies at the end of a muddy track barely navigable by four-wheel-drive vehicles. Few Tannese have ever left the island, and villages have no electricity, no running water, and no school. There are no newspapers, radios, or TVs, and life has changed little since Tanna was first encountered by Capt. James Cook in 1774. Children – picaninis in pidgin English – run around naked or in ragged clothes, and men wear either dirty shorts or nambas, grass penis sheaths. They hunt wild pigs and fruit bats with bows and arrows.

The prince's status among islanders received a boost in 1971 when, resplendent in a white naval uniform, he steamed into the New Hebrides capital, Port Vila, with the queen. Chief Jack traveled 150 miles by sea especially for the event.

The Prince Philip cult is just one of several "cargo cults" that began emerging in the south Pacific with the first Western colonization in the 1800s. As strange as they may seem, cargo cults were a highly complex reaction by bewildered islanders to the influence of Western modernity.

"Movements like these were a way for traditional people to come to terms with colonialism and Christianity," says Kirk Huffman, a British anthropologist who lived in Vanuatu for 17 years. "Vanuatu's culture would have been entirely squashed if it wasn't for cults like [these]."

Often they put their faith in a Christ-like messiah who would chase away colonial overlords and bring wealth, or "cargo." Such beliefs were reinforced by the arrival of US forces in the South Pacific during World War II. The avalanche of materiel – battleships, bulldozers, medicines, and ration packs – astonished islanders. They were also impressed by black American soldiers who descended with apparently unlimited candy and Coca-Cola.