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.
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.
Around 1,000 men from Tanna worked as porters and laborers for the US military on the New Hebrides islands of Efate and Espiritu Santo. It is a period of the war immortalized by James Michener in "Tales of the South Pacific."
To this day villagers in one part of Tanna believe in the eventual arrival of a messiah they call Jon Frum – thought to be a contraction of "John from America," perhaps a GI who showed them particular regard, anthropologists speculate. Every year on February 15, followers show their devotion to this shadowy American spirit by daubing the letters U-S-A in red paint on their chests, dressing in GI-style uniforms, and marching barefoot around a parade ground beneath a fluttering Stars and Stripes. Shouldering bamboo "rifles," they execute perfect drills in the shadow of Mount Yasur, an active volcano.
In the past, the cult – to which at least half of Tanna's 20,000 people adhere – built makeshift runways, piers, and wooden planes to tempt the Americans and their cargo back to the island. "Towers with tin cans strung from wires, imitating radio stations, were erected so Jon Frum could 'speak' to his people," writes travel guide author David Stanley in his book "South Pacific."
Dozens of similar cults arose across the region. In 1964, when the first elections were held for Papua's House of Assembly, the inhabitants of New Hanover Island decided they wanted as their candidate US President Lyndon Johnson. They refused to pay taxes and instead put their money into a fund to entice LBJ to stand for them. They were disappointed when he failed to turn up.
Most of the cults have withered away, but Tanna remains a stronghold.
"Cults like this are a way to preserve traditional culture and reject organized religion," says Ralph Regenvanu, director of the Vanuatu National Cultural Council. "There was a great deal of pressure from missionaries for people to abandon their customs and embrace the church."
To islanders' dismay, the British and French tried to ban polygamy, dancing, and kava, a narcotic beverage made from pepper plant roots.
"The colonial authorities arrested a lot of the cult leaders, but that only made them grow more," Mr. Regenvanu says. "It's still basically a cultural preservation movement.... It melds exposure to the West with old belief systems. It's served people well."
Prince Philip is well aware of the distant adoration and has allowed staff to discreetly send his devotees framed portraits of himself. The villagers fetch them from a thatched hut and present them reverently to visitors. The first, a black-and-white print now badly damaged by damp, dates from the early '60s. The second shows the prince holding a pig-killing nal-nal club in 1980. The most recent was sent in 2000. Letters from Buckingham Palace were also highly prized, but humidity and mice destroyed them.
Despite venerating the prince for half a century, the villagers – none of whom can read or write – only learned recently that his birthday falls on June 10. Great plans are now under way to celebrate the occasion this year with feasting and dancing. Chief Jack has even managed to acquire a new Union Jack, which will be run up a bamboo flagpole and saluted. The celebrations will only really be complete if Prince Philip himself turns up, the chief says. "You must tell King Philip that I'm getting old and I want him to come and visit me," he says. "If he can't come perhaps he could send us some things to help us: a Land Rover, bags of rice, or a little money."
This islanders' devotion to such a distant figure is perhaps not unusual, anthropologists insist. "If you say to the Tannese, 'You've been waiting all this time and neither Jon Frum nor Philip has turned up,' they point out that Christians have been waiting for the return of Jesus for 2,000 years," says Mr. Huffman. "This is not South Seas mumbo jumbo – these are strong, vibrant millennial movements, and they are only getting stronger."