Prince Philip (1921-2020), Saviour of Vanuatu

On the island of Tanna in the Vanuatu island chain in Melanesia (colonized jointly by British and French predators from the 1880s, and long known as the “New Hebrides”)—specifically in the village of Yaohnanen—there is a curious tale about a mountain spirit that traveled from Tanna to a distant land. There the spirit married a powerful woman. But it was prophesied that he would return to Tanna.

This story line became the basis for a “cargo cult,” one example of a type of millenarian religious cult emerging in the 20th century Pacific. The cults are related to interactions between foreign mariners, traders and soldiers and local people who perceive these outsiders as bearers of a higher civilization. To bring back the visitors, the cultists think, and to again receive their amazing goods, the people must emulate the foreigners by embracing their symbols (like the Christian cross) and imitating their behavior (as in crude military drills). From at least 1945 stories about one John Frum, a (probably fictitious) GI on Tanna, began to circulate on the islands. A tall white man, Frum had told the people that if they prayed to him, he would bring “radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.” Ever Feb. 15 is John Frum day on Tanna; hundreds gather, women dance, men do cosplay military drills.

Somehow the Frum cult got tangled up with stories about Britain’s Prince Philip. Do not ask why; religions as delusion-clusters do not develop rationally. The cult involving Philip, presumably emerging after Elizabeth was crowned in 1952, existed as of 1974 when the Queen and Royal Consort visited Vanuatu, six years before its independence. John Champion, the British Resident Commissioner for New Hebrides, explained to the prince that the adherents to this cult revered him as a god. (To this day Yaohnanen pray to Prince Philip to protect their yam crops.) He suggested that Philip send the Tanna villagers a personal photo, which his grace graciously did. It was a deliberate act of diplomacy catering to an absurd belief system, a statement of imperialist condescension. Moved by this generous token, the villagers sent Philip a nal-nal or pig-hunting club. A finely crafted weapon, the club was the most precious and symbolically charged gift the tribe could render its god.

The flattered prince sent the villagers another photo of himself posing with the club. And another in 2000. All three photos were received and preserved by Chief Jack Naiva (d. 2009).

Tanna island is not one of the most important Vanuatu islands (these would be Espiritu Santo, Malakula, and Efate). It is smaller than the Hawaiian island of Molokai, one-third the size of Oahu. But its population is about 29,000 (to Molokai’s 7000). But it has repeatedly sought independence from Vanuatu. The British royals have warmed to it, basking in the religious devotion. If it is better to be feared than loved it is best of all to be worshiped by naked dancing people. Princess Anne, only daughter of Elizabeth and Philip, deigned to visit Tanna in 2014, followed by her brother Charles as recently as 2018.

The John Frum cult established a political party in Vanuatu which may now morph into a new configuration. It is not because the Melanesian peoples represented among the country’s 308,000 citizens are more gullible and manipulable by idiotic religious conceptions than—say—the typical Trump voter in this advanced civilized country who listens to QAnon and the Rev. Franklin Graham. It is more due to the fact that the British royals found this all delightfully funny!

One can imagine Prince Philip growling one teatime as the Empire collapsed: “No one in the world respects us anymore,” One can imagine Her Majesty replied, “But they do love you dearly in the Hebrides.” And so Philip, never a sincere convert to Anglicanism, promoted his own Tanna-based church. It was so easy. Just a series of sacred photos was enough to encourage the cult and insure immortality.

Philip’s spirit is back on that mountain on Tanno Island now, watching over the yams and coconut groves. People are drinking kava on the beach in his honor. I understand that his followers (about 700 people) are planning to form a new party based on his legacy.

“The people were very sad to hear of the passing of this great man,” says Prince Philip Movement activist Jean-Pascal Wahé. “He was a very important man to us all and it’s a great loss.” He announces plans for a grand memorial service. “It’s impossible to know yet exactly how many people will come but we are expecting between 100 and 500 of them. We will share stories about Prince Philip’s life and there will be a lot of discussion about the future of the cult.” (Yes, he actually refers to “the cult.”) “But, since Prince Charles is his son, he will now be worshiped.”

One can only imagine Charles’ feelings. He might want to head to the beach right after the funeral, bearing the nal-nal as his scepter. He could assign brother Andrew to be his permanent representative on the island. (Andrew as you know has been silenced by the royal family due to those charges about sex with underage girls procured by his friend Jeffrey Epstein. If he were to relocate to Tanna this past would not haunt him; indeed, underage girls would worship him and he could exploit them at will. He could proclaim himself king. Just a thought.)

It all makes so much sense. Thank you for your service, Prince Philip! Thanks for showing how, even in the age of waning imperialism and humiliating defeat, the British royals could maintain a sense of humor in indulging the quaint fetishists of these one-time cannibal islands. How deeply, fiendishly moving.

Changing the subject: I see that the British people are upset that too much time’s being spent on the dead prince story and too many popular TV shows bounced to create an artificial atmosphere of public mourning. Given broad indifference in Britain, the excessive reverence on Tanna must comfort the surviving royals. Abject colonial deference rooted in quaint religious fantasies refreshes the royal soul granting it eternal life. Or life at least until John Frum comes back.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: