How Prince Philip was turned into a god

Islanders on Tanna made the Prince divine—and still believe he lives on

December 28, 2021
Village chief Jack Malia from Tanna holds pictures of Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth where the prince is worshipped. Credit: Reuters/Jill Gralow
Village chief Jack Malia from Tanna holds pictures of Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth where the prince is worshipped. Credit: Reuters/Jill Gralow

It is 1974. Two centuries after Captain Cook’s arrival, a British monarch vacationing on a yacht stages an inadvertent coup against the old gods. It was said on Tanna that within the crater of the active volcano, Mount Yasur, dwelled the ancestral god Kalbaben, who had several sons. One of Kalbaben’s sons, the story went, incarnated into the body of a man and set forth from the island to marry a powerful woman abroad. A prophecy held that the deity would someday return to Tanna, bringing with Him an end to sickness and death. Life would become eternal; no new babies would need to be born. On the island, prosperity would reign. The harvest would be unending, and fish would jump out of the sea.

With the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, islanders on Tanna learned from the British colonisers of Her Majesty, the new Queen, and of the athletic, blond naval officer who had won her hand. Coming across photographs of Prince Philip in magazines and newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s, villagers recognised something kindred about his spirit and saved the press clippings. They asked an anthropologist where the prince was from, but he had no good answer: Prince Philip was not actually from Britain, nor from France. He was a prince of Greece, but not Greek; he had Danish, German, and Russian blood, but he was from none of those places. Seeming to originate from nowhere on earth, to the chiefs of Tanna, the answer as to where Philip was from was clear.

“Seeming to originate from nowhere on earth, to the chiefs of Tanna, the answer as to where Philip was from was clear”

In 1974, Philip visited the New Hebrides with the Queen, aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. He stopped on the nearby atoll of Malekula, and participated in a pig-killing ceremony, a ritual to consecrate a chief. Although Their Royal Highnesses didn’t land on Tanna, they anchored at the neighbouring island of Aneityum. Several chiefs paddled out in canoes to get closer to the yacht. “I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform,” recalled the chief of Yaohnanen, Jack Naiva, in a later interview. “I knew then that he was the true messiah.” Winding across the dirt tracks, through the yam groves and coconut palms, beneath the shade of the banyan trees, the good news of Philip spread.

The Britannia had arrived at a hotbed of mythopolitics. Out of the fertile volcanic soil burgeoned a host of messianic movements, a response to the ruptures set off by Europe’s invasion, which brought microbes, firearms, capitalism and subjugation. Between 1872 and 1926, the population of Tanna had fallen by half, in part due to a practice in which merchants would lure men onto ships, kidnap them, and take them to work as forced laborers on Australian plantations. The landscape of Tanna was stripped as traders deforested sandalwood trees to sell to the Chinese for incense. Into the chaos and dysfunction of the Anglo-French Condominium, or Pandemonium, as it was known, Christian evangelists stepped in. On an island only 25 miles long, several missions competed for native souls, among them the Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists, and attempted to ban as “heathen” the islanders’ traditional mode of life. Where Tanna men wore nambas, penis sheaths made of grass stalks, missionaries imposed trousers. They forbade the natives from drinking kava, a bitter root masticated into a psychoactive brew, which formed an evening ritual. The missionaries condemned as immoral and idle what the islanders regarded as kastom, or custom, in the language of Bislama, a creole English that became the lingua franca on an archipelago with over a hundred different tongues. (Its name derived from bêche-de-mer, or sea cucumber.) Against the apostles and colonisers, settlers and sea worm traders, the archipelago began to kindle with mutiny.

Islanders started to gather at secret meetings, where they received messages from an enigmatic deity said to have bleached blond hair. He was called John Frum, possibly a derivation of “John from America.” Some said he was Rusefel, or Franklin D Roosevelt; he was also a manifestation of Kalbaben, the volcano god. A British official reported anxiously that Frum was, in effect, a broom, to sweep the colonisers off the island and back into the sea. Tanna would soon be flattened, the islanders said, made into a great obsidian tarmac. With a fleet of aeroplanes, John Frum would return, bringing eternal life and all the wealth and technology of America for the prosperity of Tanna.

An army was coiled inside Mount Yasur, waiting to be let out to fight for Frum. The deity would restore kastom and abolish European currency in favour of his own. As they would want for nothing when he arrived, islanders began to throw any money they had saved into the sea, or spend it wildly in the foreign shops. Perhaps if there were no cash, the white traders would be forced to leave. In the jungle interior, the islanders founded new villages, far from the Christian presence, where they returned to kastom, sacrificing goats for lavish feasts replete with kava and dancing. It was not long before British and French officials became alarmed and ordered the movement to be suppressed. Policemen arrested John Frum leaders, as well as a series of prophets claiming to be Frum himself, yet the movement only flourished in the prisons.

By the mid-1970s, as the New Hebrides moved toward liberation from Anglo-French rule, the archipelago teemed with political parties. While the cult of John Frum sought to transcend the local factions of Tanna with its worship of a distant power, it was splintering into myriad divisions, among them the Kastom John sect, the Monday Monday group of Frum fundamentalists and rival wings of Red versus Black Cross. Political tides paired and pitted them against Presbyterian and Catholic groups, “Moderets” and militants in ever-shifting alliances. As everyone aligned under different banners, acronyms, and agendas, a new faction alighted upon a powerful figurehead of its own: a deity that would prove even more compelling because he was alive and clearly active in the world, in his fashion. When they wrote to Him, He wrote back.

The god was born on a dining room table in Corfu, on 10th June, 1921, and named Philip. The infant cosmocrat was the son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria given to mystical tendencies, and later confined in a Swiss sanatorium. Eighteen months after Philip’s birth, with the Turkish capture of Smyrna, Greek nationalists forced the monarchs into exile. Like a baby Moses in his basket, floating down the Nile, Philip was fer- ried to safety aboard the HMS Calypso inside an orange crate. Raised by relatives in Paris and then England, Philip enrolled as a cadet in the Royal Navy College, Dartmouth. It was there that he met the young Princess Elizabeth, age thirteen, a distant cousin, as she toured the grounds: the charismatic Philip jumped over tennis nets to entertain her, the future Queen’s nanny, Crawfie, recalled.

“I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children,” Philip bitterly complained. “I am nothing but a bloody amoeba”

In 1947, Elizabeth married him in an opulent and solemn ceremony, despite resistance from Windsor factions who viewed Philip as arrogant, uncultivated and penniless. Before the birth of their first child the follow- ing year, they quarrelled with Her Majesty’s grandmother and Winston Churchill over whether, as the newlyweds maintained, the royal family should be renamed the House of Mountbatten. “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children,” Philip bitterly complained. “I am nothing but a bloody amoeba.” When King George VI died of illness, the twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth ascended to the throne, and Philip was forced to relinquish his naval career for the fenced-in life of a consort, required to bow to his wife whenever she entered the room.

There is a natural law governing the British monarchy: as power decreases, pageantry increases, as does the military precision with which it is performed. By all accounts Queen Victoria’s ascension was an unrehearsed mess. Yet by the early twentieth century, as the monarchy increasingly became marginal to politics with the rise of common suffrage and the Labour Party, the palace began to invent a host of splendid traditions for itself that often looked back to a mythic 16th-century past for legitimacy.

Just as on Tanna the rituals of John Frum became a way to find bearings amid political upheaval, so too the jubilees and processions, to the tune of the newly composed “Pomp and Circumstance,” became a means to conjure stability, continuity, and control in a kingdom on a decline. At what became the first televised coronation ceremony, a highly crafted spectacle watched by 350m people worldwide, Queen Elizabeth II was to be crowned at precisely 12.34pm, as if time itself were leading up to the act. Her husband was the first to pay homage. “I, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, do become your liege man of life and limb and of earthly worship,” Philip pledged. He bent down on one knee before his wife, who wore a silk dress embroidered with flowers, each symbolising one of her dominions. They were territories rapidly falling away in a decolonizing world, like petals from a wilting rose of empire. “So help me God,” he said.

“Philip has two bodies: one mortal, the other divine. One is European, the other Melanesian. ‘When I see his photo, I feel like I’m looking at one of my relations,’ said the villager Kasonipo. ‘I feel very happy’”

It was around the year 1977 that Prince Philip first learned of his own godhood. There had been an incident a decade earlier, in which the people of Yaohnanen sent a British commissioner a pig and he never responded nor sent anything in return, insulting the villagers. They still remembered it in 1977, as they told an Australian businessman visiting the area. They spoke of how Prince Philip was a deity, the son of the volcano god Kalbaben, and how a token from Him would set things aright. The Australian promptly reported this to British administrators in the capital of Port Vila, who passed along word to the palace, who in turn sought the services of an anthropologist, Kirk Huffman, to learn more about the sect. On 21st September, 1978, a delegation of British officials arrived in Yaohnanen with a signed portrait of Prince Philip. In thanks, and to test whether the photo had actually arrived from Him, the Tanna politician and philosopher Tuk Noao, formerly aligned with the Frumists, sent back a nalnal, a traditional pig-killing stick, to see how He would respond.

In consultation with anthropologists and palace advisors, and after much debate as to the proper way to hold the stick, Philip staged a photo-shoot of himself on the lawn of Buckingham Palace, wielding the weapon, and dressed in a sharp charcoal suit. The graven image was dispatched to Tanna, and over the years the correspondence would continue, with letters and photographs passing between the god and his worshippers, though it was deemed unadvisable by the palace for Philip to return to the area in the flesh. As the Condominium powers began to withdraw their administrations from the archipelago now called Vanuatu, the French accused the British of fostering the cult as a means of ensuring continued influence in the region. “The French do not seem to get implicated in similar situations...” a French ethnographer on Tanna pointed out.

Philip has two bodies: one mortal, the other divine. One is European, the other Melanesian. “When I see his photo, I feel like I’m looking at one of my relations,” said the villager Kasonipo. “I feel very happy.” Some say their white spirit-doppelganger is waiting for them in Britain. To reach their relatives, the villagers conjure a network of metaphorical roads, ropes and gates, interlacing the earth like a spiderweb, with shimmering, barely perceptible threads.

Of Philip’s two bodies, one is relegated to his favourite hobby of carriage racing, but the other is political. On an island with many parties and factions, Philip’s cultists are active, spending long evenings debating politics over kava, and the duke himself is occasionally drawn in. When on 30th July, 1980, Vanuatu gained independence, and the villagers of Yaohnanen were made to start paying federal taxes, the chiefs wrote a letter to Prince Philip to appeal. Philip responded informing his worshippers that they indeed had to pay, but it was the fact of the letter on palace stationery, and not its contents, that had the power—when tax collectors came to collect, the villagers waved it as proof of their exemption. Philip has been made alter to Himself, a vessel for a message not quite his own.

It is said that Philip has several brothers, among them John Frum and also a brother called Jake Raites, or Jack Karaites, another name for Jesus Christ. A story goes that Jake had promised his father Kalbaben that he would work for the betterment of Tanna, but he went off instead to help the Americans, enabling them to build their own empire and even land a man on the moon. Both Jake and John forgot all about Tanna, seeing that there was no money to be made on the rural island. Angered by his two sons’ greed, Kalbaben relies on his third son, Philip, to do his work in the world for the improvement of everyday life in Tanna, before he returns home. For villagers in Yaohnanen and Yakel, the act of waiting for Philip’s return forms a core of the religion, just like those who wait for Christ, though the Philipists have not been waiting quite so long. “Bilip, Me wantem come,” said Jack Naiva, speaking in Bislama a few years before his death in 2009. In the villages, some say prayers to Philip in the evenings, as they sit around drinking kava. “We ask him to increase the production of our crops in the garden, or to give us the sun, or rain,” said the villager Nako Nikien. “And it happens.”

“Born out of racist derision and sensationalism, the phrase ‘cargo cult’ came into widespread use, first by colonisers and then by anthropologists as an empirical object of study”

The phrase “cargo cult” was first enshrined in print in a racist screed: a white settler, Norris Mervyn Bird, warned in a 1945 article for Pacific Islands Monthly of dangerous fanaticism among New Guineans and urged his readers to protect their own precious cargo, white daughters. For decades, colonial administrators and profiteers had observed strange outbreaks, such as in 1919, when Papuans appeared to cease all normal activities to wait for the arrival of ancestral spirits aboard ships and airplanes loaded with cigarettes, axes and engines, firearms, iceboxes, and meat. Some blamed the Japanese for inflicting the madness: it was said they had arrived first and tried to win over the islanders with messianic and materialistic promises. In 1950, in a bid to demystify “cargo,” administrators rounded up cult leaders and flew them to Australian cities for a tour of modern factories and offices. They launched a mag- azine with a monthly column, “How You Get It,” to show how cargo—tinned food, soap, tea bags, printed money and coins—was humanly manufactured and earned by labour, not bestowed by celestial largesse. Born out of racist derision and sensationalism, the phrase “cargo cult” came into widespread use, first by colonisers and then by anthropologists as an empirical object of study. In the discipline of comparative religion, Philipists and Frumists alike have been filed as cargo cults. Yet the category was only ever a figment of the European imagination; a fiction ossified as scientific.

Cargo cult was useful as a term because it masked the actual, economic inequalities of colonised islands. It camouflaged the empty promises of invaders who took what they needed and gave little in return. To call something a cargo cult was to pronounce it the misfiring of irrational, superstitious minds, the tendencies of isolated atolls, rather than a product of the violence of empire and the shackling of peoples to new capitalist machineries of profit.

Though the British speak of the Philipists as a cargo cult, it was they who spread the deification of goods across the globe, replacing local practices of trade with the new religion of capitalism. It was the quest for profit that propelled the British Empire, with the East India Company often held to be the world’s first modern multinational corporation. For nearly three hundred years, the company brought loads of cargo back to England from the world, trading salt, silk and gunpowder, acquiring idols, fetishes and precious stones, minting its own coins, and wresting political rule. In the footsteps of the merchants came the missionaries, preaching contradiction: that in this life, all was avarice and illusion, but in the afterlife, eternal wealth.

“Some years later, when a cyclone struck the island, bringing winds of 200 miles per hour, the vortex was seen by Philipists as an omen heralding His imminent return”

How do empires sustain themselves after their occupying armies have left? In 1997, when New Labour came to power, the Royal Yacht Britannia was retired amid cries to curtail the crown’s expenditure, and never replaced. In the decades since, the British monarchy has cultivated its corporate brand to remain afloat, spreading a cargo of commemorative crockery at every jubilee. In official versions of his biography, Prince Philip’s tropical godhood has become a set piece; it is part of his image, an eccentric riposte to the critics who would point out the consort’s many spectacularly public flaws. Philip’s apotheosis seems to show that the British monarchy are still somehow, somewhere, set apart. It looks back to that nostalgic moment, in the sixteenth century, when the heads of British kings were still attached and still divine. It looks to a more recent time when Britain had the world bound and netted, before domestic currents strove to cut it loose and drift it farther into the sea. In many ways, Philip has needed his worshippers more than they need Him.

In 2005, the BBC producer, novelist and self-confessed admirer of the duke Matthew Baylis traveled to Tanna to live among the Philip worshippers, and recorded his experiences in the memoir Man Belong Mrs. Queen. In 2007 Baylis helped organise a face-to-face meeting at Windsor Castle for a delegation of five from Tanna. Before the men left, the aged chief of Yakel village, Johnson Kowia, who at 103 was not up for the odyssey, had instructed them to ask Him a single question, upon which everything hinged. After traveling for three days, the envoys arrived in England on September 27, trailed by a film crew who preserved their impressions on the show Meet the Natives. The Philipists were largely underwhelmed by any alleged civilisational prowess; they were distressed to see that, amid the affluence of England, people sleep rough on the streets.

The palace refused to allow the meeting to be televised: when the moment comes for the five apostles to meet the deity, we watch as the doors of Windsor Castle close, furthering the sense that something mysterious is occurring inside the drawing room. Prince Philip reportedly broke the ice with the perfectly appropriate inquiry, “How are your gardens?” The ambassadors hazarded the crucial question: “Is the pawpaw ripe yet or not?” It was related that Philip likewise rose to the allegorical in his reply: “Whether the pawpaw is ripe or not, go tell Chief Kowia that now it is cold, but when it is warm, I will send a message.” The five took a group photograph with Philip, which they showed to Kowia when they returned from their mission. “He has grown old,” the chief said. “Look, my skin is all white!” one of the returning apostles joked.

Some years later, when a cyclone struck the island, bringing winds of 200 miles per hour, the vortex was seen by Philipists as an omen heralding His imminent return. In 2017, just as Philip, aged 95, announced his retirement from public engagements, another cyclone raged, further evidence of his impending move to the South Seas. On Tanna, following the international news has long been a religious practice, a means of continuous, theological searching. For some devotees of John Frum, America’s war on Iraq provoked spiritual questioning, as they saw Iraqis as an innocent people simply trying to preserve their own kastom. An orthodox Frumist, Chief Isak Wan, argued that the government of Jojbus, or George W Bush, was possessed by the spirit of Tiapolo, or Satan. To liberate America from his grip, John Frum had sided with Osama bin Laden, providing him with sacred stones from Tanna to protect the jihadist from being captured. Struggling to reconcile American neo-imperialism, some Frumists on Tanna converted to Islam.

When bin Laden’s hideout was eventually discovered in Abbottabad, Philipists claimed it was due to the prince’s powers; and it was Philip, too, who put a black man in the White House. The villagers know that newspapers and magazines, the radio, internet and mobile phones are just as good tools for expounding theology as the decrees of fourth-century bishops, men who mouldered beneath the earth for centuries before turn- ing into dust.

They are not afraid of the news that will arrive telling of the death of a god. Prince Philip has already become haloed with perpetuity. “The movement will always continue,” as the villager Nako Nikien said. “And, from my opinion, or from what we believe, the spirit in Prince Philip won’t die.” Kings, after all, never died: if the infirm body had its demise, it was instantly replaced by the next, and the immortal body politic lived on. But this is an old monarchist fable, and on Tanna, the prophecy is egalitarian: if Philip returns home, he will defeat death for everyone, including himself.

This is an edited extract from “Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine” by Anna Della Subin (Granta). You can pre-order the book here