That’s because a long-standing local legend referenced the pale-skinned son of a mountain god who had traveled across the ocean to marry a powerful woman, but would eventually return to Vanuatu. Philip — undoubtedly pale and married to Queen Elizabeth II — fit the archetype.
People on Tanna have deliberately maintained their subsistence lifestyle and traditional beliefs while often eschewing modern comforts like electricity, and some anthropologists argue that folding Philip into that belief system was a way of dealing with the intrusions of the Western world, or “re-appropriating and taking back colonial power,” as Vanuatu-based journalist Dan McGarry told the BBC.
Some islanders today have fostered a decades-long affinity for the Duke of Edinburgh, who in most other parts of the world was never quite as beloved as other royals like Elizabeth and Princess Diana. A formal period of mourning began on the island this weekend, after a Vanuatu Cultural Centre employee made a four-hour trip to break the news.
“The people were very sad to hear of the passing of this great man,” Jean-Pascal Wahé told Page Six. “He was a very important man to us all and it’s a great loss.”
The villagers long hope that Philip would visit the island, fulfilling the final prophecy. “If he comes one day the people will not be poor, there will be no sickness, no debt and the garden will be growing very well,” Jack Malia, a tribal chief in the village of Younanen, told Reuters through an interpreter in 2017.
Scholars generally agree the Prince Philip Movement started around the 1960s, when Vanuatu was still a colonial outpost known as the New Hebrides that was managed by both the United Kingdom and France. While the precise origins of the religious movement are murky, portraits of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh would have been found in colonial administration buildings across the archipelago.
Vanuatu has a dark colonial history. In the 19th century, the native population was decimated by a practice known as “blackbirding.” The British brought men to work in plantations in Australia and other South Pacific islands as indentured laborers, where many soon died as a result of the harsh conditions and their exposure to unfamiliar diseases.
Some anthropologies also note the influence of Christian missionaries and suggest the belief that Philip will one day make a triumphant return to the island mirrors the Biblical prophecy of the second coming of Jesus.
While Philip never did pay a visit to the mountainous, rainforest-covered island of Tanna, he did exchange gifts and letters with its inhabitants over the years.
In 1978, according to the BBC, villagers had colonial officials deliver a ceremonial club to the Duke of Edinburgh. The monarch was photographed holding the club, and pictures made their way back to Tanna, where they remain treasured possessions today.
Decades later, a 2007 British reality television show called “Meet the Natives” brought a group of men from Tanna to live with English families and documented their culture shock. As part of the series, a group of tribal leaders flew to the United Kingdom and had an off-camera meeting with Philip, where they presented him with gifts and asked when he would be coming to Tanna.
Philip offered a cryptic but satisfactory response, the chiefs later said: “When it turns warm, I will send a message.”
Speaking before Parliament on Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted the island community’s reverence for Philip, saying their conviction “was actually strengthened when a group came to London to have tea with him in person.”
While Buckingham Palace prepares to hold a small, private funeral, a very different send-off will take place in Tanna, where funerals traditionally involve pig roasts, traditional dancing and the consumption of the euphoria-inducing drink made from the kava plant. “Ritual wailing” probably will be a feature, according to the Telegraph.
How Philip’s death will alter local customs is not yet clear. Kirk Huffman, the leading expert on the Prince Philip Movement, has noted that Prince Charles could be embraced as his successor. Unlike his father, Charles actually paid a visit to Tanna, where he was named an honorary chief and drank kava from a coconut.
On the other hand, “there has always been the idea that Prince Philip would return some day, either in person or in spiritual form,” Huffman told the BBC. To believers, his death could be interpreted as an indication the mountain spirit’s son has fulfilled his destiny and is finally home.