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Vanuatu islanders pray for fabled prince's return

The husband of the Queen of England has mythical status in a small corner of the South Pacific.

Siko Nathuan, tribal chief of Yaohnanen village, on Tanna island, shows off two signed photographs of Prince Philip, the British queen’s husband, in January 2010. The people of Tanna, which is part of the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, worship the prince. (Kathy Marks/GlobalPost)

YAOHNANEN, Vanuatu — In a jungle-clad village on a South Pacific island, a group of tribesmen produce their most treasured possessions: three signed portraits of the Queen of England’s husband.

“Can you tell Prince Philip we are waiting for him?” asks the village chief, Siko Nathuan. “We are his family and we really want him to come home.”

Improbable as it seems, the prince — whose royal title is Duke of Edinburgh — is worshipped by the inhabitants of Tanna, one of 83 islands that make up the nation of Vanuatu, formerly the New Hebrides, an Anglo-French territory. The islanders believe he is the descendant of one of their ancestral spirits, and that he will one day return to live among them.

One of dozens of “cargo cults” found around the South Pacific, the adulation of the 88-year-old prince is thought to date back to 1974, when he and the queen traveled to Vanuatu on the Royal yacht Britannia. While they did not alight on Tanna, news of their visit reached its shores, and was woven, it seems, into an ancient story.

The heart of the Prince Philip movement is the village of Yaohnanen, on Tanna’s upper slopes, reached via a tortuously winding, rutted track. Here, children in ragged clothes play hide and seek among giant banyan trees, and men in nambas — traditional penis gourds — hunt wild pigs with bamboo bows and arrows.

Nathuan shows off a simple hut with a thatched roof and dirt floor. Like other dwellings in Yaohnanen, it has no electricity or running water. Next to it is a carefully tended garden. “I’ve been preparing this place for Prince Philip,” declares the village chief. “I know that in England he has a palace and servants. But here he will just live simply, like us.”

After waiting nearly four decades, the locals believe the Duke’s return is imminent. The key date is June 10, when he will turn 89. “He made a promise that in 2010, on his birthday, he will arrive in Tanna,” says Nathuan. “I’ve read it in a document somewhere. We know he is a very old man, but when he comes here, he is going to be young again, and so will everyone else on the island.”

For now, the hut serves as a shrine to this unlikely deity, best known in the English-speaking world for a string of indiscreet gaffes. Most recently, the prince asked an English naval cadet whether she worked in a strip club. In the past, he has quizzed Australian Aborigines on whether they still throw spears, and warned British students in China: “If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.”

Buckingham Palace, aware the prince is revered in this obscure corner of Melanesia, sent out the three photographs. They include a black-and-white print delivered by the British Resident Commissioner in 1978, two years before a group of islands known as the New Hebrides became the independent nation of Vanuatu, and a framed color picture of Prince Philip grasping a ceremonial pig-killing stick, a gift from the islanders.

Kirk Huffman, an Australian anthropologist who has studied Vanuatu for decades, recounts the story of two spirit figures — one dark-skinned, one lighter-skinned — who, long ago, emerged from a still active volcano on Tanna. The former is considered the ancestor of the island’s tribal clans, the latter the forebear of the world’s white races.

“That [second] figure disappeared overseas,” says Huffman. “So the clans have been thinking: ‘Where has that guy gone, and who are his descendants?’”

Then came the royal visit, and the vision of the prince resplendent in his white naval uniform. The islanders also heard that the queen’s husband was from neither England nor France, nor Australia nor the United States.