Island tribe who worshipped Prince Philip like a god will hold ceremony to mark his death

A remote tribe in the island nation of Vanuatu who revered Prince Philip as a god-like figure will mark his death with dancing, speeches and the ceremonial drinking of the native plant kava, according to an expert on the culture
Island tribe who worshipped Prince Philip like a god will hold ceremony to mark his death

Albi Nagia poses with photographs of Prince Philip in Yakel, Tanna island, Vanuatu in May 31 2015 (AP Photo/Nick Perry, File)

Kirk Huffman is a research associate at the Australian Museum and honorary curator of the National Museum at the nation’s Vanuatu Cultural Centre.

Mr Huffman has spent more than 18 years working as an anthropologist in Vanuatu, and is considered an authority on what is known as the Prince Philip Movement – a group based in villages in the south-western part of the island of Tanna in southern Vanuatu.

The Duke of Edinburgh had visited Vanuatu in the 1970s (Adrian Dennis/PA)

“It’s a movement restricted to people who speak a language called Navhaal, which has possibly about 4,500 speakers in the world,” Mr Huffman said.

“Of those who speak that language, there may be only a few hundred associated with the Philip Movement.”

Mr Huffman describes the group as a “visionary movement”, where clans in the south-west of Tanna had been searching for “something they had lost”.

He said they were looking for “someone, either a human spirit or a power, that had gone overseas.

“And it was probably from the mid to late 70s that they latched on to the possibility that it was Prince Philip, in his current form.”

The Prince of Wales is given a grass skirt to wear prior to receiving a chiefly title during a visit to the Chiefs’ Nakamal in Vanuatu in 2018 (Steve Parsons/PA)

Mr Huffman explains that, in traditional religions throughout the region of Melanesia, which consists of Vanuatu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, death is merely considered the end of someone’s physical form, with their spiritual form persisting.

He continued: “Your spirit form can recycle. You can be reincarnated. It can wander around, it can come out years later in another person.

“So from the point of view of the people of the movement, (Philip) is originally from Tanna.”

The Prince of Wales with Chief Sine Mao Tirsupe during a visit to Vanuatu in 2018 (Steve Parsons/PA)

While the royal family has been preparing for the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral service on Saturday, Mr Huffman believes similar preparations have been taking place on the other side of the world.

“Those in the movement have been very saddened to hear about his death,” he said.

“As soon as the messages about his death came they had meetings. They got leaders, important people from two, possibly three different factions of the group together at a meeting to sort out how they’re going to deal with the funerary situation.

“They held funerary speeches last weekend. There may be special dances. Dancing there is a highly respected form of saying something powerful, and there may be some that have already gone on.

“There may be a periodic display of some of the movement’s Prince Philip memorabilia – photographs, letters, that sort of thing. There’ll also be more periodic speeches by various traditional leaders there.”

However, possibly the most important element of the funerary rituals will be evening sessions of the men of the group drinking kava – an infusion made from the root of a pepper plant.

The Duke of Sussex was shown how to make kava by Joeli Nasqqa (centre) and Eparama Uluiuiti (right) during a visit to Fiji in 2018 (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Mr Huffman describes the drinking of kava as a “sacred activity”, which is the “liquid key that opens the door between the material world and the non-material world”.

He said: “Through the medium of kava, one can pass messages back and forth between those worlds.

“Traditionally, the purpose of drinking kava is to ensure the continuity of life as it should be. Through the use of kava, you can get better rain, better sun, better crop fertility, all sorts of things. Because you put these requests into the world through the kava.

“There’ll be that same sort of thing in Tanna for Philip’s spirit. There’ll be messages and ideas being sent and received, that will be very important.”

According to Mr Huffman, Philip’s connection with the movement began during an official visit to Vanuatu in 1971, where he took part in some traditional rituals on the northern island of Malekula.

“Although Prince Philip never visited Tanna, chiefs from the island saw him take part in the rituals, and that was greatly respected,” Mr Huffman said.

“And in February of 1974, he and the Queen came through on the Royal Yacht Britannia and they sailed down past the island of Tanna.

“A lot of photographs of him would have been circulating (among the group), and some of the things that he may have said or done during those visits may have been some of the things to help people in that part of Tanna sort of focus on him and think ‘maybe he’s the one we’ve been looking for for so long’.”

It then evolved over the decades as the two parties occasionally exchanged gifts, photographs and letters with one another.

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