Philip’s People

Anna Della Subin

‘Don’t talk about God – be it! Find the place, the formula … Ah, Larry, it isn’t that life is so short, it’s that it’s everlasting!’ Henry Miller wrote to Lawrence Durrell in 1959. The formula, if one were to look to history for clues, seems fairly simple. Be white, male, fairly imposing in stature, and in possession of a large ship and obedient crew. Mysteriously circle the coast of a remote tropical island populated by savages who have never seen a white man before. Drop anchor. Enjoy your apotheosis.

The constellation of white explorers said to have been hailed as gods – Francis Drake, Hernán Cortés, Captain Cook, Christopher Columbus, to name a few – acquired a new star in the mid-1970s, when Prince Philip vacationed off the coast of Tanna, in what was then the New Hebrides, aboard HMY Britannia. Ever since, a string of Englishmen have made the pilgrimage to the volcanic island to don grass penis sheaths, get drunk on kava, and bask in the cool glow of British divinity. The latest is Matthew Baylis, a novelist and BBC scriptwriter. His travelogue, Man Belong Mrs Queen, recounts the time he spent with the Prince Philip cult in the village of Yaohnanen.[*] A self-proclaimed Philip fan since childhood, Baylis doesn’t shy away from highlighting the obvious oddity that Britain’s most famous racist should be worshipped on an island of black people. We ought to respect Tannese belief, Baylis says, but at the same time we have the right to enjoy the irony of it all. The Duke of Edinburgh is on the book’s electric orange cover, with the sun for a halo, palm trees sprouting from his shoulders, and a blurb promising ‘an epic culture clash’.

In the mid-1990s, the anthropologists Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere debated whether Captain Cook, landing in Hawaii in 1778, was really mistaken by the natives for their god Lono, or whether Cook’s apotheosis was a European myth, spun by sailors and scholars to reinforce white supremacy and legitimate the colonial project. The Hawaiians were too logical and commonsensical to see Cook, great harbinger of syphilis, as a deity, Obeyesekere argued in The Apotheosis of Captain Cook; it was Sahlins, a white professor from Chicago, who was imposing on them the fantasy that natives confuse Europeans for gods. In his book-length reply, How ‘Natives’ Think, Sahlins accused his Sri Lankan combatant of foisting his own pragmatism onto other, different rationalities and, in his cultural imperialism, silencing the Hawaiians’ voice. Baylis never ventures into the vexed territory of the Cook debates. But his book, perhaps not intentionally, shows how the construction of Prince Philip’s divinity on Tanna has been an ongoing process on the part both of the Tannese and the British. Contra its promise of a ‘clash’, the book provides a rare glimpse of the way this mutual mythmaking unfolds in the present day.

Much like a magus, Baylis travelled to Tanna bearing a stack of documents and clippings from the press office of Buckingham Palace. Compiled by Philip’s now retired private secretary, Brigadier Sir Miles Hunt-Davis (or, as the Tannese, with their love of malapropism, rendered it, Big Ass Dear Summer Lance Daisies), the papers included retellings of the cult’s foundational myths. As the villagers sat round a fire drinking kava, Baylis reluctantly found himself reading aloud from the xeroxed scriptures at the urging of his host, the late Chief Jack Naiva. In the one he picked, the King, tall and strong, a hero from Wolwatu (World War Two), was sailing around the southwestern coast of Tanna, and gazed sadly out to shore. When his wife, Kwin Lisbet, asked him what was wrong, he pointed to a rock in the distance known as Nuaru, a name meaning ‘I am coming.’ ‘I am not a white man,’ Philip confessed to his queen. ‘I am from Tanna, and one day I will leave you and return. I am coming back to that rock, and when I put my foot on it, mature kava roots will spring from the ground, the old men will become young again, and there will be no more sickness or death.’ His audience applauded the story, but Baylis soon realised that no one in the crowd had heard it before.

As the weeks passed on the island – and with a book to write – Baylis became more and more desperate to locate someone who knew the old Philipian mythology and who might explain its origins. He at last found a young man who recounted a legend in which the Duke of Edinburgh begs his father, the mountain god Kalbaben, to let him go off to war with his brother John Frum (Philip’s rival deity on Tanna, a god with American nationality). Baylis recognised the tale from his press packet, and was delighted to know that it had been passed on through generations to the Yaohnanen youth. But his elation was soon crushed by the discovery that his guide Nako, who had insisted on keeping the sacred stack of papers in his possession, had been sneaking out of their hut early each morning, while Baylis slept, to visit the surrounding villages and read aloud the stories, in what was perhaps a ploy to boost his own authority on the island. Baylis’s young interlocutor had heard the Philip tale in one of Nako’s secret liturgies and repeated it. The Buckingham Palace photocopy machine, via Baylis, was planting the myths.

Baylis dates the official founding of the Philip religion to 21 September 1978, the day a British delegation presented a signed portrait of the duke to the cult. In return, they sent Philip a ceremonial pig-killing stick, and the duke mailed back a photograph of himself brandishing it on the palace lawn, sparking a relationship that’s persisted for nearly forty years. In order to fulfil a prophecy that they would one day meet their god in person, in 2007 Baylis helped organise a palace visit for a five-man envoy of Philipists, televised on the show Meet the Natives. His own trip to Tanna has added new dimensions to the religion as well. There are the myths, some re-seeded and some entirely new. (One of them, which tells of how Kwin Lisbet and Philip fell in love, turns out to be the invention of ‘Crawfie’, the queen’s excommunicated nanny.) Baylis added the celebration of Philip’s birthday to Tanna’s ritual calendar, and inadvertently introduced the notion, at first met with confusion and slight distaste, that three virgins are supposed to be promised to the duke.

As Chief Naiva warned Baylis, the beliefs and stories of the Philip cult are like ripples made by a stone cast into water: always moving and impossible to pin down. But the timing is revealing: the stone (or was it a yacht?) was cast on the eve of Vanuatu’s independence. When Philip vacationed offshore with the queen in 1974, the archipelago was teeming with political movements, organising for and against British and French joint rule. Political tides paired and pitted the John Frumists, Presbyterian and Catholic sects, ‘Modarets’ and militants in ever shifting alliances, further complicated by a cast of opportunistic foreigners such as the Lithuanian Holocaust survivor turned Nevada businessman Michael Oliver, who tried to establish a libertarian utopia in the islands. As everyone aligned under new banners and agendas, somehow the villagers of Yaohnanen found in the duke a powerful figurehead of their own: a god even more compelling because he was alive, and writing back. They said that England and Tanna were once connected islands created from the same volcanic explosion, severed halves which would one day be restored to primeval wholeness. (The theory also explains why the weather on Tanna is always so bad.) Some people on the island say that their body contains both a black and a white human inside it, harmoniously coexisting. Others claim that their white spirit-doppelganger is waiting for them in the UK.

HMY Britannia was retired in 1997, when New Labour came to power, amid cries to curtail the crown’s expenditure, and not replaced. Seen on the news the lives of the royals might seem like one long, wacky, global cultural pageant. In February there was Prince Charles in a keffiyeh dancing with a sword at a Saudi Arabian festival, and in April Prince William and Kate Middleton rubbed noses with tattooed, bare-bottomed Maoris. Philip’s deification in Vanuatu is another opportunity to play dress-up, this time in a Melanesian god outfit. But with a home climate that oscillates from adoration to persecution, perhaps Philip needs the Philipists as much as they need Him. According to the myths, Philip will bestow on his followers prosperity – endless kava roots – and freedom from sickness, old age and death. Godhood might bring about the same for a 92-year-old man, in a family constantly under pressure to make more money.

[*] Old Street, 276 pp., £10.99, November 2013, 978 1 908699 64 0.