News, Culture & Society

How 400 residents of Yaoh-nanen saw Prince Philip as an honorary tribesman 

Down in the jungle, in a village far away, the women wail and the tribesmen hang their heads in sorrow as the weeks of mourning begin at the death of Prince Philip, the man they revere as their God.

They have regarded him not only as a deity, but as one of them – an honorary tribesman with an open invitation to feast with them, far from the pomp and ceremonial duties of a British royal.

For decades, the 400 residents of Yaohnanen, in the centre of the Vanuatu island of Tanna in the South Pacific, have enjoyed a curious relationship unlike any other in the history of the royal family.

In a bizarre series of events, villagers have sent the Duke war clubs and in return he has dispatched photos of himself, including one of him posing with one of the weapons.

Livestock including pigs, bullocks and chickens have been slaughtered ahead of weeks of mourning in Yaohnanen

The tribe have been waiting for him to come to them for the word that has passed among them is that he has promised them many gifts that will enrich their lives and that of other villages for many miles around.

‘We are so sad that he will not come now,’ Joe Ketu, a leading member of the village, told the Mail last night. ‘But we have already begun to see some of his promises coming true because roads are being built and medical facilities are being built.

‘Our former tribal leader, Chief Jack Naiva, has received letters from the Duke, passed through one of his representatives and they were pinned to the walls of Chief Jack’s hut. It’s sad that Chief Jack has left us and now, too, has the Prince.’

But the villagers are hoping that in the afterlife the Duke and Chief Jack will find one another and have a chat about the old times, even if they did not come face to face on earth.

‘We have hope that before he died Prince Philip told Prince Charles and all the rest of his family to look after us – yes, I’m sure that is something he would have done,’ said Joe Ketu.

Before he died some 10 years ago, Chief Jack said the entire village was waiting for the Prince to travel across the world to see them.

‘He had better hurry up because I’m not getting any younger and neither is he. We have plans to build him a nice little house and he can have all the servants he wants. The Queen can come too, if she wants to – the women here will look after her well.’

As word spread through the main island of Tanna that the Duke, their proclaimed God, had passed away, preparations began in Yaohnanen for a grand feast of remembrance. It’s a ceremony that will be echoed in the nation’s capital, Port Vila.

In the village, pigs, bullocks and chickens were slaughtered, root vegetables were cooked in pit ovens and the women made themselves busy preparing the finest clothes. In a prominent place close to old Chief Jack’s grass-roofed hut the three photos that the Duke had sent were positioned for all to gaze upon.

The story behind their being kept in a remote jungle village with a name that hardly anyone can pronounce is extraordinary, dating back to the early 1970s when Prince Philip visited Vanuatu, then known as the New Hebrides. Jack was one of the warriors in a canoe which was paddled out to greet the Royal Yacht Britannia.

‘I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform and I knew then that he was the true Messiah,’ Chief Jack has recalled.

Later Chief Jack and his tribe were upset when an official British Government Commissioner, who had been entertained with a roast pig dinner, left the village without giving the people anything in return. A later Commissioner recommended to Buckingham Palace that a signed photograph of the Duke might settle the old hurt.

And so the Duke’s relationship with the tribe began – he sent them a framed photo, with his signature and the tribe responded by sending to the Palace a war club, a nal-nal, along with a request to send another photo, this time of the Duke posing with the weapon.

It is said that when it arrived in London panic raced through the corridors of the Palace for while the Prince agreed to pose he asked: ‘How on earth does one hold a nal-nal?’

In the end it was all sorted out – but not before photo number three was sent across the world.

Now one thing appears certain: the name of Prince Philip, the God, will be spoken in Vanuatu for many years to come.