Well, over the past 100 years or so the British monarchy has lost most of its authority and a lot of its shine, along with its far-flung, now former, colonies. But in a tiny, almost forgotten corner of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, one royal in particular is still regarded with a reverence bordering on worship - and Amos Roberts found recently that the locals of Tanna are busting for his return.
REPORTER: Amos Roberts
Life on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu is governed by ritual and protocol. So too is life at Buckingham Palace. They may seem worlds apart, but this is a story about the surprising link that binds them together.
Chief Siko Nathuan feels a deep connection to British royalty - but not just any royal. He believes one member of the House of Windsor is not what he seems.
CHIEF SIKO NATHUAN (Translation): Prince Philip, who you're asking me about, he emerged from here. He is the Garden. He is the Spirit who comes out from here and becomes the Garden.
According to Chief Siko, Prince Philip is an ancestral spirit who first appeared here, at the Yasur volcano, on Tanna. In order to protect traditional culture, known as 'kastom', the spirit went overseas to marry the Queen.
CHIEF SIKO NATHUAN (Translation): Suppose the king marries another Queen - we will lose the kastom spirit that lives around here.
Today the village of Yaohnanen has something to celebrate. It's Prince Philip's 89th birthday, and they're preparing to throw a party for all the surrounding villages. The Duke of Edinburgh is well aware of his exalted status on Tanna. Over the past 20 years he's been a discreet accomplice in the cult that's grown up around him - sending photos and receiving the occasional gift.
CHIEF SIKO NATHUAN (Translation): Some people say he comes from England or Greece. But our grandfathers carved a club for pig-killing and sent it off to him with the message that if you're from Tanna, hold this club in your hand and everybody in the world will know you're from Tanna. This is the club he's holding. It was carved here and sent to him. And he kept it to show he's from Tanna.
According to a prophecy, the spirit who became Prince Philip is due to return - a sort of Second Coming. Chief Siko says that day is today - Philip's birthday.
CHIEF SIKO NATHUAN (Translation): I've been talking to him and he says he's coming back to his place. I think it's coming close to the time of his return. Today has opened the door. He's an old man in England. But on Tanna he will never die.
Until his death last year, Chief Siko's grandfather was one of the leaders of the Prince Philip Movement. Heactually saw Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth when they visited Vanuatu in 1974.This visit may have provided the trigger for the movement.
KIRK HUFFMAN, ANTHROPOLOGIST: Tanna has a long tradition of messianic, visionary beliefs.
In 1979 the British Government asked anthropologist Kirk Huffman to provide an explanation for the Prince Philip Movement.
KIRK HUFFMAN: From their point of view, he's not a part of our world, a white man's world. He's a part of their world. That's the way it needs to be seen.
He says it may well have been fuelled by the realisation that Philip, who was born in Greece, hadn't come from any of the countries the villagers knew about.
KIRK HUFFMAN: So therefore if he wasn't from any of those countries, then he's obviously got to be from Tanna. Because if he's not from anywhere else in the world that one knows, he's got to be from Tanna. So maybe he's the one.
MAN (Translation): Look at all these medals. He comes from here, but got the medals there. We've heard stories about Prince Philip - and here he is. That's him, look at his cloths. They must have been expensive. Look at this.
WOMAN IN GREEN (Translation): Is it really him or someone else?
WOMAN IN RED (Translation): No, it's him.
MAN (Translation): He signed this just with his fingertip. Look, all his signatures are just his fingertip. He did it just with his finger on the paper.
The gifts of photos haven't been the islanders' only contact with Prince Philip. In 2007, some men from the neighbouring village of Ikunala actually met him at Windsor Castle. The villagers travelled to the UK as part of a reality television program, 'Meet the Natives'. For Chief Yapa, it was the realisation of a lifelong dream.
CHIEF YAPA (Translation): Well...This photo was taken at Windsor. That's us standing there. This is his house. There was a flag outside and there was gold everywhere. Many people say he's just a spirit, but for me he's real. I saw his real body.
REPORTER: When you met Prince Philip, was he the way you expected him to be?
CHIEF YAPA (Translation): When I met him, I felt so proud I almost cried because my ancestors never met him and I met him on their behalf. He's our man.
For his part, Philip was gracious - and clearly well-briefed.
CHIEF YAPA (Translation): When he saw us, he was very happy and he told me, "You are very small but still you managed to meet me - you and your delegation. No one else from there has visited me here before. So I'm very happy. And how are the gardens - and the people on the island?" I said everything was good.
Chief Siko leads a procession onto the Nakamal, the sacred kava-drinking ground. Hundreds of people have come from surrounding villages to mark the big day.
CHIEF SIKO NATHUAN (Translation): Today is the day we celebrate Prince Philip appearing in person in England. Today, 10 June, is the day when Prince Philip will arrive. If you're too caught up with political parties or churches to believe Prince Philip's coming - think again.
As the day wears on, there's no apparent sign of the Duke of Edinburgh. But the arrival of this bold commoner from Edinburgh causes quite a stir.
MARC RAYNER (Translation): When I came to Tanna I didn't know anything. I didn't know if black people live in villages here, I didn't know anything at all. I've never seen any culture like what you have here. I've never seen it anywhere.
Marc Rayner is an 18-year-old from Scotland, on a gap year in Vanuatu. Along with his friend Tom, he's learnt the local language, and feels compelled to explain Philip's no-show.
MARC RAYNER (Translation): Philip has duty and responsibilities because he married the Queen. He bears the duties and responsibilities of the flag - the British flag. That's why I don't think he will come back today. I don't think he'll come back but one day his spirit will come and rest here. Because you're waiting for him, I thought that I must speak my mind to you. If not, you'd be waiting endlessly but he wouldn't come. Thank you too much.
REPORTER: Does he seem a strange object of adoration to you?
MARC RAYNER: Yes. It's fantastic this kind of beliefs that they have, the custom ceremonies and all that. And then, how the hell did they... how is it Prince Philip? It's crazy but it's also a very good thing. It's had very good effects on the island, because the people here - they live with love and respect and they believe that white people, because they believe literally one of their brothers is a white man. They believe every white man is their brother.
REPORTER: You're sure he hasn't sent you in his stead?
TOM: Maybe he sent you without realising it. Part of the grander scheme;
MARC RAYNER: Possibly, maybe it was God that sent us on behalf of Philip or something like that. These guys will probably think that. I can guarantee that these guys will think that we are messengers from Philip or something like that.
KIRK HUFFMAN: Well, Tanna is the way the world should be. People are, they're always thinking. I mean there's this really ancient tradition of profound philosophical inquiry
REPORTER: When you say profound philosophical inquiry, many people would regard these beliefs as patently ridiculous and irrational.
KIRK HUFFMAN: Yeah, well those many people who might think like that are wrong. I sometimes get rather angry with outsiders who tend to sort of pooh-pooh these things. In the white man's world, you've got for example in a way, the world's largest functioning cargo cult, where everything is material and stuff and where the god is actually money. I mean the whole of the modern world could collapse tomorrow financially and economically and yet it wouldn't affect these people at all. They'd be smiling all the way to the kava-drinking ground.
While his followers on Tanna waited, Prince Philip spent his birthday quietly at Buckingham Palace - recovering from surgery to his wrist.
REPORTER: Are you disappointed that Prince Philip didn't come back today?
CHIEF SIKO NATHUAN (Translation): In spirit, he came. He came today, in the dancing. He's celebrating his birthday. He's celebrating it here. Prince Philip's here, shaking the ground. I'm so happy.
GEORGE NEGUS: Amos Roberts, the South Pacific islanders of Tanna, a no-show from Prince Philip and a show - and what a show! - from a semi-naked 18-year-old from Edinburgh. So, I'm glad I've got Amos here with me in the studio. Amos, please explain! What was that all about? No, I jest. I was going OK in respect of people's cultures and belief systems, regardless of how different from ours and mine they might be. But I wandered about the 18-year-old naked guy with the penis gourd. At the end, I thought Amos doesn't know how to finish this story and he has made this a bit up. It's a set-up. But it wasn't.
AMOS ROBERTS, VIDEO JOURNALIST: No, no, I mean I got a bit of a shock when I saw him there but I mean, hats off, I have tremendous respect for him. I thought he was extraordinarily gutsy to do what he did and the way he sort of intervened in a way - in a very culturally sensitive way.
GEORGE NEGUS: And the people believed him?
AMOS ROBERTS: Yes, absolutely.
GEORGE NEGUS: He was giving a message almost from Philip - "Look, I don't hold your breath waiting for met to come but still believe", as it were. An amazing story - What I found interesting was some of the things that the anthropologist said - the tradition of messianic visionary beliefs etc. I mean, why do they feel this way? Why do they have to have a spirit figure like Philip?
AMOS ROBERTS: Well, the spirit figure I think has existed for many, many generations. There is a story - there are many variants of the story - a bit like the early days of the church or many religions, there's a whole lot of competing stories, competing versions, and they are still around. One of the stories involves a local village woman who was gardening on that volcano, the Yasur Volcano and she was impregnated by the spirit of the volcano.
GEORGE NEGUS: By Phil?
AMOS ROBERTS: By the spirit of the volcano. And the resulting progeny was this light-skinned spirit - Philip - who sort of disappeared overseas. Why and how exactly they match this sort of part of their mythology up with Prince Philip is still a little bit unclear but, as I said, something to do with the fact that he visited in 1974. Essentially the British Resident Commissioner, a few years after that visit, got a message from the island of Tanna saying "Can we have a photo of Philip?" And that was the first anyone outside the island had ever knew that these beliefs existed. And Kirk, the anthropologist, was the guy he approached and said, "Please explain".
GEORGE NEGUS: I love your suggestion that he was a discreet accomplice so that the Palace and the Prince have probably kept in touch with all of this.
AMOS ROBERTS: They have. They are very much a aware and have been for some decades and I wrote to the Palace to ask them exactly what Prince thought of the fact that he was regarded as a spirit and why he had sent the presents. I just got the email this evening. They said that the exchange of photographs was a gesture of goodwill and nothing more than that.
GEORGE NEGUS: So do you think they might wait next year for the birthday?
AMOS ROBERTS: I did ask. His press secretary explained that Prince Philip is aware of the islanders' anticipation but he has no plans to visit the island next year as he will be 90.
GEORGE NEGUS: Of course, of course. The age might get him off the hook, as it were - An absolutely fascinating story.
AMOS ROBERTS: Thank you.
GEORGE NEGUS: Thanks Amos, good to see you. Well, the Prince Philip Movement isn't the only cult on Vanuatu. Go to our website to revisit a Dateline story from 2006 about the islanders' obsession with America. And there's an extended version of Amos's interview with anthropologist Kirk Huffman, explaining what it's all about. Just go to sbs.com.au/dateline.
Thanks to the National Film and Sound Unit of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and the Research Library of the Australian Museum.
8th August 2010