But the Duke of Edinburgh was something much greater in the eyes of a tribe in Vanuatu, a string of islands off Australia in the South Pacific Ocean. To them, he was a standard-bearer for everything they value in society.
To them, he was a god.
Hundreds on the Vanuatu island of Tanna are mourning Philip as a fallen deity, after worshipping him for decades as the prophesized incarnation of “kastom” — a word for their cultural values and the ideal of promoting peace in the world.
The tribespeople, who live in the villages of Yakel and Yaohnanen, are part of a so-called “cargo cult” named the Prince Philip Movement, which has been around since the 1960s. The group lives a traditional, low-tech lifestyle by choice on Tanna, according to anthropologist Kirk Huffman.
They believe that Philip was the pale son of a mountain god who “left the island, in his original spiritual form, to find a powerful wife overseas,” Huffman told BBC News.
“Ruling the U.K. with the help of the Queen, he was trying to bring peace and respect for tradition to England and other parts of the world,” said Huffman, who has studied the group for decades. “If he was successful, then he could return to Tanna — though one thing preventing him was, as they saw it, white people’s stupidity, jealousy, greed and perpetual fighting.”
Locals would pray to Prince Philip on a daily basis, asking him to bless their yam and banana crops or posting his photos in their homes, Reuters reports.
Philip’s death at the age of 99 last week has plunged the island into mourning, dashing believers’ hopes that he would one day return.
“The connection between the people on the island of Tanna and the English people is very strong,” tribal leader Chief Yapa told Reuters. “We are sending condolence messages to the Royal Family and the people of England.”
The prince visited the island with Queen Elizabeth in 1974, when it was known as New Hebrides under British and French control. Philip did not know that he was revered upon his arrival, but he soon found out when the locals held a tribal ritual for him and gave him kava to drink.
The duke never publicly rejected or corrected the tribe’s belief in his divinity. Instead, he sent them a photo of himself upon learning of their love in the late 1970s, and posed for a second photo after they sent him their best pig-killing club.
Those photos, along with a third that he sent in 2000, are now kept by the village chief.
Prince Philip had an off-camera meeting with five tribespeople in 2007, after a reality TV show arranged to fly them to the U.K. for the encounter. His son, Prince Charles, also visited Tanna in 2018 and participated in the same ritual as his father, though he is not venerated in the same way.
It’s unclear if the tribe will shift their focus to Charles or someone else. Discussions are reportedly already underway about the future of the faith, which has dwindled from thousands down to a few hundred members.
Huffman says the group emerged from the cult of John Frum — a mystery figure who likely delivered supplies to the island as a member of the U.S. military in the 1930s. Islanders in the South Pacific saw such deliveries as gifts from heaven, and they established a belief system and rituals around the occasional air-dropped aid.
It’s unknown why they fixated on Prince Philip in later years, but Huffman says they may have been inspired by photos of him with the Queen at British colonial outposts on the island.
Dan McGarry, a Vanuatu-based journalist, told BBC News that faith in Philip might be a way of reframing the British colonial presence. He suggested that the locals were “taking back colonial power by associating themselves with someone who sits at the right hand of the ruler of the Commonwealth.”
Believers planned to honour Philip on Monday with songs, dancing, pig-roasts and kava.
— With files from Reuters