Remember Tanna, the South Pacific island home to a cargo cult whose members believe that Prince Philip is a living god? I'm sure you do, because it's not an easy thing to forget. But it's most likely been filed away somewhere with all the other internet oddities you come across every day, next to r/DragonsFuckingCars and those photos from Russian dating websites – which kind of makes sense, considering it's a tiny piece of land somewhere near Fiji, full of people praying to the Queen's husband in the hope he'll return to them in spirit form.
But to Matt Baylis, a writer from Southport, it made a slightly deeper impression. Matt grew up with a poster of the Duke of Edinburgh on his wall, admiring the Prince's pragmatic approach to life and presumably choosing to ignore all of that mildly racist stuff he's said about Chinese and Aborigine people. So after learning that there were others who shared a vaguely similar attitude towards Phil the Greek, it made perfect sense to fly to Tanna and experience the cult for himself.
I gave Matt a call to chat about his time with the Tanna cargo cult, nights spent on a psychoactive plant called kava and how the tribe convinced themselves that he was a sacred figure with a spiritual connection to Prince Philip.
VICE: Hey Matt. How did you end up on Tanna?
Matt Baylis: It started with a boyhood obsession. I was a big fan of Prince Philip when I was about 10 or 11. I was very fond of him and always thought he got a bit of a raw deal. Later in my life, I ended up studying anthropology at university, and cargo cults crop up on every undergraduate anthropology course. One of our lecturers told us that, on the island of Tanna, there were cults forming and regrouping all the time, and said, "Yeah, and there’s even a Prince Philip cult there." Everyone laughed, but because of my prior interest I was fascinated and wanted to know more. Later in life, I was still interested in the cult, so I thought, ‘I should go.' I had enough money, so I went and did it.
How did they take to you when you arrived?
They were very courteous and very polite, and I was welcomed and told that I could stay as long as I liked. The problem was that, when you go to Tanna as a foreigner and you’re in those types of areas, the people will treat you in a way that is slightly mystical. When you walk into a village, a man will say, "Ah, hello – you’re here to see me, aren’t you?" You’ll say, "Not really," and he’ll say, "Yes you are. I had a dream about you the other week."
So there's an idea that all Westerners are mystical and somehow connected to Prince Philip?
That’s right. They see them as part of an overarching scheme in which Tanna is drawing in foreigners all the time and creating what they call "roads", which are symbolic alliances with an outside power, force or ally. They believe that, once they have created enough roads, the world will be joined up.
Women from the Prince Philip cargo cult
It sounds like quite a complicated belief system. Did it take you a long time to get to grips with it?
Yeah, it very gradually began to slot into place. One of the things that made it difficult is the fact that, in Melanesia [the sub region of Oceania where Tanna is located], knowledge is treated as a commodity. They are very strict about it and people have even been poisoned and killed for stealing myths from other people. I had to keep saying, "Can I ask you this?" – asking permission to ask questions.
What are the core beliefs of the movement?
They believe that Prince Philip is one of the sons of the mountain god. They already had a set of myths involving a light-skinned god who sailed away overseas before worshipping Philip, which might go back to the fact that the island of Tanna is right on the edge of Polynesia, so they would have had contact with lighter skinned people. They have all sorts of myths about Prince Philip sailing away and capturing the heart of an important foreign woman. They say that he's working in various mystical ways for the benefit of Tanna and that every good thing that happens on Tanna is the secret work of Prince Philip. They say that the fact that there are more and more instances of black and white people marrying both on the islands and everywhere else is because of him. They say that the presence of Barack Obama in the highest office in America is because of Prince Philip as well. They believe that he is reuniting everything that has been split apart.
People from Tanna posing for a photo
And they're also waiting for him to return to them, right?
Yeah, they believe that, when the time is right, Philip will simply appear on a little rock just off the coast. The minute he sets foot on it, all manner of good things will happen. The main good things that they say will happen seem to have been influenced by Christian missionaries. The cult say there will be no more sickness and death, and that they will become young again. Free love is another important thing that they believe will come about. When I was there, they believed that you could shag your neighbour’s wife if she was in agreement, but if you got found out then you had to pay quite a hefty fine. They say that, when Philip comes, all the adultery fines will be abolished.
I heard that a psychoactive plant called kava also features heavily in the cult.
Yeah, kava is quite a revolting drink by Western standards when it’s prepared in the way that it’s prepared on Tanna. On Tanna, unmarried, virgin boys have the duty of chewing it and hawking it up onto a leaf. They then squeeze it out and mix it with water from a rusty petrol can. It tastes a bit like mud and is a basically a bowl of spit. It also tastes a bit medicated. The minute you drink it, it makes your tongue go numb and then you feel it going down your body, numbing everything in its path. It’s a very gentle experience really, though.
The kava on Tanna is probably the strongest in the world, and in the south west of Tanna – where I was – their kava was the strongest on the island. It roots you to the spot and puts you in a reflective frame of mind. There are kava bars in the towns, where people drink loads of it just to get fuck-faced, but in the village it was more about this beautiful ritual that they did as the sun went down. The cult lit fires and caught up with each other while the kava was made. They then lined up to get their kava. Once people had drunk it, they went and sat off on their own and watched the sun going down. It was a quiet, charming, meditative experience.
Was that the most memorable thing that you took part in while you were out there?
The most memorable thing was something that many people might think was a result of me taking too much kava. I lost my glasses and couldn’t find them anywhere, and I was summoned to a meeting with some prominent local sorcerers that they called the "clevers", who found them for me. In some parts of Vanuatu [the island nation that Tanna belongs to], the police use the clevers to find bodies and weapons and things like that; they are supposed to have a sort of second sight. The clevers interrogated me at length about being Prince Philip. I was then told that I could go, and then – as I left – I found my specs in the cuff of my shirt. I’ve gone back over it as many times as I can and I can’t work out how the clevers could have slipped my glasses inside the cuff of my shirt, but they were there. That, to me, remains inexplicable, although more rational people have lots of solidly rational explanations for it.
Wait – they interrogated you about being Prince Philip?
Yeah, they constantly accused me of being him, which was quite weird. People said that I was him in disguise or that I was one of his relatives. Some people got quite irate about it.
How did you handle that?
I constantly politely denied it because there wasn’t really much else that I could do.
Do you think you contributed to the cult’s beliefs in any way?
I gather so, yes. When I left, I heard that there were new stories about a person of sacred and dangerous qualities, who ate food from his own sacred plate because he was so powerful that he couldn’t touch theirs. The cult said that no one ever saw me shitting as well, which was interesting because I actually shat constantly. I think I might have been responsible for a ceremony that they do on Prince Philip’s birthday, too. While I was there, I told them when his birthday was and asked them if they did anything on it. They said, "No, why would we do that?" Now they have a big dance on his birthday. I think I sowed the seeds for that.
You can read more about Matt's time on Tanna in his book about the experience, Man Belong Mrs Queen.
More about cults: