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Memories of two kings of Tonga

  • 23 March 2012

2 June 1953. Coronation Day. Two schoolboys, making the most of our day off from classes, joined the thousands lining the processional route hoping to get a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth II on her way to Westminster Abbey.

We waved our Union Jacks like windmills and were proud when an elegant carriage stopped briefly near where we were standing. Inside was a queen — not the Queen — but a head of state nevertheless.

The occupants were Queen Salote of Tonga, a lady of compassion and matching girth, and a slightly built, tail coated man, whom the BBC commentator, unable to identify, described as 'Queen Salote's breakfast'. There was a shower of rain. The diminutive man (subsequently revealed as the Portugese Ambassador) wanted the roof closed; Queen Salote wanted it open. She won. I decided then and there that I would like to visit Tonga.

Salote's grandson, the King of Tonga, Taufa'ahau Tupou V, died on 18 March 18, during a visit to Hong Kong. It is expected that his brother, Tououto'a Lavaka, will succeed him.

Obituaries have depicted the deceased as an eccentric though likeable person, more interested in discussing 17th century European wars than the political and economic needs of his people.

True to my childhood wish I've been twice to Tonga, for a full five days each time, during which I sipped morning tea with the King (actually two kings), met church leaders, exposed miles of good old-fashioned Kodachrome and did my best to learn as much as possible about the 'Friendly Isles'.

My first visit in the 1970s was in the reign of Salote's son, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, whose links with Australia included having been educated at Newington College, Sydney, the Methodist alma mater, and Sydney University, where — he proudly pointed out — a song was composed about his being the first Tongan to gain a degree.

There are many interesting things about Tonga, not least of which is its status not just as a kingdom, with a lineage claimed to be older than that of Queen Elizabeth, but as a Methodist kingdom to boot. For some generations the Tongans have been a Christian people whose church-going habits are renowned.

There are no buses and limited motor traffic on Sundays. Tourism of any kind is discouraged