Memories of two kings of Tonga


King of Tonga2 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 over a weekend for fear the visitors may set a bad example in Sabbath observance.

In the morning a walk past any or all of the churches is to have the spirit galvanised by melodious hymns wafting from every open doorway. In the afternoon young women in their prettiest dresses, some with matching parasols, form a passing parade worthy of a painting by Renoir.

Methodists form the largest religious group, but the earliest history of Methodism in Tonga was not free from acute friction and even schism. For financial and other reasons the Wesleyans of Tonga eventually seceded from their parent organisation, the Australian Conference, to form an autonomous body of their own.

Today the monarch's role in relation to the Methodist Church in Tonga is remarkably similar to that of the British monarch in regard to the Church of England. There is also similarity in the coronation oath: the King, placing his hand upon the Bible, swears that he will 'rule according to the constitution of Tonga, maintain the kingdom of Tonga in the Protestant Reformed religion and preserve unto the ministers and the churches committed to their charge, all such rites and privileges as do appertain to them'.

During my initial conversation with Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, he said he did not see Methodism as the 'state religion', rather it was the denomination of the majority of his subjects. He said he had a 'caring role' towards Catholics, Anglicans, indeed all 'who love the Lord Jesus'.

On an initial walk through the capital I was struck by an extraordinary sight — three wheeled taxis, a cross between a tricycle and a large motor mower, chugging along the street, carrying passengers on their way home from local shops and a street market. Tongans are large by nature, and the required woven straw outer garment (the ubiquitous ta'ovala) makes them positively huge. Unlike similar vehicles in Asian countries, the driver of the Tongan tri-car sits at the back. How he sees his way is a miracle.

King Taufa claimed to be the inventor of this carriage. I thought it wiser not to question him on the point.

My second visit to Tonga, some 20 years later, coincided with a general election. There was then a mixed legislature with about half the candidates elected by popular choice. Voting is a colourful procedure and takes on almost the atmosphere of a carnival. Candidates adopt novel methods to seek attention. I saw one man who was dressed from head to toe in political posters advocating his own candidature. He grinned through narrow eye slits as I took his picture.

Until a recent bout of rioting there was very little crime in Tonga, but the explanation hardly lies in the fear of punishment as a deterrent. The local gaol was nicknamed the 'government college', an indication of the benign treatment meted out to offenders. Prisoners tend the palace gardens, and have been seen playing happily on the swings built by the late Salote for her grandchildren. Prisoners also carry out public road and maintenance work. A group I came across was resting under a tree while their warder seemed to be doing all the work.

My own first visit to the palace was indeed eventful. Before my arrival in Tonga I'd enquired about the possibility of a royal audience. I did not get any definite answer so assumed my request was unlikely to be granted. To my surprise I was told on landing in Nuku'alofa that not only was my request granted but the audience was set for only about 90 minutes later. It was customary for people meeting the king to wear a dark suit, collar and tie, whereas I had arrived carrying clothing more suited to tramping the countryside.

Thanks to the good offices of the local Anglican bishop, I somehow presented myself at the royal palace — in a borrowed suit about two sizes too small — on time.

I was shown into the audience chamber, a magnificently furnished room, at one end of which, with the sun blind immediately behind him, sat the king. The 'throne' — a three-seater settee — was just big enough to support the king plus two cushions supporting either arm. While I nervously introduced myself a uniformed attendant came with coffee on a silver tray. He went out backwards, leaving me to wonder if this was also required of me.

I do not remember much of my attempted interview except that at one stage I dropped my pencil and was terrified of splitting my trousers when I bent to pick it up.

I thought I would melt the ice by asking about his time in Sydney. There is a story that the king, having learned surfing at Bondi, introduced the sport to Tonga. I therefore asked him if he was ever fearful of sharks.

Tongans have difficulty pronouncing the 'sh' sounds which emerges as 's'. 'Sarks, sarks,' he said. 'There is nothing to fear from sarks. Look them straight in the eye like this!' At which he squared his shoulders in a demonstration of regal might which I shall never forget. 

The funeral for King  Taufa'ahau Tupou V will take place on Tuesday.

Alan GillAlan Gill was the religion writer for the Sydney Morning Herald for many years


Topic tags: Alan Gill, King of Tonga



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Existing comments

Actually, Noel Coward made the joke about identifying the gentleman with Queen Salote - her PM, I believe - as 'her lunch'.

RobJ | 23 March 2012  

I spent a few weeks at a Methodist missionary training place in Sydney prior to going to Fiji as a most unsuccessful medical missionary in the 1950's. (The medical part was fine I must add; not the missionary part). My experience in Sydney was NOT inspiring but I did have the privilege of sleeping in the bed previously occupied by the Queen of Tonga. It was immense. I felt suitably honoured. I cannot remember anything else about my 'training'!

rosemary | 24 March 2012  

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