“A grand Edwardian lady”, David Eggleton

Queen Salote of Tonga
Elizabeth Wood-Ellem
Auckland University Press, $69.95,
ISBN 1 86940 205 7

Tonga-watchers will know that there is a fairytale aspect to Tonga: this miniature kingdom by the sea containing a whole society in microcosm is a working relic from the 19th century which, having weathered the geopolitical storms of the 20th century, looks pretty much set to survive intact well into the 21st century, its King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV – he of the tremendous girth and the dark sunglasses – a monarch (the son of Queen Salote) who retains almost absolute power over his people. Yet, though the Kingdom of Tonga these days has a bit of a reputation as a “banana kingdom”, this nation is not some wilful frontier anachronism, but in fact a carefully negotiated Polynesian-centred response to the challenges of colonialism, post-colonialism and now multi-nationalism.

Royal Tonga, as Elizabeth Wood-Ellem’s book makes clear, is a place of tradition serving first to validate Tongan values in the face of change, second to preserve the sense of Tongan national identity, and third to maintain the cohesiveness of Tongan society. As New Zealand increasingly faces dismemberment by hovering corporate asset-strippers, will we in years to come be able to say as much? Wood-Ellem traces Tonga’s staunch traditionalism, its conservatism, back to the origins of modern Tonga in the mid-19th century and shows how the subject of her biography, Queen Salote, was instrumental in shaping and codifying a Tongan sense of identity. Born in 1900 and dying in 1965, Queen Salote was, as her grandson, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Tupouto’a, points out, “a grand Edwardian lady” – a genuinely gracious figure who wedded the best of British administrative policy to a personal style of leadership that drew its authority from her royal line of ancestry.

Queen Salote died at Aotea Hospital in Auckland in December 1965 while being treated for cancer. On the back cover of this book there is a New Zealand Herald photograph showing the coffin containing her body being carried onto an RNZAF Hercules for the journey to Tonga, as black-clothed Tongans wrapped in large waist-mats sit in mourning on the glistening, rainwashed tarmac beneath an overcast sky. This charged, almost poetic, photograph contains something of the sense of ceremony and theatre that always seemed to surround Queen Salote: in life she always had a powerful presence and an instinctive sense of occasion. Auckland was her second home, away from Nuku’alofa. In later years she spent part of every summer at a large house in Epsom called ‘Atalanga (or “Auckland”). As a child she lived for five years in Auckland (1909-1914), first in private tuition, then at the Diocesan School for Girls – a formative experience that gave her a firsthand understanding of papalangi/Pakeha society. Today ‘Atalanga continues to be the official Royal Tongan residence in Auckland.

The idea of a continuous royal Tongan genealogy goes back to at least 950 AD. Located in the centre of Western Polynesia, the islands of Tonga became the heart of an empire that extended from eastern Fiji and Rotuma, to Nuie, to Samoa and Tokelau, all controlled by the ruling family, known as Tu’i Tonga. In the mid-17th century this extended family dynasty broke up into competing factions, each with their own strongholds. This factionalism continues in a subdued way to this day. It was Queen Salote’s great-great-grandfather King George Tupou I who reunified Tonga, and who drew up the laws that laid the basis for modern Tonga. A far-sighted and forceful individual, Tupou I adapted the feudal structure that had made Tonga such a successful empire-builder and combined it with Christianity. But if Tupou I was the visionary, it was his friend, the Wesleyan missionary the Reverend Shirley Baker, who was the architect. The Constitution drafted by Baker in 1875 and based on the British model, is, apart from minor amendments, still in effect. Baker was eventually run out of Tonga by other missionaries jealous of his influence and suspicious of his (chequered) background, but his lucidly drafted legacy remained.

Tupou I (1797? -1893) was succeeded by Queen Salote’s father Tupou II (1874-1918), a somewhat self-centred and weak-willed playboy king. He allowed some corrupt practices to take hold (he was perennially short of money) to the extent that the British Colonial Office, which had developed a policy of benign paternalism – Tonga was “protected” rather than a Protectorate – considered deposing the King and annexing Tonga outright, or allowing New Zealand to annex it. A Colonial Office negotiator was dispatched, who liked what he saw of the basic structure of Tongan administration and therefore drew up a stricter Anglo-Tongan Agreement designed to rein in the King’s reckless spending and borrowing. Tupou II had also created unrest by rejecting the aristocratic woman it was intended he should marry – ‘Ofa – in favour of another aristocratic woman – Lavinia – from a less favoured family. Queen Lavinia died suddenly after giving birth to Salote and Tupou took another bride, ‘Ofa’s half-sister Takipo, who was confidently expected to produce a male heir. When this didn’t happen, Salote began to be groomed for leadership. She married at 17 and, upon the death of her father a year later, found herself Queen.

Within months she was facing her first crisis: the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, which through youth and inexperience she handled badly, failing to formulate a public health policy. Luckily for the Queen, Islay McOwan, an experienced British Agent & Consul, had recently been appointed to Tonga. He provided expert advice in a tactful and courteous manner, which earned him the sobriquet “the silent dictator” from the various hostile factions that had begun massing against the monarch. Palace intrigue built to a frenzy: disaffected Tongan aristocrats, nursing grudges and slights from the years of her father’s reign and before, combined with power-hungry Tongan chiefs, misogynistic papalangi missionaries and patronising papalangi politicians to create a sustained chorus of disapproval. Queen Salote, they felt, didn’t have the mana to rule. Over the following few years she proved them wrong.

As Wood-Ellem details in her thoroughgoing account of the struggle for power, Queen Salote was a natural, a master strategist learning on the run. The first thing that struck disinterested observers, such as one Catholic priest, was her “deep sincerity and maternal solicitude”: she showed she cared. Then she began to win over the chiefs by her knowledge of papalangi ways and by her ability to move easily between the two different cultures. She exerted influence over people through her right to promote and approve, or to block, marriages. (Marriages were a recognised way of creating alliances.) By showing herself a staunch traditionalist in the approved manner, she won respect, rolling back the antagonism caused by her youth, the social status of her marriage partner, the low status of her maternal line. Working the levers of her historical cultural inheritance, redeploying its symbols, she gradually increased her mana. The social hierarchy gradually acceded to her Royal Will. On one visit to an outlying district of the main island Tongatapu, the people demonstrated their love and loyalty by carrying her car, in which she was still seated, through the village as if it was a platform or boat.

Some groups, such as the Reactionary Party – an ultra-conservative group of nobles – she couldn’t win over but had to tolerate. She tackled the matter of the divided Wesleyan church – another legacy of the polarising Reverend Shirley Baker – by persuading its opposing factions to re-unite. A few dissenters, led by diehard papalangi missionary old-timers, left for Fiji in a huff. More difficult to deal with in the 1920s and 30s was a string of high-handed papalangi Chief Justices coming in on short-term contracts and appointed by the Colonial Office in London in a rubber stamp fashion (Tonga was not a prestigious appointment). Some of these legal-eagles, old colonial hangovers, employed a reformist zeal in trying to overturn local customs. Sometimes they found sympathisers amongst a hard-core opposition within Queen Salote’s Government. The politicking was fuelled by endless tit-for-tat petty-minded squabbles that continued up until the eve of World War II. One Chief Justice, William Stuart, a South African of pronounced views, attempted to seize power unilaterally by getting a thinly-disguised Bill pushed through the mini-Parliament and was ordered out of the country. And so on.

Wood-Ellem was born in Tonga, teaches at Melbourne University, and is the daughter of A H Wood, a former Methodist missionary who gave the oration at Queen Salote’s funeral. Her book, 25 years in preparation, sometimes becomes hypnotically repetitious as the sheer volume of material mounts up, but mostly it is a fascinating inside look at the micropolitics of an intricately-balanced society and renders a magnificent portrait of a great regal figure. Queen Salote created an aura, a romance around herself. She was a convinced monarchist who knew that Tonga was held together by its institutions: the Constitution, the Church, the Language, the Monarchy. She made a point of not only knowing many of her subjects by name, but also by background – their ancestry and genealogy – often better, as some of them attested, than they knew it themselves. A poet, an orator, a dancer, she set up the Tonga Traditions Committee to preserve the culture, and she turned herself into a metonymy for Tonga. This was demonstrated most famously at the 1953 Coronation for Queen Elizabeth II where, as one monarch deferring to another in gratitude, travelling gaily bare-headed in the Royal Procession in an open carriage through the rain, she seemed somehow to encapsulate royalty as duty, public service, and justice. Truly, the end of an era.

David Eggleton is a Dunedin reviewer and poet.

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