Salote, Queen of Paradise
Otago University Press, $49.95,
The image of Queen Salote, in London for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in June 1953 – defiantly riding in an open coach in the pouring rain, and regally waving to a drenched but delighted crowd – remains vivid. It was as if Salote was greater than the elements. This was the act that captured the attention of the media, and made her almost upstage the real star of the show. “The Queen of Paradise”, as the British Press dubbed her, was impressive in both scale and style. The images were screened and published around the world in a public relations success that movie stars would envy. Salote was an overnight celebrity.
This memory fired me up to read Salote, Queen of Paradise. I anticipated finding out all about this substantial (over six feet tall) ruler of Tonga, which, by contrast, is one of the smallest kingdoms in the world. I wanted to discover who she was, whether she was a model monarch, and why she is still so revered by Tongans.
Salote Pilolevu Tupou III was born in 1900. Her father, Taufa’ahau Tupou II, was not a popular King, primarily because his marriage was a poor political alliance; so Salote grew up surrounded by family rivalries and feuds, all of which related to struggles for supremacy. Because of her sacred status, it was a hostile and isolated existence. From the time she was born, Salote lived in a predominantly female world, constantly chaperoned, often by well-educated women who would have a considerable influence on her life.
At the age of nine, Princess Salote was sent to New Zealand to live with the Kronfields, a large European-Samoan family in Auckland, as part of her general education. In contrast to the emotionally rigid royal household in Tonga, the Kronfields were a lively cosmopolitan family, and they introduced Salote to European culture and fashion. The Princess eventually became a boarder at Diocesan High School and later described her years in Auckland as the happiest of her life.
When she returned home, the Chiefs used World War One as an excuse to keep Salote in Tonga. In their eyes she had had enough exposure to the papalangi ways and it was now time to return to her father’s court to be educated in fakatonga and, more importantly, to be readied for her future role as Queen. The first step was her strategic marriage to high-ranking noble Tungi Mailefihi, when she was 17. It was a classic arrangement, designed to strengthen the Tupou dynasty and patch up the damage done by her father. Crowned at 18, Salote reigned as Queen of Tonga until her death from cancer in 1965.
Salote was shrewd, innovative and a very controlling and successful ruler of Tonga. Perhaps her greatest achievement in stabilising the kingdom was to unify the two Methodist churches. She introduced many important reforms, at the same time reviving and personally advocating the traditional arts and crafts, culture and values. She was highly acclaimed as a poet.
The diary that she kept during her visit to Britain at the time of the coronation reveals that the Salote of whom so many people were in awe, was herself in awe, of Britain and its politicians. With pride she recorded her several meetings with Churchill, and on the night that she dined at 10 Downing Street she took the opportunity to observe Churchill closely: “For the two full hours that I was there, I did not move away from the spot.” She had a clear view of him, and returned home “with great happiness”. Of the same occasion, Churchill’s biographer noted: “There was a vast Commonwealth dinner at No 10 for the visiting Prime Ministers, followed by a reception which, thanks to lavish supplies of good champagne, was far superior to normal occasions of this kind. The Queen of Tonga stole the show.”
On that trip Salote took the limelight wherever she went, as she did during the coronation procession. Despite the downpour she wished to be seen by the people. Her diary records that she neglected to consult her travelling companion, a Sultan from a Malay state, when she told police to leave the hood of their coach lowered. His cries of “Roof house! Roof house!” were ignored by Her Majesty as he nearly drowned in his seat. What the public didn’t know was that she retired to bed with a chill that night and later, on the voyage home, spent most of the days resting in bed.
The public Salote is well documented in this book but there are only a few glimpses of the private person. Salote left few diaries or letters. Even those closest to her were kept at a distance, so there remains a void of information that only speculation can fill. Biographer Margaret Hixon doesn’t take us any closer to the truth. Having produced a number of works that document life in traditional communities, she may well be more comfortable collecting information than relaying it. Perhaps that is why I found this book more of a series of non-converging strands than a comprehensive biography.
Ultimately, a biographer relies on adversaries and rivals of the subject to provide a full portrait for the reader. Salote, Queen of Paradise was written with the encouragement of the Tongan royal family, which may add to the reasons why Salote comes across as a righteous but obscure figure. The biographer also notes in the prologue that some people declined to be interviewed because they so revered her memory, even 35 years after her death. If Salote had critics, they have remained silent.
There is no doubt that Salote should be esteemed and remembered for her good words and good works, but that seems to be all we will learn, at least from this publication. She remains the legend.
Judith Fyfe is a Wellington lawyer and oral historian.