Mourning in the South Pacific

Tonga marked the funeral of its late King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV with a blend of Christian and traditional rituals. (BBC)The Tongan monarchy is one of the oldest in the world. For a thousand years and more a continuous line of kings, and one queen, have ruled this realm of 100 islands in the Pacific, to the north of New Zealand. The death of His Majesty King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV has summoned into action all of the traditions and rituals which surround the funeral and mourning of the sovereign of such an ancient line. The institution with which these may share the greatest affinity are those of the Imperial House of Japan, whose Crown Prince attended the Tongan King's funeral in Nuku'alofa this week.

Yet unlike the present Emperor of Japan, the late King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga exercised real political power and was the dominant figure of the last 60 years in this small country's history. His death, at the age of 88, is therefore of great significance for the 100,000 people of his country.

Whilst the late King had his critics, there can be no dispute that he was a most remarkable man, a sincere Christian, an outstanding intellectual, an enthusiast for new ideas and methods, a lover of new technology and a constant seeker for the material advancement of the kingdom which he most sincerely believed had been entrusted by the Almighty Father to his care.

Taufa'ahau Tupou IV was the son of remarkable parents. He was born on 4 July 1918 at the Royal Palace in Nuku'alofa and was christened with the names Siaosi (George) Taufa'ahau Tupoulahi. His mother, Queen Salote Tupou III, had been reigning for only three months. His father, the Prince Consort Viliame (William) Tungi, would be Premier of Tonga from 1923 until his death in 1941. Queen Salote was greatly loved during her reign of 47 years and attracted international affection at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

Yet in 1918, the situation of his mother and father was not so powerful. Tonga had an ancient monarchy but it had evolved into a system, not unlike that in pre-Meiji Japan, whereby the sovereign, the Tu'i Tonga, held the place of ceremonial honour but actual political power was exercised by two junior lines of the reigning dynasty, the Tu'i Ha'a Takalaua and Tu'i Kanokupolu.

Captain Cook made several visits to Tonga in the 1770s and his narrative of those visits records the first signs of the fractures which were developing as the Tu'i Tonga line began to attempt the clawback of power from the junior lineages. This process was complicated by the fact that in Tonga whilst titles generally passed in the male line, a person's actual social rank derived in no small part from the rank of their mother. The junior lines of kings therefore tried to marry very high-ranking women.

Pressures which had been building up for several decades came to a head on April 21, 1799 when the then Tu'i Kanokupolu, Tuku'aho, was assassinated in a plot in which the then Tu'i Tonga and Tu'i Ha'a Takalaua were complicit. A bloody civil war commenced which lasted through various phases for almost three decades. The suffering endured by Tongans was very great and the fear of such instability was a powerful motivation in future political development.

In the late 1820s and 1830s two factors lead Tonga out of its political and social quagmire. The first was the arrival of English Wesleyan missionaries in the mid-1820s. The second was the emergence of the murdered Tuku'aho's grandson, Taufa'ahau Tupou, as the dominant political leader in the country in the 1830s and 1840s. His gradual rise to power through both military and political skills and through his adoption of Wesleyan Christianity as the official religion of the country, eventually eclipsed the senior line of the Tu'i Tonga.  

One thousand pallbearers took the coffin from the royal palace (BBC)Siaosi Taufa'ahau Tupou I became the first king of modern Tonga and the author and architect of its written Constitution and Western-style cabinet government. The highest rank which he ever attained was that of the junior Tu'i Kanokupolu title. However, he prevented the appointment of anyone to the previously more senior Tu'i Tonga and Tu'i Ha'a Takalaua titles and relied on his role as King.

He dedicated his realm to God and adopted as the national motto the words "God and Tonga are my inheritance". The notion that in some very special way Tonga belongs to God and that the sovereigns of the Tupou dynasty rule it on behalf of the Almighty is a powerful factor even today.

When King Siaosi Tupou I died in 1892 he left no direct heir and the throne passed through the female line to his great-grandson, King Siaosi Tupou II. The undisputed sway of the first King of the Tupou dynasty was not enjoyed by the second Tupou sovereign of modern Tonga. The restive forces of those who represented the old Tu'i Tonga and Tu'i Ha'a Takalaua lineages were constantly asserting themselves and challenging the authority of the King and the respect in which he and his family were held.

His first marriage, to Lavinia Vei'ongo Kupu, provoked affront and led to riots in Nuku'alofa. Queen Salote Tupou III was the only surviving child of that union and the early period of her reign was spent in calming the difficult situation which she had inherited. Her marriage in 1917 to the head of the lineage descended from the last Tu'i Ha'a Takalaua united the two junior political lines of the ancient Tongan royal dynasty but left the senior Tu'i Tonga representatives as a disaffected rump brooding in the old royal capital at Mu'a.

It became an essential part of Queen Salote's strategy to promote the notion that she did, through her matrilineal descent from the last Tu'i Tonga, effectively represent that dynasty and that her son was therefore the heir of all three of Tonga's royal lineages. In this way all threat of instability and civil war would be removed.

Mourners wore black and traditional ta'ovala grass mats.(BBC)This was the message which was constantly projected to the Tongan people and was fundamental to the outlook of the late King. There is no doubt that he was successful in securing his people's loyalty. Thus he achieved his family's goal of eclipsing the ancient Tu'i Tonga dynasty and replacing it with that of the House of Tupou. This was the most remarkable of his achievements for it has enabled a long period of great stability in Tonga's history.

Some instability late in his 41-year reign was perhaps inevitable, given the program of economic and educational modernisation in Tonga of which the King himself was the architect. A recent report by the United Nations Development Program ranked Tonga 54 out of 177 countries in relation to factors such as life expectancy, education and standard of living. Tonga was placed well ahead of any other Pacific Island country and of many larger and wealthier nations. This was no small achievement for a small country with no natural resources other than its people. The late King deserves a major share of the credit for this result.

As a youth the king was an outstanding athlete and the most talented student in Tonga. He continued his education at a Sydney high school, Newington College, and at the University of Sydney from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and honours Law degree. The untimely death of his father in 1941 created an enormous gap just as World War II was raging through the Pacific region.

So Taufa'ahau was brought back to Tonga and was made Minister  for Education in 1943 at the age of 24 and soon after Minister for Health. In both of those roles he carried out dramatic modernisation, founding new schools and rebuilding and improving hospitals and public health services. In 1947 he married his kinswoman, Halaevalu Mata'aho 'Ahome'e, whose high-ranking female line descent would in turn boost the societal rank of his own children. In 1949 Crown Prince Taufa'ahau became Premier of Tonga and held this post until his mother's death in 1965. In this role he continued the pace of educational and economic reform which would give Tonga the best educated population in the Pacific.

His questing intellect led him into many novel and curious by-ways. At one stage he became enthused about the virtues of the ancient Chinese abacus and Tongan students found themselves learning to use this implement as part of their daily schooling. Of course, it was the responsibility of appointed officials to capture and tailor some of these enthusiasms and the use of the abacus was not a long-lasting fad in Tonga.

In 1965 Queen Salote Tupou III died in Auckland after a long illness. Whilst she had influenced the political course taken in Tonga she had focussed her energies on being a figurehead ruler above the daily fray of Tongan politics. She left the day-to-day work of government to her husband and her oldest son. She did, indeed, provide a model of an effective constitutional monarch appropriate to the needs of a small Pacific Island nation.

The new king, however, had held the reigns of daily power in the Kingdom for almost 20 years and, despite the appointment of his younger brother to be the new premier in 1965, he continued to do so until the illnesses of his last years. The King drew on Tonga's network of 19th century treaties with European powers to strengthen its modern alliances and to attract economic support. In 1970 Tonga became independent.

The well-educated Tongan population, fluent in English as the result of one of the King's educational policies, was well-positioned to choose between life and work in Tonga and emigration to New Zealand, Australia and the United States. His Majesty maintained close connections with the Tongan communities which sprang up in Hawaii, California, Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere. Remittances from the Tongan diaspora became and remain a vital part of the Tongan economy.

It was inevitable that a man who had, as Premier and King, effectively ruled his people for almost 60 years would live to see demands for change. The late King did not oppose change but was deeply concerned to ensure that the evolution of the Tongan constitution should support the long period of national stability over which he and his mother had presided. By the conclusion of his reign he had agreed to the appointment of the first popularly elected Prime Minister, Dr Fred Sevele, who was also the first Catholic to hold such a high office in the Kingdom. A process of popular consultation, at home and abroad, was also launched with the King's approval to consider further reforms to the Tongan constitution. This process seems certain to bear fruit in the reign of the new King George Tupou V.

I first met the late King in 1971 and was almost overwhelmed by his awesome size and presence. I can relate to the words of the official obituary that "when a King dies, it is the master of the forest who has fallen". This mighty tree of Tongan royalty was a true Christian, a gentleman and a gentle man with an exceptional intellect. There can be no doubt that Taufa'ahau Tupou IV always intended his actions to benefit his people and his country. History will be the ultimate earthly arbiter of his achievements but I believe that judgement will be favourable.

Gareth Grainger is a member of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.


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