A royal progress

Published date14 February 2022

A month after my arrival in Tonga in July 1974, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV called a summit meeting of South Pacific leaders in Nuku'alofa to discuss regional air services. From Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Nauru they came. As Fiji's Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamasese Mara told me in an interview, "The mountain has come to Mohammed". He wasn't joking. Tonga is a cradle of early Polynesian settlement in the Pacific. Archaeological evidence and linguistics paint a sketchy picture of Southeast Asian ancestors boldy voyaging eastwards across Oceania's high seas about 3000 years ago accompanied by domesticated plants (coconut, taro, yam, breadfruit and banana) and animals (pig, dog, chicken and, deliberately or accidentally, rat), in the course of which they settled Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

The proto-Polynesians included the Lapita people, who brought pottery skills with them — Lapita ware, which has distinctive curved lines, zig-zag patterns and smoothed-over joints because their pots were not fashioned on a potter's wheel but built up from slabs of clay. Ceramic skills died out in Polynesia by about the time of Christ, before the radiation of Polynesians to the hugely distant margins of East Polynesia — Hawaii, Rapanui Easter Island and Aotearoa New Zealand. Vestiges of Lapita pottery and culture have turned up in Tonga.

Lapita culture was strong on chieftainship, which did persist in the archipelago of Tonga. In the ninth century AD, the Tu'i Tonga dynasty emerged. Legend has it that this royal lineage started when the god Tangaloa came to Earth and had a son, Aho'eitu, with a human mother. Tongan society subsequently became highly organised and ranked, and royal bloodlines were carefully managed through arranged marriages. Below royalty were chiefs (today's nobles) and elders with specialised skills, including navigators and priests, then came the commoners. Women often had high status.

Tupou IV, as the title suggests, was the fourth Tu'i Tonga monarch. In this dynasty, longevity is nothing short of remarkable. King George Tupou I was baptised and anointed king as a child in 1798 and reigned for 95 years, during which time he introduced a new set of laws to unite a nation torn by civil war. During his reign, Tonga gained, in 1875, a constitution, flag, anthem and state seal. Schooling was compulsory, and land was not to fall into the hands of foreigners. Colonisers take note!

After Tupou I died in 1893, Tonga was led by King George Tupou II for 25 years, then by Queen Salote Tupou III for 47 years till her death in 1965. Queen Salote was a sensation, at home and overseas. She reinforced Tongan cultural life through improved education and health facilities. In the course of her reign she acquired, as one historian put it, "the aura of statesmanship". During the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in England, she famously rode in an open carriage despite rain falling on the parade. Salote was very much a people's monarch.

And so to His Majesty Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, her son. He may not have had his mother's compelling personality but after 10 years as sovereign, when I met him, he had made his mark. His physical presence is what you noticed first — 6ft 5in tall (1.95cm) and weighing close to 200kg. It's hard to imagine him, during his school and university years in Australia, as a well-performing athlete, pole-vaulting...

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