Royal visit 1977: Paul Cotton recalls his first encounter with British royalty in Samoa.

AuthorCotton, Paul

My first brush with British royalty came during our posting as high commissioner in Samoa. It was quite unexpected. Towards the end of our second year in Apia I took a phone call one Sunday afternoon. It was Bill Heseltine, deputy private secretary to the Queen of England, ringing from Buckingham Palace. Queen Elizabeth was making a Pacific tour to mark the silver jubilee of her coronation and she was keen to visit Samoa and Tonga, both for the first time. Traditionally, the British ambassador would have been deeply involved in the planning for a royal visit by the Queen. But there was no British ambassador resident in Samoa. Humphrey Arthington-Davy, their ambassador in Tonga, was cross-accredited to Samoa and should have come up and filled the role. Unfortunately, Humphrey had offended the Samoan prime minister and it had been made clear to him that he was no longer welcome in Apia. This left an awkward situation for the Palace and they asked me to take on the job.

Gill and I first met Bill Heseltine in Canberra 30 years before when he had been private secretary to Prime Minister Robert Menzies. At that time, he told us a story never to be forgotten. He was flying to Sydney with Bob Menzies to see someone and he suggested to his prime minister that that person should have come to Canberra to see him. 'If you stand on your dignity too much,' said Menzies 'You may trample it underfoot.' A very wise statement.

Bill had gone to London to a position in Buckingham Palace working for the Queen. He had worked his way up till by the time we met again he was deputy private secretary.

The Palace was already aware that there might be difficulties over the royal visit to Samoa. The Samoan head of state, Malieatoa Tanumafilii, told me that when he was a child he had once been plucked out of the sea, hastily dressed, and taken to pay his respects to the Duke of Clarence on the first visit to Samoa by any member of the British royal family. Now the Queen herself was coming and something had gone wrong even before the visit started. Earlier in the year Malieatoa had visited England. He had asked if he could call on the Queen. His request had been mishandled. His request was declined. Malietoa took this very hard, 'Just a cup of tea,' he would tell me. 'That's all I was asking for.'

Reconnaissance trip

Some months before the Queen's visit to Samoa and when we had planning well advanced Bill Heseltine and a team came out from London on a reconnaissance...

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