King George Tupou V: Reformer who brought democracy to Tonga

 

King George Tupou V of Tonga was widely seen as a reformer who gave up most of his powers in order to usher in a more democratic era to the small South Pacific kingdom of 176 islands with a population of just over 105,000. Seen as an eccentric by many, Tupou loved Savile Row suits and military uniforms, and had a penchant for the dress of Lord Chelmsford's army in the Anglo-Zulu campaign, with spats, pith helmet and brass. He commanded the Tongan Defence Services, which saw service in Iraq and are now in Afghanistan.

Although his reign was short, the colourful, sometimes monocled, King was much loved, even in the most remote villages of the sprawling archipelago, and he left a legacy of radical political reforms, with a constitutional monarchy in place after 165 years of feudal rule. His father, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, who was on the throne for 40 years, had resisted ceding any power from Tonga's absolute monarchy or acquiescing to demands for democracy, and when he died in September 2006 there were protests at the slow pace of reform, which eventually erupted into a wave of rioting and looting resulting in eight deaths and, despite the deployment of troops, the destruction of much of the central business district of the capital, Nuku'alofa.

Critics accused members of the royal family of enriching themselves through deals with the government and putting millions of pounds in overseas banks. Meanwhile, most of the people lived in poverty as subsistence farmers.

With such a backdrop, Tupou was persuaded to postpone his officialcoronation until 2008, realising the need for reform. He put together a framework for sweeping changes which saw power transfer to a largely democratically elected parliament with the Crown becoming a constitutional monarchy. The King would, however, remain head of state with the right to veto laws, commute sentences and dissolve parliament.

Days after announcing the reforms Tupou was finally crowned at an elaborate and lavish five-day ceremony, attended by 1,000 guests including the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Sultan of Brunei and the then New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. It incorporated tribal rites, with dozens of slaughtered pigs and hundreds of baskets of food given in tribute; the King was offered a bowl of kava, a mildly hallucinogenic drink made from plant roots, to signify his sovereignty over Tonga. All this cost £1.6 million, straining the finances of an already impoverished country.

But in November 2010, Tupou's pledge was made good and the people of Tonga voted for their first popularly elected parliament. Under the new constitution, voters chose representatives for 17 seats, with nine reserved for nobles. On the eve of the vote, Tupou announced that he was giving his executive powers to the cabinet and parliament, saying: "in future the sovereign shall act only on the advice of his Prime Minister". Noble Siale'ataongo Tu'ivakano became Tonga's first democratically elected Prime Minister.

Born Siaosi Taufa'ahau Manumataongo Tuku'aho Tupou in the capital Nuku'alofa in May 1948, George Tupou was the eldest of four sons of Taufa'ahau Tupou IV and Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho. Initially educated in Auckland, New Zealand, Tupou then went to the Leys School, Cambridge, where he got into a few scrapes but "took my punishment like everyone else" before finishing off in Switzerland.

To his surprise he was sent for officer training at Sandhurst, where he excelled in marksmanship and in the classroom. But, he later recalled, he learnt "not to take life too seriously." This was followed by a spell at Oxford University in preparation for a role as Tonga's High Commissioner in London before returning to Tonga as Minister for Foreign Affairs. His latter role enabled his intellect and charm to come to the fore and he became a respected figure on the Commonwealth stage. He retained an immense fondness for Britain.

In his free time, despite the tropical climate, Tupou relished nothing more than wearing Western clothes, adorning elaborate military uniforms and being driven around in his customised London taxi. The choice, he explained, was entirely practical: "An English taxi is extremely easy to get in and out of wearing a sword, a spiked helmet or spurs. I realise these are not primary considerations for buying a car for most people but it is for me." He also enjoyed sailing model boats in his pool, playing computer games, documentary-making and staging Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries.

Tupou died after a short illness, which it is suspected could be related to the removal of a cancerous tumour in 2011. He remained a bachelor but had a daughter. His younger brother, Crown Prince Tupouto'a Lavaka, succeeds him as King.

Martin Childs

Siaosi Taufa'ahau Manumataongo Tuku'aho Tupou (King George Tupou V of Tonga): born Nuku'alofa, Tongatapu, Tonga 4 May 1948; one daughter; died Hong Kong 19 March 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there