King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV Of Tonga

Eccentric but commercially innovative monarch for 40 years of a South Pacific feudal anachronism
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The Independent Online

Siaosi Taufa'ahau Tupoulahi: born Nuku'alofa 4 July 1918; styled Tupouto'a Tungi 1936-65; Minister for Health and Education 1943-50, Prime Minister of Tonga 1950-65; succeeded 1965 as King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV; married 1947 Halaevalu Mata'aho Ahome'e (three sons, one daughter); died Auckland, New Zealand 10 September 2006.

The sheer bulk of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, the quintessence of Tongan nobility in stature, was the first inescapable visual impression of him. Thence the cliché, none the less true, that he was the largest king of the smallest kingdom. After that, slowly, came the recognition that weightiness lay also in the quality of the king's mind and the breadth of his intellectual perceptions of human behaviour, both in his own land and beyond. In his presence, no reminder was necessary that Tonga was the only remaining Polynesian kingdom and he its monarch.

In the last two decades, the South Pacific islands have become a less than fully stable region of the world. In addition to two military coups in Fiji in 1987 and a third one in 2000, there have been constitutional crises of one sort or another, civil commotion, protest and bloodshed in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and French Polynesia where, until not so long ago, France unashamedly conducted its nuclear test programme.

With all this, Tonga is a curious but - at least until recently - apparently durable anachronism. Its monarchy and social structure may now be under strain but they seem to be intact, conceptually at least. The constitution, originally enacted in 1875 and reconstructed a century later, is fundamentally feudal; and thus falls short of full parliamentary democracy. Some see it as a benevolent oligarchy. The king names and appoints his ministers of Privy Council and Cabinet and the 33 nobles. No ballot-box battles for them. "It is the sovereign who is the guardian of popular leadership in Tonga, not parliament," the King once told me:

The Tongan monarchy has a tradition of liberalism. I like to think of myself as the head of a monarchical democracy. And, in Tonga, the government does not go out of office if it suffers parliamentary defeat. It goes home to sleep and starts again just the same on the next day.

Taufa'ahau's actions - or inaction - in later years belie those liberal sentiments. He came to be much criticised for his sustained resistance to political reform and his opposition to press freedom to criticise the Tongan royal family, notwithstanding the constitutional declaration of freedom of speech for all for ever. His political conservatism may have been derived from this daunting declaration in the 1875 constitution: "The King is the Sovereign of all the Chiefs and all the people. The Kingdom is his."

Lack of political reform was one thing, economic development quite another. Communications have shrunk the globe, not least in respect of the vast distances of ocean between Pacific island countries. Tonga has flung open its doors to tourism and thus to the wider influences of the world. For 57 years, Taufa'ahau presided over all this: first as Premier for 16 years, and then as king, on the death of his mother, Queen Salote Tupou III, from 1965. The developmental and technological advances he encouraged throughout his reign are extraordinary: a daily flow of international aircraft instead of one banana and passenger ship each month; an internal air service to islands which in the past saw a cockroach-ridden leaky ketch once in three months; worldwide direct dialling, videos, television, the fax, computers and e-mail.

All this came in place of the customary village criers which had been the only means, as late as the mid-1950s, for announcing news, since there was then no public radio and no newspaper.

Queen Salote gave birth to her first child at the palace in the capital, Nuku'alofa, in 1918. She was barely 18 and had become wife, queen and mother in less than 10 months. Her son was christened Siaosi ("George") Taufa'ahau Tupoulahi. In the royal child, the three ancient lines of Tongan kings - the Tu'i Tonga, the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua and the Tu'i Kanokupolu - came together for the first time. They can be traced back to the 10th century. The sovereign is the repository and the pillar of custom and tradition. Not easy for a king so commercially innovative as Taufa'ahau was to become.

Semi-divine status attaches to the royal personage. Even his immediate family complies with strict requirements of protocol, behaviour, dress and speech. Indeed, there is a special royal vocabulary for addressing the sovereign, and none other. The palace grounds are tapu (sacred) and in the past would not be entered lightly. Now there is an encircling security wall.

The royal prince was educated initially in Nuku'alofa. He then went to Newington College in Sydney. Thereafter, he graduated in Arts and Law at the University of Sydney - the first Tongan to have the opportunity to do so. When he returned to Tonga from the freedoms of Australian life, custom and rank confined him. He preferred speaking and thinking in English; and he was impatient with the protracted ceremonial occasions over which he was obliged to preside in Tongan. It was Queen Salote who taught him patience and gave him the knowledge which led to understanding that time in Tonga was relative and often immaterial.

He was 25 in 1943 when he was appointed by his mother to be her Minister for Education, and Minister for Health a year later; at 31, in 1949, he became Premier. The Queen had bestowed upon him the royal titles Tupouto'a Tungi - broadly the Tongan equivalent of Prince of Wales. In his 16 years as Premier, he was enterprising but aloof; animated when conversation aroused his interest; dull and unresponsive when it did not. His attention span in cabinet could be short. Most often, his judgement and will prevailed.

He was impatient faced with the financial constraints of government. When the agenda involved money provision, the cabinet decision could be uncertain: if Taufa'ahau wanted something agreed to, his view would prevail, even if the Minister of Finance were to oppose it on sensible grounds. If the Premier was not interested, the Minister of Finance's opinion would determine the outcome - for "that was what he was there for, was he not, to decide such matters?" And a huge volley of royal laughter would follow such a grand concession to consensus.

Taufa'ahau was at that time an intellectual dilettante, widely read in a variety of subjects, superficially knowledgeable about many, but disconcertingly erratic to those whose task it was to respond to and follow up his passionate but often passing enthusiasms.

In a joint royal wedding ceremony in 1947 with his younger brother, Prince Tu'ipelehake, whom he appointed to succeed him as Prime Minister when he became King, the Crown Prince married Halaevalu Mata'aho Ahome'e. She bore him three sons and one daughter, the latter becoming the wife of the Tonga High Commissioner in London in the early 1990s. As Princess and Queen, Mata'aho devoted her life to the care and support of her husband and to many social causes. She acted as his eyes and ears in the community.

When the much-loved Queen Salote died of cancer in 1965, there were those who believed that an era of stability and benign oversight of Tongan life had come to an end. The new king's father and grandfather had died early. Taufa'ahau's weight of over 25 stone was not a bettable prospect for the biblical life-span. But, in his seventies, he grew for a time closer to his subjects and they to him. His engaging eccentricities - like his laborious bicycle rides round a sports stadium, and solo rowing, both for exercise - may in part explain this. In part, only, because there were latter-day aberrations too.

The 180th meridian of longitude passes through the Fiji island of Taveuni. It is 400 miles west of Tonga, which should accordingly have been in the western hemisphere. This would not do for the people of Tonga, Taufa'ahau had early concluded. He decreed that, geography notwithstanding, the 180th meridian would be stretched sufficiently eastwards to embrace his kingdom and thus enable Tongan time to be 13 hours ahead of Greenwich instead of 11 hours behind it. It was always a satisfaction to the King that his people were the first in the world to greet the new day.

In the 1970s, the King's susceptibility to gimmickry led him to endorse proposals for the introduction of peel-off, sticker-type postage stamps. They were shaped like the fruit represented on them. The philatelic reputation of Tonga plummeted and it was easy to understand why it began to be described as a "banana monarchy".

More controversial still was the later decision to sell Tongan passports to selected applicants on substantial payment. To some it hinted of corruption in government, especially when it was officially announced that the money had been deposited in a bank account in the United States. "Royal family pocket money, it was widely assumed," a cynical governor of the Tonga Reserve Bank told me in 1991. Two such passport purchasers were rumoured to be Ferdinand Marcos, former President of the Philippines, and his wife, Imelda.

In the 1980s, Tonga, with but 100,000 inhabitants, began to develop fast. Its apparent stability became seen as an investment attraction. But there was a price to pay. There were murmurings about the advent of cheque-book diplomacy at the palace and of commercial adventurism in high places. The King was said to be closely involved in grandiose development plans, a potential oil refinery, and the "selling" of Tongan air space for the operation of satellites.

Tonga has a historic policy of non-involvement in the broader affairs of the wider world. It affects semi-aloofness from the problems of its South Pacific neighbours. The 1987 military coups in Fiji were, however, too close for comfort. Taufa'ahau's reactions were ambivalent. Later, he warned that any movement for constitutional change in Tonga might lead to a coup against the monarchy: "I shall not be allowing Tongan soldiers to join the United Nations peace-keeping force in the Lebanon," he said. "It would not be sensible for them to learn the lessons the Fijians absorbed there for their military organisation and ambitions."

Taufa'ahau was in London in late October 1990 en route to Germany. He walked heavily with two steel sticks. His 25-year reign had seen his South Pacific island fiefdom pass from the town crier to the satellite dish. "Yes," he said with delight,

I have just ordered one for the palace in Nuku'alofa. It is being shipped from Seattle now. I shall be a regular watcher of CNN.

"And your visit to Germany?" I asked.

"I shall be the first head of state to visit a reunited Berlin. Tonga had an understanding with Bismarck and provided coaling stations for German ships. It was before our Treaty of Friendship with Britain. Germany was a South Pacific colonial power - in Samoa and New Guinea - until 1919. There is thus some historic significance in my going there now, I suppose."

A year later, the King and Queen went to Israel. They journeyed on the biblical route north to Galilee. They sailed out over the waters of the New Testament fishermen Simon and Peter; stood where the Sermon on the Mount is believed to have been delivered; and were baptised by total immersion in the River Jordan at the hands of an American Baptist minister flown in for the purpose. "I understand," the King said, "that I am the first head of state and king to be baptised there . . . Maybe it will establish a trend."

Taufa'ahau's dream of longevity was that he would surpass his great-grandfather King George Tupou I, who died in 1893 at the age of 96. It was not to be. He fell short by nine years.

The royal obsequies will be massive and conducted in high customary ceremonial. The palace, public buildings, offices, houses and the people of Tonga will be swathed in the unrelenting black vestments of death. Gifts of fine mats, tapa (bark cloth) and vast quantities of food will arrive in Nuku'alofa from the far corners of the kingdom and the South Pacific. Fires will burn by day and night around the palace throughout the lying-in-state of the deceased monarch. The traditional ceremonies will continue for 12 months of court and national mourning.

Kenneth Bain