Obituary: Sir Robert Rex

Robert Richmond Rex, politician, born 25 January 1909, Representative of Alofi South on Niue Island Council 1952-92, OBE 1973, Prime Minister of Niue 1974-92, CMG 1978, KBE 1984, married 1941 Tuagatagaloa Patricia Vatolo (two sons, two daughters), died 13 December 1992.

Savage Island. That was the name bestowed by Captain Cook on Niue in 1774 'because of the fierce appearance and hostile conduct of the islanders'. The oval- shaped island of 258 square kilometres is built like a three-tiered wedding cake, with a difference: this one's ingredients are hard white coral. Indeed, Niue is the world's biggest raised coral island. Its remarkable uplifted limestone formations house huge caves, many containing deep pools. Great clefts in the cliffs lead to little white sand beaches. The port of Alofi is an open roadstead. Vessels anchor off a rocky foreshore. Cargo is handled, at times with great difficulty in a heavy swell, by launches towing lighters through a natural passage in the reef. To the west, the Kingdom of Tonga; to the east the Cook Islands and the great expanses of the South Pacific ocean to South America.

The island, people, and constitutional status of Niue are unique in South Pacific Polynesia, the Cook Islands excepted. Neither the island's character nor that of its people are attributable to the pragmatic dexterity of its long-serving premier, Sir Robert Rex. Its constitutional best-of-all- worlds may well be. If its nearest neighbour, Tonga, has sometimes in regional affairs been the odd man out, Niue may be seen as the odd man in: in, that is, with New Zealand.

British sovereignty was proclaimed over the island in 1900. In the following year, Niue was annexed to New Zealand, which remains effectively responsible for the island's foreign affairs and defence. Since 1974, Niue has been 'self-governing in free association with New Zealand'. The people of Niue enjoy New Zealand citizenship. They are thus able not only to travel freely to and from New Zealand but also to reside there. So the population of Niue (2,100) continues to shrink. Nearly six times that number now live in New Zealand.

The Niuean is slim, short and wiry - a far cry physically from his amply proportioned cousin the Tongan. Unlike Polynesian societies generally, there are no hereditary chiefs. Each family head has a status equal to that of any other. The emergence and sustained electoral leadership of Robert Rex from 1966, when he became Leader of Government Business, through six successive general elections as Premier since 1974, is thus the more remarkable.

His little Polynesian outpost was isolated for so long that a passing aircraft was a hilarious rarity. On one occasion, a Tasman Empire Airways (now Air New Zealand) Solent flying-boat was returning to Fiji from Tahiti. The pilot circled round the island at 2,000ft, upon which Robert Rex's house- girl fled indoors to emerge a few minutes later in a bright new dress and a revived hair-do. She was, she stated emphatically, in no fit state to be seen by the passengers on the aeroplane. Her name was Kilisimasi Tina ('Christmas Dinner').

For Polynesians, the Niueans are indifferent singers and their dancing is a hybrid conglomeration of the Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga. But if they do not excel in the cultural arts, they are industrious and creative craftsmen and women; Niuean fans, baskets and mats are some of the finest and most elegant in the South Pacific.

Rex emerged as a South Pacific island leader of great durability. He came from a humble trading background. Short, quiet, modest but shrewd, and without the flamboyance of some of his Polynesian counterparts, he none the less played a significant role in shaping the post-war nature of the South Pacific Commission and Conference. Gentle-natured, if undynamic, he was the last surviving political leader (in continuous elected office) from among those who formed the South Pacific Forum in 1971. It was a circumstance in which he took some justified personal pride.

He was premier without a break from 1974. He survived in office in spite of opposition success in the snap election he called in 1990 following a disastrous hurricane. He was an astute political and parliamentary operator; and at one time or another held all the ministerial portfolios there were to hold. Rex leaves the political stage when there is a serious question over the future of his country. Niue is dependent on New Zealand for its budget, and over 80 per cent of the remaining workforce is in the public- sector payroll. Rex tried unsuccessfully to develop the economy and to stem emigration. The lure of higher wages and the relative sophistications of Auckland, the so-called capital of Polynesia, proved too much. Sadly, Niue is far from being the only South Pacific territory to suffer in this way.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

SharePoint Administrator/Developer (C#, VB.NET, VISUAL STUDIO 2

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SharePoi...

European HR Director, London

£80000 - £95000 per annum: Charter Selection: A leading Global organisation Ja...

Day In a Page

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players