Tonga – the friendly isles under scrutiny

The death recently of Tonga’s King Taupa‘ahau Tupou IV brings back vivid memories of the “feudal” Methodist kingdom.

by Alan Gill

“Pro-democracy” rioting in Tonga, added to problems in Fiji and elsewhere, raises the fear of more “failed states” arising in the Pacific region, with Australia in the unhappy role of policeman as well as benefactor.

TV news footage of destruction in the capital, Nuku‘alofa, seems an ill omen for the newly installed King Taupa’ahau George V, and hardly in keeping with the story book image of the “Friendly Islands”.

Certainly, steps towards political modernisation are needed. Indeed, the present system of government by the king himself, assisted by elected representatives and hereditary “nobles”, is verging on feudal. But it’s what a good many in the Island kingdom apparently like. And if the system works, one might well ask, why change it?

Here I have to admit to bias. I’ve been to Tonga. Not just for the standard 24 hours while a cruise ship was in port (tourism is discouraged over a weekend for fear the visitors may set a bad example in Sabbath observance) but for a full five days. During these days I sipped morning tea with the King, met church leaders of every hue, exposed miles of Kodachrome and did my best to learn as much about the island group as possible.

Britons and Australians of my generation associate Tonga with the lore associated with the delightful (but heavyweight) Queen Salote, who, at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1953, shared an open carriage with, I think, the official representative of Portugal. Undeterred by rain, she refused to put up the blind, as a result of which she and her diminutive companion got a soaking. A BBC commentator, asked to name the unfortunate man, is said to have replied: “Queen Salote’s breakfast.”

By the time I visited Tonga, some years ago, Salote had long since been replaced by her son, the equally large, King Taupa‘ahau Tupou IV, whose links with Australia included having been educated at Newington College, Sydney, the Methodist alma mater, and Sydney University (where a song was composed about his being the first Tongan to gain a degree). After 41 years on the throne, Taupa‘ahau Tupou IV himself died in September this year, to be replaced by his son, who has taken the title George V.

There are many interesting things about Tonga, not least of which is its status not just as a Kingdom, with a lineage said to be older than that of Queen Elizabeth, but as a Methodist Kingdom to boot.

For some generations the Tongans have been a Christian people whose church-going habits are renowned. Methodists form the largest religious group, but the earliest history of Methodism in Tonga was not free from acute friction and even schism. For financial and other reasons the Wesleyans of Tonga eventually seceded from their parent organisation, the Australian Conference, to form an autonomous body of their own.

Today the monarch’s role in relation to the Methodist Church in Tonga is remarkably similar to that of the British monarch in regard to the Church of England. There is also similarity in the coronation oath: “… the King, placing his hand upon the Holy Gospel, swears that he will ‘rule according to the constitution of Tonga, maintain the kingdom of Tonga in the Protestant Reformed religion and preserve unto the ministers and the churches committed to their charge, all such rites and privileges as do appertain to them.’”

During my conversation with the king, he said he did not personally see Methodism as the “state religion”; rather it was the denomination of the majority of his subjects. He said he had a “caring role” towards Catholics, Anglicans, indeed all “who love the Lord Jesus”.

By happy coincidence my own arrival in Tonga coincided with a general election. As intimated previously, there is a mixed legislature with about half the candidates elected by popular choice. Voting is a colourful procedure and takes on almost the atmosphere of a carnival. Candidates adopt novel methods to seek attention. I saw one man who was dressed from head to toe in political posters advocating his own candidature. He grinned through narrow eye slits as I took his picture.

My initial walk through the capital was interrupted by an extraordinary sight – three wheeled taxis, a cross between a tricycle and a large motor mower, chugging along the street, carrying passengers on their way home from local shops and a street market. Tongans are large by nature, and the required woven straw outer garment (the ubiquitous ta’ovala) makes them positively huge. Unlike similar vehicles in Asian countries, the driver of the Tongan tri-car sits at the back. How he sees his way is a miracle. King Taupa claimed to be the inventor of this carriage. I thought it wiser not to question him on the point.

All motor traffic stops abruptly on Sundays. Nor are there buses. In the morning a walk past any or all of the churches is to have the spirit galvanised by melodious hymns wafting from every open doorway. In the afternoon, young women in their prettiest dresses, some with matching parasols, form a passing parade worthy of a painting by Renoir.

Whatever one thinks of the Sunday observance laws, Tonga is by no means dull. I well remember my first visit to a Nuku’alofa cinema on a Saturday night. An incredibly rickety construction, rather like an old-time wooden saloon, the main auditorium was situated under the stars (or perhaps the roof had fallen in) and the cinemascope screen was pockmarked with what appeared to be bullet holes.

The poster outside advertised Cary Grant and Sophia Loren in “Charade”, but nobody seemed to mind that the film ultimately screened was quite different. The melee in the foyer was unbelievable – I couldn’t even find the ticket office. Once inside I found that the entertainment lies as much in the audience as on the screen. Every gun shot, indeed almost every line of dialogue in the movie (a Western) was greeted by shrieks, catcalls and ribald laughter. I was told that my experience was nothing as compared to days gone by when – to assist people who could not speak English – an interpreter was hired to stand out in front of the screen and shout a vernacular translation at the audience.

During my stay there was much comment about the king’s alleged clandestine visits to the cinema for private viewings on Sunday nights. Apart from the subject matter of some of the films (the king acted as unofficial censor) complaints were made that the king was making one set of rules for Sabbath observance by his subjects, and other by himself.

The king normally sat in a curtained off area – a kind of royal box – in the dress circle. His cinema-going habits came to light after the projectionist, feeling it was a waste to run a Hollywood feature for an audience of one, passed the word among his friends who smuggled themselves into the stalls below.

Until the recent rioting there was very little crime in Tonga, but the explanation hardly lies in the fear of punishment as a deterrent. The local gaol was nicknamed the “government college”, an indication of the benign treatment meted out to offenders. Prisoners from the gaol tend the palace gardens, and have been seen playing happily on the swings built by the late Queen Salote for her grandchildren. Prisoners also carry out public road and maintenance work. A group I came across was resting under a tree near the palace while their warder seemed to be doing all the work.

My own visit to the palace was indeed eventful. Before my arrival in Tonga I had enquired about the possibility of a royal audience. I did not get any definite answer so assumed my request was unlikely to be granted. Somewhat to my surprise I was told on landing in Nuku’alofa that not only was my request granted but the audience was set for only about an hour-and-a-half later. Moreover, it was customary for people meeting the king to wear a dark suit, collar and tie, whereas I had arrived carrying clothing more suited to tramping the countryside.

Thanks to the good offices of the local Anglican bishop, I somehow presented myself at the royal palace – in a borrowed suit about two sizes too small – on time. I was shown into the audience chamber, a magnificently furnished room, at one end of which, with the sun blind immediately behind him, sat the king. The “throne” – a three-seater settee – was just big enough to support the king plus two cushions supporting either arm. While I nervously introduced myself a uniformed attendant came with coffee on a silver tray. He went out backwards, leaving me to wonder if this was also required of myself.

I do not remember much of my attempted interview except that at one stage I dropped my pencil and was terrified of splitting my trousers when I bent to pick it up.

I thought I would melt the ice by asking about his time in Sydney.  It was a master stroke. There is a story that the king, having learned surfing at Bondi, introduced the sport to Tonga. I therefore asked him if he was ever fearful of sharks. Tongans have difficulty pronouncing the “sh” sounds which emerges at “s”.  “Sarks, sarks,” he said. “There is nothing to fear from sarks. Look them straight in the eye like this!” At which he squared his shoulders in a demonstration of regal might which I shall never forget.

It is sometimes said that Tonga is unique among the countries of the world in that “every Tongan is a land owner at birth”. The slogan is not quite true …but close.

The Tongan government traditionally gives to every youth, on attaining the age of 16, a plot of land, known as an “Api”, measuring eight and a quarter acres (Tongans do not know metric), on which he is expected to plant copra, bananas and other crops.

Until recently a young man could choose the location for his Api, but because of the growth in population, the government now chooses for him. An Api may not be bought or sold and the government reserves the right to take it back again if the recipient fails to cultivate it without reasonable excuse. When a man dies his Api traditionally passes to his eldest son or grandson. If the latter already has an Apu he can choose which one he wishes to keep, and has to pass the other to a relative.

I recall I pleased the king by telling him there must be a number of young and not-so-young European and Australian males who would gladly give up their executive type jobs and settle for an eight-and-a-quarter Tongan Api, a hut, and a Tongan lass.

Alan Gill was the religious affairs writer for the Sydney Morning Herald for more than 20 years.



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