The last King of Scotland?
Skyler and I returned from Samoa on one of Air New Zealand's 'bus service' flights, which stop at a series of islands between Los Angeles and Auckland for an hour or two, during which time the marvellously functional 737 is able to disgorge old and swallow new luggage and passengers.
I was sitting in the small airport terminal at Nuku'alofa, wondering if all of Tonga looked like the strip of mangy coconut trees and spongy grass on the other side of the tarmac, when a magnificent martial tune burst out just behind the terminal. I jumped up and joined the crowd of tourists at a small window, and watched as a marching band began to perform on the tarmac. Just as I thought I recognised 'It's A Long Way to Tipperary', several dozen men bearing the cleanest guns I have ever seen came marching into the din. Sweating in a uniform whose frilly bits recalled both the brilliance of tropical birdlife and the absurdity of Victorian pomp, they performed several complicated manoeuvres on the dirty concrete, and then stood patiently to attention.
Soon a shining Rolls Royce was driving past the brass band and the statue-still soldiery; as the car passed out of sight, I heard the American student behind me hiss 'It's the King. That's sooo cool. I got pictures of him.' I myself wasn't so lucky: I got photos of the King's toy soldiers, and of the sweaty brass band pounding away, but I never got a glimpse, much less a photograph, of King George Tupou V, the head of the Tongan state.
After the excitement of His Majesty's appearance had died down, I wandered over to the makeshift bar at the other end of the terminal, and made a futile attempt to buy a Royal Tongan Beer (its slogan 'first beer drunk in the world, every day' might be contested by the keen homebrewers of the Chatham Islands, which sit marginally closer than Tonga to the International Date Line) with Samoan currency. As I was lamenting the lack of economic integration in the Pacific and sipping the glass of lukewarm water the barman had given me out of pity, I noticed images of a rusty ship listing in rough water on the TV above the bar. Skyler and I had travelled on a vessel that looked very similar, a few days earlier, when we'd gotten up at four o'clock and driven our hire car onto the ferry that links Samoa's two main islands. Although the waters of the Apolima strait were calm, the ferry had shaken too often for comfort, and on the return voyage in the late afternoon we had found ourselves giving up our seats in the passengers' compartment for green-faced children, and then shifting our feet uncomfortably, as each lurch of the ship sent another rivulet of vomit down the aisle where we stood.
Unlike the clapped-out Japanese-built ferry that connects Upolu and Savai'i, the clapped-out Japanese ferry on the TV screen above the bar had plied the long stretch of open ocean that separates Tongan's southern and northern archipelagos. The ferry had sunk in a storm; scores of people were missing, presumed drowned. Suddenly the King George's dramatic appearance made sense to me: he was flying hurriedly to the northern part of his nation, where he would comfort the relatives of the victims of this tragedy, and lead a full and thorough enquiry into the disaster.
It seems I was mistaken, and the King was preparing to depart for an extended holiday in Scotland, where he will receive the salute at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The marching band and the toy soldiers were saying goodbye.
The King's decision to leave his country in the aftermath of its worst disaster in modern times has been condemned by Tongan democracy activists and by papalagi papers and bloggers. Michael Laws, the mayor of Wanganui and expert on race relations, has taken the opportunity to renew his longstanding condemnation of the Tongan royals. When George's father died a couple of years ago Laws described the man as 'a bloated, brown slug', called the whole family 'morbidly obese parasites', and refused to fly the Tongan flag at half-mast. Now, Laws says, King George is making his father 'look like a philanthropist'.
It is not only that many papalagi see King George as an overgrown child who treats the symbols of the Tongan monarchy as toys. The very notion of a monarchy, complete with royal palaces, a crown, and a private military guard, seems absurd, in a Third World country with a population of a little over one hundred thousand. How can King George take himself seriously, and how can so many of his subjects treat him with deference, despite the best efforts of democracy activists, and the occasional riot on the streets of Nuku'alofa? Like Michael Laws, a number of bloggers have treated the monarchy as a symptom of the supposed immaturity of the Tongan mind. For their part, defenders of the monarchy have characterised King George's jaunt to Scotland as an important political event, and insisted that the man's critics are motivated by racism.
The real history of Tonga's monarchy is more complex than either its detractors or its more rigid supporters will admit. In Tonga and in other Polynesian societies like Samoa and Niue, it was European visitors - missionaries, traders, and would-be settlers - who demanded the creation of a monarchy and a centralised state, instead of the patchwork of semi-autonomous societies they found in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Europeans wanted to negotiate the purchase of land, trade goods, and souls, and they wanted to do with this with a single authority, not dozens of tribal leaders.
Taufa'ahau, the first King of Tonga, was a regional leader who extended his powers until he controlled all of the three island groups where Tongans lived. Taufa'ahau had excellent diplomatic skills, and he also had access to modern weapons before his rivals. We can perhaps imagine him as a combination of Hongi Hika, the legendary Nga Puhi warlord who used a trip to Britain to get hold of muskets ahead of his rivals and wage devastating war on them, and Wiremu Tamihana, the great Tainui politician who created the King Movement in the middle of the nineteenth century through a series of complex negotiations. Taufa'ahau emphasised his status by appropriating key symbols of European monarchs. He wore a crown, established a marching band, and commanded a force of silly-looking soldiers. He even took the name King George. The European traders and God botherers who had initially supported Taufa'ahau eventually recognised him as an obstacle to their ambitions.
Taufa'ahau's combination of weaponry and diplomatic nous made his Kingdom powerful enough to see off the attentions of would-be colonists in the late nineteenth century, and to maintain its independence, albeit in a 'Friendship Treaty' with Britain, in the twentieth century. Samoa, which was never unified under a King, was divided by two colonial powers at the end of the nineteenth century, while Niue fell under the complete control of New Zealand early in the twentieth century.
When they looked at the apartheid-like systems the Samoans and Niueans languished under for much of the first half of the twentieth century, the Tongans were understandably thankful for the centralised state that Taufa'ahau had developed - a state that was symbolised, for them, by the pomp and peculiarity of the monarchy. Because the British guaranteed their independence, ensuring that German, Kiwi, Japanese and American expansionists were no threat, the Tongans also developed an affection for Blighty that Kenyans or Indians could never imagine.
Looked at in historical perspective, the survival of Tonga's monarchy and the Anglophilia of some of its population are hardly inexplicable. The country seems on course to become a constitutional monarchy, as a result of a compromise between democratic reformers and hardline monarchists in the aftermath of the riots that levelled parts of Nuku'alofa in 2006. The clownish King George has promised to relinquish most of his powers when a parliament is elected democratically next year, but it is unlikely that Tongans will give up their affection for a monarchy which has come to symbolise their national independence.