Saturday, June 04, 2016

How to stay warm on a winter's night in Auckland

On a cold Auckland night I'm warming myself by downloading some photographs taken during my recent visit to Tonga. I spotted this outrigger on the shore of Fanga'uta lagoon, the placid inland sea of Tongatapu, close to Nukuleka, the place where the Lapita ancestors of the Polynesians first pulled their vaka ashore nearly four thousand years ago, and where archaeologists dig for nuggets of the first settlers' pottery. In the background you can almost see some of the concrete contraptions that the European Union has placed along the edge of the lagoon to combat sea rises caused by global warming.
Whenever I look at this photograph, which shows the waterfront market in Nuku'alofa, I develop an almost unbearable craving for roast puaka. The chaotic bookstalls at the waterfront market throw up ragged treasures: over the years I've found novels by Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy, an erudite study of the poetry of the Koran, and a boxful of old and rare copies of the New Zealand Journal of History
I love the photograph of King Siaosi Tupou II that hangs on the wall of Friends Cafe in downtown Nuku'alofa. Tupou II's grandfather Taufa'ahau used muskets and Bibles to unify Tonga in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and then reigned as Tupou I for five decades. The founder of modern Tonga is normally presented by historians as a stern and practical man, but his grandson has been portrayed as a feckless hedonist more interested in partying than in politics.
Tupou II was crowned at the age of eighteen, when he was still a bachelor, and quickly ran up big debts to the Germans who ran most of Nuku'alofa's shops. While the young king entertained dancers and poets in his court, his ministers struggled to cope with the job of running the country, and by 1910 Tonga had been forced to hand control of its foreign affairs to Britain in return for financial support from the empire.
By the time he died in 1918, at the age of only forty-three, Tupou II was a bloated, sad-faced man. In the rare photograph that hangs at Friends, though, his young face is both extraordinarily handsome and full of passion and intelligence.
The photograph made me think of a paper that Adrienne Kaeppler presented to the Tongan Research Association several years ago, in which she tried to overturn the cliche of Tupou II as a lazy and irresponsible man, and argue that he was instead a cosmopolitan cultural innovator. Kaeppler pointed out that Tupou II was a lover of European culture, and that he tried to bring the fashion and art of the northern hemisphere into Tongan culture. He enjoyed wearing Western suits, supported tapa makers who introduced exotic Western imagery into their paintings, and wrote poems filled with imagery from faraway nations.
Kaeppler's paper, which was published in the 2011 book Tonga: land, sea, and people, includes a translation of an astonishing and very moving poem that the young Tupou II wrote after he had been forced to abandon his Tongan lover and marry a Tahitian princess for political reasons. The poem is full of baroque, exotic imagery - there are pyramids and descriptions of the solar system - and balances its complaints of injustice with sly self-deprecation. Tupou II surely deserves more than condescension from posterity. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Scot.
Poet kings are rare enough to deserve celebration. Have you seen the Satyajit Ray film "The Chess Players", which celebrates another poet king, Wajid Ali Shah? Farrell

10:15 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Interesting how we are seen through our external images. He wrote poetry like Henry the VII and Elizabeth the First.

Good post, interesting books you picked up.

7:31 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Thanks guys. Alas, my off the cuff late night post about Tupou II got some of the details of the man's life wrong. He was indeed forced into an unhappy marriage, but not to a Tahitian princess. Here's an email I got from Pacific genealogist Christine Liava'a:

I have just been reading your June 4 blog about Tupou 2.
a quibble; Tupou 2 never married the Tahitian girl- Edith Pomare. It is not even definite that he was ever engaged to her. I know Wikipedia says so, but there is no proof. She died in 1898,probably in Tahiti.

I once thought that she died in Tonga, but when visiting the Royal tombs with the Royal undertakers, I asked about her. They knew nothing of Edith.

He turned down Ofa, married Lavinia in 1899, she bore Q. Salote in 1900, then died in 1902. He later married Takipo, Ofa's sister. who bore Fusipala.

George 2 went to school in Auckland, in the 1890s, privately at some Methodist minister's house in Symonds St. It was not Wesley College. This was presumably where he learnt about Western ways.

Adrienne Kaeppler's article never mentions Edith, just Ofa and Takipo.

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