The recent death of HM King George V of Tonga had resonance with many in Australia. Indeed, his successor King Aho’eitu ‘Unuaki’otonga Tuku’aho, was, at the time of his accession to the throne on 18 March 2012, serving as Tonga’s High Commissioner to Australia and was resident in Canberra.
By way of background one should note that the Kingdom of Tonga, consisting of a string of islands 650 kms east of Fiji and 3000 kms north east of Sydney, is a predominantly Christian country inhabited for more than 3000 years by Polynesians with a dynasty of ruling monarchs traceable to the tenth century AD when Ethelred the Unready was King of England.
When white men invaded the Pacific islands the Spanish are regarded as the first to bring death and disease to the people. Early missionaries also forced germ-carrying European clothes onto healthily naked Pacific Islanders bringing about a false modesty and illnesses. In the eighteenth century James Cook made three visits to Tonga between 1773 and 1777 naming one of the atolls (Lifuka) the Friendly Island.
…King George I and Queen Consort Salote…
A period of warlike and savage influence from Melanesian Fijians from 1797 to 1826, described as Tonga’s Dark Age, was transformed into a people of civilised Christianity by King Tupou who was baptised in 1831 and named himself George I after England’s George III and his wife became Salote (meaning Charlotte) after George III’s wife.
Of recent memory is George V’s father Tupou (George) IV who died aged 88 in September 2006 in Mercy Hospital, Auckland, having ruled for 41 years, at one time weighed 220 kgs, was 6 feet 4 inches tall and was regarded as an eccentric. He had attended Newington College and Sydney University and was the first Tongan king to gain a university degree. He was famous for selling Tongan passports and nationality for $20,000 and a few minutes after he died Tonga experienced a 4.7 magnitude earthquake.
At George IV’s Wesleyan Methodist funeral service Australia’s Governor-General Michael Jeffery attended as well as representatives of 30 other nations who observed the traditional 1000 pallbearers accompanying his coffin prior to extensive rituals.
The death this March of King George V reminds many of us of his iconic grandmother Queen Salote, a descendant through forty-two generations from the first King of Tonga Ahoeitu Tui Tonga. Salote, born in 1900 and named after her great great grandmother, was educated at the Church of England Diocesan College in Auckland and succeeded her father in 1918. She was 6 feet 3 inches tall and fondly remembered for her triumphal visit to England for the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (in Tongan: Kuini Elisapesi). This event was described at the time as the largest queen of the smallest kingdom in the world attending the coronation of the smallest queen of the largest kingdom in the world.
In the pouring rain that June day we recall that Salote, wearing the mantle of her GBE (a GCVO and DStJ were to come later), insisted on driving in an open carriage in the Coronation procession using a large handkerchief to wipe the rain from her face as she waved to the enthusiastic crowd.
…King George V…
So we come to the death of Salote’s grandson George V in March 2012. He had succeeded as recently as 2006 at the age of 58 having been educated at Leys School and Sandhurst. He was interested in Japanese art, music and history, model boats and computer games. He had extensive business interests and was a major player in telephone and electrical companies.
He was regarded as eccentric and flambuoyant, arriving at his father’s funeral in one of his black London taxicabs one of which he had converted to electric power. He said the cab had room for easy access in uniform and full regalia. In 2005 the Tongan Prime Minister Clive Edwards was accused of plotting a coup claiming that the King had advanced his business interests by taking over the failed national airline. Despite George V having established a democratically elected parliament there were, in 2005, pro-democracy protests leading to a six weeks public service strike.
Close relations with Australia were again exemplified when Governor-General Quentin Bryce was the Guest of Honour and Reviewing Officer of His Majesty’s Official Birthday Parade on 1 August 2011.
King George’s funeral, like those of his predecessors, was an elaborate series of rituals and ceremony. One of the most important of these is the placing on the Royal grave ceremonial black volcanic pebbles soaked in scented oil which are brought from the volcanic island of Tofua where Bligh landed in 1789 after the mutiny on the Bounty. This time honoured ritual is performed by the Royal undertakers who are drawn from an exclusive clan of 20 to 30 members, the Nima Tapu. During the six months of rituals associated with the King’s body at the grave members of the Royal family themselves serve food to the Nima Tapu.
King George made a number of visits to Thailand and I last saw him in February this year when I was staying at the Oriental Hotel where he was spending several days on his way to Rome to visit the Pope. He was very jolly and looked well, walking with his slight stoop and always dressed in one of his customary light grey Savile Row suits which he wore when not in military uniform and pith helmet. Like many people I was surprised and saddened to hear of his death in Hong Kong only four weeks later.