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tonga - in the strange south seas

tonga - in the strange south seas

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Published by Sándor Tóth

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Published by: Sándor Tóth on Apr 28, 2008
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TONGA- In The Strange South Seas

Some weeks afterwards after a round of three thousand miles I found myself in Tonga, better known as the Friendly Islands. The distance from the Cook Group was only one thousand or less, as the crow flies, but the steamers flew down to Auckland, and then back again, which naturally added to the journey. Pacific travel is a series of compromises. The British Resident of Niue, which is only three hundred miles from Tonga, wanted to get to the latter place about that time, and when I met him at Nukualofa, the Tongan capital, he had had to travel two thousand four hundred miles to reach it! But no one is ever in a hurry, under the shade of the cocoanut tree.

Who has heard of Tongatabu? who knows where the "Friendly Islands" are? You will not find them very readily in the map, but they are to be found nevertheless, about one thousand miles to the north-east of New Zealand. And if you take the steamer that runs every month from Auckland to Sydney, touching at the "Friendly" or Tongan Group, on the way, you will find yourself, in four days, set down on the wharf of Nukualofa, the capital of the island of Tongatabu, and the seat of the oddest, most comic-opera-like monarchy that the world ever knew. Thirty years ago - even twenty - the Great South Seas were scattered over with independent island states, ruled by monarchs who displayed every degree of civilisation, from the bloodthirsty monster, Thakombau of Fiji and Jibberik, the half-crazy tyrant of Majuro, up to such Elizabeths of the Pacific as Liluokalani of Hawaii, and Queen Pomare of Tahiti. Now there is but one island kingdom left; but one native sovereign, who still sits on his throne unembarrassed by the presence of a British resident, who is ruler in all but name. Hawaii has fallen to America; France has taken the Marquesas and Tahiti; England has annexed the Cook Islands and dethroned the famous Queen Makea; Germany and America have partitioned Samoa between them; the rich archipelago of Fiji has been added to the British Colonies. This

accounts for almost all of the larger and richer island groups, distinguished by a certain amount of original civilisation, and leaves only one unseized - Tonga, or the Friendly Islands, over which England has maintained a protectorate since 1900.

The Tongan Archipelago was discovered by Captain Cook in 1777, and by him named the "Friendly Islands," on account of the apparently friendly disposition of the natives. He sailed away from the group unaware that beneath their seemingly genial reception, the Tongans had been maturing a plot to murder him and seize his ship. Treachery, it is true, has never been an essential part of the Tongan character; but they are, and always have been, the most warlike of all Pacific races, and it is probable that they thought the character of the deed excused by the necessities of a military race who feared injury from a superior power. After cook's visit the world head very little of Tonga until 1816, when Mariner's "Tonga Islands," the history of a young sailor's captivity among he natives of the group, fairly took the reading world by storm. It is still a classic among works of travel and adventure. Since the islands were converted to Christianity their history has been uneventful. One king - George Tubou I - reigned for seventy years, and only died at last, aged ninety-seven, of a chill contracted from his invariable custom of bathing in the sea at dawn! His great-grandson, George Tubou II, succeeded, inheriting through his mother's side, as the Tongan succession follows the matriarchal plan. It is this king - aged thirty-four, six fee four in height, and about twenty- seven stone weight - who now sits upon the last throne of the Island Kings, and rules over the only independent state left in the Pacific.

When Britain assumed a Protectorate over Tonga in 1900, it was done simply to prevent any other nation annexing the rich and fertile group, with its splendid harbour of Vavau which lay so dangerously near Fiji. the Germans, who had maintained a kind of half-and-half Protectorate for some time, ceded their rights in exchange for those possessed by England in Samoa, and Tonga then became safe from the incursions of any foreign nation whose interests, trading and territorial, might be hostile to those of Britain. Perhaps as a consequence of all those negotiations, the Tongans have a high opinion of their own importance. When the war between China and Japan broke out, Tonga politely sent word to Great Britain that she intended to remain neutral, and not take any part in the affair. Great Britain's reply, I regret to say, is not recorded.

The Tongans are a Christianised and partially civilised, if a coloured, race, numbering about 20,000. They are of a warm brown in hue, with dense black, wry hair (usually dyed golden red with lime juice), tall, well-made frames, and immense muscular development. As a nation, they are handsome, with intelligent faces, and a dignity of pose and movement that is sometimes unkindly called the "Tongan swagger." In education, many of them would compare favourably with the average white man, so far as mere attainments go; although a course of instruction at the local schools and colleges, amounting to very nearly the standard of an English "matriculations" does not prevent its recipient from believing firmly in the holiness of the sacred Tongan bats, feeding himself with his fingers and walking about his native village naked as Adam, save for a cotton kilt.

There is not only a King in Tonga, but a real palace, guards of honour, a Parliament, a Prime Minister, a Chancellor of the Exchequer, and a large number of public officials. All these are Tongan natives. the king's guards are apt to make an especially vivid impression upon the newcomer, as he walks up the wharf, and sees the scarlet-coated sentry pacing up and down opposite the guard-room, with his fellows, also smartly uniformed, lounging inside. If the stranger, however, could have witnessed the scene on the wharf as soon as the steamer was

signalled - the sudden running up of a dozen or two of guards who had been amusing themselves about the town in undress uniform (navy-blue kilt, red sash, buff singlet), the scrambling and dressing coram pubilico on the grass, getting into trousers, boots, shirt tunic, forage cap, and the hurried scuffle to get ready in time, and make a fine appearance to the st4eamer folk - he might think rather less of Tonga's military discipline.

Beyond the wharf lies the town, straggling over a good mile of space, and consisting of a few main streets and one or two side alleys, bordered by pretty verandahed, flowery houses. The pavement is the same throughout - green grass, kept short by the constant passing of bare feet. There are a good many trading stores, filled with wares suited to native tastes - gaudy prints, strong perfumes, cutlery, crockery, Brummagem jewellery. The streets are busy to-day - busy for Nukualofa, that is. Every now and then a native passes, flying by on a galloping, barebacked horse, or striding along the grass with the inimitable Tongan strut; for it is steamer day, and the monthly Union steamer boat is the theatre, that newspaper, the society entertainment, the luxury-provider of all the archipelago. On the other twenty-nine or thirty days of the month, you may stand in the middle of a main street for half an hour at a time, and not see a single passer-by, but steamer day galvanises the whole island into life.

The sand of the beach beside the wharf is as white as snow; it is pulverised coral from the reef, nothing else. Great fluted clam-shells, a foot long and more, lie about the strand, among the trailing pink-flowered convolvulus vines that wreathe the shore of every South Sea island. Unkempt pandanus trees, mounted on quaint high wooden stilts, overhang the green water; among the taller and more graceful cocoa-palms, Norfolk Island pines, odd, formal, and suggestive of hairbrushes, stand among leathery ironwoods and spreading avavas about the palace of the king. Quite close to the wharf this latter is placed - a handsome two-storeyed building, with wide verandahs and a tower. Scarlet-coated sentries march up and down all day at its gates; it is surrounded by a wall, and carefully guarded from intruders. George Tubou II, is among the shyest of monarchs and hates nothing so much as being stared at; so on steamer days there is little sign of life to be seen about the palace.

I happened to arrive in Tonga at an interesting historical crisis, and was promised an audience
with the retiring monarch.

After a week or two, however, the promise was suddenly recalled, and the visitor informed that the king declined to see her, then or at any other time. A little investigation revealed the cause. The High Commissioner of the Western Pacific had recently come over from Fiji, to remonstrate with the Tongan monarchy concerning certain unconstitutional behaviour, and a British man-of-war had accompanied him. I, being the only other person on the island from "Home." had naturally been seeing a good deal of the formidable stranger. This was enough for the king. There was a plot to deprive him of his throne, he was certain; and it was obvious that I was in it, whatever I might choose to say to the contrary. There was no knowing what crime I might not be capable of, once admitted to the Royal Palace. George Tubou II, is six feet four, and twenty-seven stone weight, but he is distinctly of a nervous temperament; and his fears of Guy Fawkes-ism kept possession of his mind during the whole of my stay; so that the carefully averted face of a fat, copper-coloured sort of Joe Sedley, driving very fast in a buggy, was all I saw of Tonga's king.

There is no one, surely, in the world who quite comes up to George of Tonga for a "guid conceit o' himself," When he wished to provide himself with a queen, some six or seven years ago, he first applied to the Emperor of Germany, to know if there was a German Princess of

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