HM King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV - King of Tonga

Tonga’s King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV  (1918–2006) was educated in Sydney and studied law there before returning to Tonga in 1943 to work as Minister of Education, then Minister of Health, and Prime Minister from 1949 until 1965 when he acceded to the throne after the death of his mother, Queen Salote.  When Ian Johnstone was granted an audience at the Nuku’alofa Palace in 1995, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, then aged 77, reflected on Tonga’s unique record as an independent Pacific nation.


King Tupou IV: Our relations with other countries have always been by treaty.

Ian Johnstone: I wonder if there’s a particular reason that you could identify why Tonga never accepted the colonial yoke?

TT: Well, Tonga already had a constitution and a government of its own so it could be dealt with like an orthodox nation. Our first national treaty was with France in the 1850s and then with the German Empire in 1876 and with Britain in about 1900, also America.

All these treaties of the last century have been renewed, generally on their hundredth anniversaries. So we have continued with treaties with France and with Germany and with Britain and America into this century.

IJ: Looking back into the history of it, there were quite a few countries who would have liked to have you as part of their empire: the Germans, the French, the British were all interested.

TT: Yes yes yes, well they couldn’t do that once we were recognised as an independent nation by one of them, it set the precedent for treaties with the others.

But during the naval rivalry between Great Britain and Germany the treaty with Germany involved letting them have a coaling station in Vava’u, which is a very good harbour. That was done while the Admiralty were doing surveys of islands and reefs and things all over the Pacific. So while they were doing surveys the German government made a treaty for a coaling station. Of course at this time a very famous German Admiral Tirpitz, was the head of the German Imperial Navy and it became an important objective for the British Government, no doubt egged on by the Admiralty, to dislodge the Germans from Tonga.

Well in order to do that peaceably, they secured agreements with the authorities in Western Samoa so that they were involved in Samoa, and America of course had American Samoa, so there were three powers having arguments in Samoa backwards and forwards, trying to run some sort of orderly administration there. After a while the British suddenly offered to the Germans to withdraw from Western Samoa altogether, on the condition that the Germans hand over their treaty rights in Tonga to Great Britain. Which meant that the coaling station would no longer be controlled by the German Empire. That’s how Britain came to Tonga, and made their treaties and so on.

IJ: I’m interested, I know it’s one of your tenets of policy that you’ll be friendly to all nations; that’s difficult when they involve at times of war, countries like England and Germany.

TT: Yes, of course. After our treaty with France, France went to war with Germany, with Prussia. Our relations with the German Empire happened only after the Franco-Prussian war.

IJ: Why was it, do you think, that Tonga decided that its treaty of friendship and protection should be with the British, as opposed to say with the French or…

TT: Really Tonga did not decide, neither did Western Samoa. But the British and the Germans made a deal because the British wanted to dislodge the Germans from Tonga, and the way to do it, they thought, was to engage in negotiations with the Western Samoan authorities, so that the Germans would not be alone in Western Samoa. They always had to, whatever they did they had to consult the British and they did everything together. Of course this got annoying for the Germans and they wished the British weren’t there. One day the British suggested, what about our withdrawing altogether, and you give us your treaty rights in Tonga and we won’t bother you anymore. Well the Germans had been annoyed with them for a long time, and said yes, why don’t we do that! That would be a great idea!

IJ: From your understanding of the history, do you think there was any preference on the part of the Tongans of the day?

TT: The Germans of course were already trading in Samoa and they came to Tonga to establish a store here, and so on.

In fact there is an interesting trace of that time in the Tongan language, because in the Tongan language if you say 3:30 it’s not ‘half-past three’, it’s ‘half-four’, which is the German way of counting. So they must have sold us the first alarm clocks or something! Tonga now tells the time in a German way so they were influential in Tonga because of trading.

IJ: I gather, sir, after the signing of the treaty, it was first of all in the 1870s, then 1900 it was finally ratified.

TT: Yes, the treaty with Britain. It may have been earlier in fact, the treaty that brought Germany into Tonga was in 1876, not very many years after the Franco-Prussian War. But I think the first treaty with Britain was 1890 or something.

IJ: I gather that during your grandfather’s reign, relations between Britain and Tonga were tense, even though there was a treaty in force.

TT: Yes well there were disorders. My great-great-grandfather made Baker, who was a former missionary from Australia, prime minister. Attempts were made to assassinate him. The assassins wounded one of his daughters and maybe another child, but Baker himself wasn’t shot. But he had the assassins executed. He was relied upon by King George Tupou I as Prime Minister but he had to be deported from Tonga because he was the one who engineered the treaty with Germany. There was a question of him, while he was a missionary in the church, getting advances of money from a German firm, to be repaid over the following year, by the followers of the church and so on. So they were involved with the German company.

IJ: So he was seen, obviously, as a negative influence, a troublemaker – do you think by the governors of Tonga, the Tongans themselves, or by the outsiders, by the British?

TT: I think both.

IJ: He must have been the only non-Tongan ever to hold ministerial office, am I right?

TT: Yes, he was responsible for drafting the original laws.

IJ: Do you think part of the trouble, Your Majesty, was just that King George II took a dim view of foreign control; he didn’t like being interfered with?

TT: Yes. During the period of the treaty with Germany, the then Crown Prince of Tonga went for medical treatment in Auckland and died. So he was put in a lead coffin, and then a wooden coffin, and was brought to Tonga on a German battle-cruiser called the Nautilus. In honor of that service, there’s a submerged reef in this harbour called Nautilus.

Incidentally, we renewed this treaty with the federal republic of Germany in 1976 and when the two Germanies were reunited, I was the first foreign head of state to pay a visit to the federal republic after the union, after the reunification.

IJ: Round about the end of WWI, it looks as though from then on a significant improvement in relations between Tongan authorities and the British.

TT: Yes, because my father came from a family that were traditionally supporters of Britain. So my father also, he had been educated in Australia in a school there, so their family was, you might say, pro-British. They were also supported by the British because they wanted to counteract the influence of Shirley Baker the pro-German.

IJ: Sir, it would have been his advice and counsel as prime minister that actually administered the treaty of friendship and protection here, yes? What were the details of that? I want to talk to you a bit more about the detail of it when you were administering it, but was it an easy business? I mean you weren’t fully part of what was then the empire at all were you?

TT: I think the aim was to keep out other foreign influences, and see that affairs were administered in a good way.

IJ: Did the Tongan authorities have to invite the British in and say "have a look at the books of such-and-such"?

TT: No, they were here and they were interested in there being no further trouble with religion or politics.

IJ: This must have been the time when you were growing up here in the palace.

TT: I was a small boy, 14 years old when I went overseas and remained overseas for 10 years. In fact Pearl Harbour was bombed while I was still away. General Macarthur had to make special arrangements to get me back.

IJ: True, to bring you home to-

TT: Yes this was done by passage on an American bomber from Queensland, re-fuelling in New Caledonia, to Fiji, and then waited there a few days in an American camp, and then from Fiji to Tonga on an American seaplane.

IJ: When you came back towards the end of WW II you then must have begun to play a part in the administration of Tonga yourself.

TT: They first of all made me Minister of Education and Health and then Prime Minister after a while.

IJ: When you took up that ministry, how did you work with the British? Were their officials appointed by them or by you?

TT: No, they had to advise us, foreign affairs and so on. Most of the Consuls were personal friends of mine.

IJ: That’s interesting, I’m interested in whether the British tended to say ‘oh yes, we will post so-and-so to Tonga’ or did they say to you ‘is it acceptable that so-and-so…’ or did you recruit?

TT: Oh yes, they always told us about appointments like this.

IJ: What sort of freedom of action did you have for instance as a minister of the Crown here, and prime minister, by comparison with let’s say someone in the Solomons?

TT: Very different, because the Solomons were administered by British officers.

IJ: Did you have the right of hire and fire, could you say?

TT: Yes.

IJ: Who paid these colonial servants when they came here?

TT: Well it depends, because the Consul were paid entirely by the foreign office, we paid our own officials.

IJ: How did the flags fly here?

TT: The British flag was only flown at the British Consulate and nowhere else.

IJ: So not within the capital? The fact of independence was stated throughout the relationship.

TT: Yes, oh yes. The relationship was by treaty, so the recognition of Tonga as a state was always the case.

IJ: Can you recall any particularly attractive or colourful characters or individuals who came to work with you from the British?

TT: Oh yes, we had some colourful characters including a judge from South Africa who interfered in politics and so on.

IJ: And was sent packing?

TT: Well, ultimately yes. One of the judges who came here had a Russian wife, a really good singer. She used to sing Tongan folk songs.

IJ: So it was quite a melting-pot this place in that sort of sense. I’m wondering what the view of the Tongan people was – obviously huge affection for Her Britannic Majesty, but no sense of belonging to her, am I right?

TT: What do you mean?

IJ: Being citizens, subjects?

TT: No, they had Tongan passports. Of course if Tongan citizens wanted to travel to other countries, the British Foreign Officer would get visas for them.

IJ: Were you completely able to deal as an independent nation, for instance in making trade arrangements, or did you have to get any approval or agreement?

TT: Well, we had to make agreements with the Americans because they stationed forces in Tonga and of course the airport was created for taking fighters just before war happened. That airport was improved by the Americans. Then they had aircraft carriers and they didn’t need fighter aircraft on land. Just after all the travelling to the Coral Sea Battle was an American taskforce of 50 warships including aircraft carriers and they came in here to rest after the passage from Pearl Harbour. For the one week they were here, the Americans outnumbered the Tongans on this island.

IJ: Your Majesty, as we move on through the 50s and 60s, towards the time when the other countries of the Pacific were preparing for their own independence, how were your relationships with your neighbours? I mean in a sense you could look down on them couldn’t you? You were an independent constitutional monarchy.

TT: We have always had good relationships and a certain amount of intermarriage. My second son is married to a granddaughter of Malietoa in Western Samoa. So I have some Samoan grandchildren, four of them in fact.

IJ: And you always played a full part in regional matters, didn’t you?

TT: Oh yes, we backed the Fijians because we are jointly chartering an airplane, a small jet, 737. It has Royal Tongan Airline on one side and Air Pacific on the other side. When it comes to Tonga it will have the Royal Tongan side towards the terminal building, and when it goes to Fiji it has the Air Pacific side towards the terminal building!

IJ: That’s lovely, that’s genuine cooperation isn’t it!. Looking at that process, ‘it’s time for us to take full independence’, who did the main initiative come from, from Tonga or the British?

TT: From Tonga.

IJ: How was that done? Do you just write a letter to the British Foreign Office?

TT: We just talked about it, and they talked about it in London as well. Tonga was a protected state, they had to pass an Act in the British Parliament to remove us.

IJ: I’ve seen the photograph, sir, of you and the flag as the Union Jack is lowered in 1970, do you recall that occasion?

TT: It happened to be lowered at the consulate, but it was time to lower it anyway because it was evening. It wasn’t lowered at the other flagstaff because it always flew the Tongan flag.

IJ: It was as you say, it would be put up again tomorrow at the consulate. Did you have anything going through your mind as this happened, this historic moment?

TT: Yes, the point is rivalries were between the great powers themselves. Tonga was a friend of all of them.

IJ: It’s difficult in this country to talk as one does in other countries about the colonial power withdrawing, because it was never here, but I wonder if you have got any thoughts about whether the British influence left any bad things behind?

TT: Oh no, but of course most of our dealings in trade and so on were with Australia and New Zealand. Much more, because they were closer and they bought products from Tonga and we bought supplies from them. Right now our chief trading partner is Japan. We just helped a fund for the earthquake victims after this earthquake in Kobe. We always had good relations with the Japanese.

IJ: You really have pulled that one off haven’t you. It’s true, you don’t have an enemy in the world!

TT: It’s counterproductive to have enemies, but you can’t have too many friends, the more you have the better!

IJ: Looking back over, it was the order of 100 years wasn’t it, that there was this strong, major treaty with Britain, what positive things do you think that left with Tonga?

TT: Well I think it discouraged other great powers from interfering with Tonga, that’s the main thing. It allowed us to just do what we liked to do. As I said, most of our practical day-to-day relationships were with Australia and New Zealand.

IJ: I wonder, Sir, with hindsight, how would it have been different here, do you think, the major treaty had been made with Germany, or France, or America and not –

TT: Well France of course was an ally in WWI and WWII of Britain. Western Samoa was a German colony, it had to be invaded and taken over, the Germans couldn’t protect Western Samoa, because they’re a major land power in Europe but not a naval power. They had more naval power in WWI.

IJ: Reparations took care of that! It is possible I suppose that not so much myself, being a New Zealander, but that I might have been having to struggle along to speak to you in French, and we might have not been having orange juice but a glass of white wine. I wonder what effect that might have had on the kingdom?

TT: Yes well our original treaty with France was with Napoleon III, it allowed Catholic missionaries to come to Tonga. They were only interested in the protection of the Catholic Church. We maintained very good relations with the French Pacific territories. In fact I opened a new university in Papeete, a new French University.

IJ: So you believe in working with whomever in the region.

TT: Yes.

IJ: In a way this is joking, almost last question Your Majesty, but there was talk that New Zealand and Tonga should become one nation in a sense. Did you think that was ever a starter?

TT: Well, the talk I think was done by a New Zealand prime minister, not by Tonga! But we’ve had a very good relationship with New Zealand.

IJ: You never, sir, had anything to do with colonialism. As you look at the region and the experience of the countries which were colonies - colonialism still a thoroughly negative, bad thing?

TT: Well there were some negative results, for example the importation of Indian labour into Fiji. Then of course the Fijians gave themselves away, so they had no say in the immigration policies and the Indians were really important to support the sugar industry. You have to have Indians or you have no sugar.

IJ: So in your view, a colonial blunder?

TT: Yes. Of course what they should have done is to bring them for a term of years and after that repatriate them, but they were never repatriated, and they were never repatriated from other places like the Caribbean and Malaysia, Singapore and so on.

IJ: Do think, sir, this is one of the things that was in the minds of your ancestors that they would not allow others to be imported into this country?

TT: We had a law that prohibited it.

IJ: What is very evident through the history and indeed your current practice is that if you like, Tonga is prepared to and delighted to work with others, but is not if you like, for sale.

TT: That’s quite right.