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Savage Island: An Account of a Sojourn in Niue and Tonga

Chapter XI — Tonga Revisited

page 152

Chapter XI
Tonga Revisited

Our holidays were over; our real work was now to begin. As we steamed past the islet of Atatá and opened the low, monotonous shores of Tongatabu, stretching crescent-wise as far as the eye could reach, I wondered how the impulsive, faction-riven little people would receive me. Ten years ago I had been escorted to the steamer by the Lords and Commons in procession, but I had then been a Tongan Minister of the Crown working my hardest to bolster the independence of my adopted country; now I was an Englishman charged with a very different errand.

There is an apparent inconsistency about the two roles that calls for explanation. Ten years bring many changes in the circumstances of little states. When I was last in Tonga, Hawaii was independent; three great Powers were still wrangling over Samoa; countless islands in the Pacific were yet unclaimed. All had fallen now, page 153and eyes had been cast upon Tonga—the last independent state in the Pacific. She could make no resistance; her seizure was only a question of months, unless she had a powerful protector. For political, strategic, and geographical reasons England could not afford to tolerate a foreign Power in possession of the best harbour in the Pacific islands within striking distance of Fiji. And with the new agreement between England and Germany the last prop to Tongan independence had been cut away. Until then, the coaling station ceded to the Germans had been a guarantee against seizure by another Power, while British interests had acted as a check upon Germany. But now that the Germans had ceded all their treaty rights to us, we had either to take what was given to us, or leave the field open to others. In extending our protection, therefore, to the Tongans we were serving their interests even more than our own.

The reports which we had heard in Sydney, Fiji, and Samoa were very conflicting. All agreed in one thing—that, since the newspapers announcing us had been received, our arrival was awaited with anxiety; but, while some declared that the Tongans would resist the loss of their independence to the last man, others asserted page 154that they would not be satisfied with a Protectorate, but would ask for annexation. I flattered myself that I knew the little people too well to believe the latter forecast.

As the white line of houses that marked the capital grew in definition, I began to notice changes. There stood the palace and its church as trim as ever within the stone-walled compound, but to the westward, where a native could be seen running up the British ensign, a wooden bungalow had replaced the picturesque old native-built consulate. These had been prosperous years with the Tongans; there was not a native-built house to be seen; trim little weather-board cottages had sprung up everywhere, and in the vacant space beside the government offices of my day there now stood a pretentious wooden building, the new House of Parliament. Naturally the traders, who had had the erecting of all these, had prospered too, and the line of stores on the eastern side of the town were resplendent in new paint. Two houses only in all the half-mile—ruinous, rain-washed, and neglected—told their own tale. They belonged to old Tungi and his son Tukuaho, my dear lamented colleague; with them and with their owners the years had dealt unkindly, as I shall presently relate.

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The town was asleep in the sun; its trim, grassy streets stretching away inland were utterly deserted; it was like a toy town, fresh-painted from the shop before the miniature inhabitants have been taken out of their packing box. Nukualofa is, indeed, unlike any other town in the world. Not long ago a friend of mine encountered an American tourist, just landed from a steamer, gaping at a street corner where four ways meet, and asked him what he was looking at. "Sir," he replied, "they tell me that this is the business quarter of this capital, and I'm going to watch these four grass-walks till I see a human being. But I've wasted ten minutes, and I'll have to give it up."

We were boarded by my friend, Dr. Donald Maclennan, who, as the only practitioner in the group, is the hardest-worked man in Tonga. He has had a remarkable career. A Scotsman, educated in Canada, he practised first in San Francisco and afterwards in Hawaii, where he became a close friend of the native queen and the royalist party. When the Revolution of 1893 resulted in annexation by the United States, he made a tour round the Pacific islands without a definite intention of settling, and chanced to reach Tonga when the government was in desperate need page 156of a medical officer. He accepted the post temporarily and has remained ever since, having by his skill, his independence, his distaste for politics, and his unselfish and fearless devotion to duty, inspired extraordinary confidence in the king, the people, and the Europeans—a feat which no foreigner has ever accomplished before.

It being necessary that we should take up our quarters on shore, we accepted Dr. Maclennan's hospitality with an alacrity that was almost indecent, since we knew, and he did not, the tax that we were to levy upon him. He had to submit to our society, to endless interruptions from messengers, and to an invasion by the entire court retinue on a memorable night when he was kept up till half-past two to witness the signing of the treaty in his dining-room. But he bore it all with untiring good humour to the end, and buried us beneath a load of obligation that would weigh very heavily upon me if he were conscious of it.

If any of us flattered himself that the town would wake up when it learned of our arrival, he was disappointed. Flags, it is true, fluttered up to the head of every staff, but the beach and the streets were still deserted. At three o'clock we ran the Tongan ensign to the mast-page 157head and saluted it, and the report of the first gun did certainly produce some stir. Little Tongan guardsmen began to bustle about the guard-room at the shore end of the wharf; presently a score of them hauled out a couple of five-pounders mounted on iron carriages, and trundled them to the foot of the flagstaff. The Tongan ensign fluttered down; the Jack was run up in its place and saluted with remarkable precision and regularity, for the guns must have been dangerously hot before the twenty-one had been fired. Presently a boat was manned, and a burly gentleman in frock-coat and silk hat, whom even at that distance I could recognise as Tui Belehake, embarked in her and came on board.

The lineal descendant of the gods had carried the ten years easily. His hair was a shade greyer, but the brightness of his eye and the natural gaiety of his laugh were not abated. With the exception of poor Tukuaho, all my old friends were well; they had heard of my coming through the newspapers, and rejoiced at it, though they knew not the cause (and here the hereditary laugh carried a tremor of nervousness); a princess had been born to the king six weeks before, and he, as His Majesty's page 158father, chuckled at the thought of being a grandfather, and touched lightly on the still burning question of the king's marriage, which had not disturbed him, for all it had threatened revolution. And "Misa Beika" was back again. He laughed long and loud at this admission and the reminiscences that it evoked.

I must here digress to explain what had taken place since my term of office ten years before. In 1893 King George had died, at the age of ninety-seven, of a chill supposed to have been brought on by his obstinate habit of bathing at daybreak in the sea, and had been buried in a huge mound thrown up in the public square of Nukualofa, known as the Malaekula, or Red Square. Contrary to expectation, his great great-grandson, Taufa'ahau, had succeeded him without disturbance, under the title of George Tubou II. Not long after his accession he had dismissed Tukuaho, appointing him governor of Vavau, and had made Sateki, my auditor-general, premier in his stead. For a time the premier had had an European clerk, but the native government had gradually come to dispense with all Europeans except the Customs staff. This meant, of course, that it had sought un-official and irresponsible advice from traders, page 159and, during the last few months, the government was said to have been in the hands of a Hebrew firm, which contracted for the public supplies. In the eighth year of the king's reign it was felt that it was time for him to marry. Overtures are said to have been made to more than one Polynesian princess, but public feeling ran high in favour of Ofa, a near kinswoman of Tukuaho, and therefore a chief woman of the Haatakalaua line. The betrothal was announced, and preparations had already been made for the royal wedding, when the king announced that he preferred Lavinia, Kubu's daughter, who, though descended from the Tui Tonga on her father's side, inherited inferior rank and congenital weakness from her mother. A meeting of all the high chiefs was summoned in Nukualofa, which recommended the king to make Ofa his queen; but His Majesty's reply, that, if he were not allowed to marry Lavinia, he would not marry at all, threw the meeting into confusion, and he was permitted to have his way under protest. It seems that the Lavinia party, though numerically inferior, trotted out that ancient stalking horse, the Constitution, to prove to their antagonists that inasmuch as "it shall not be lawful for any member of the royal family, who is page 160likely to succeed to the throne, to marry any person without the consent of the king," the king was free to give consent to his own marriage with any person he pleased. This argument, so characteristic of the sophistry of the Tongan mind, was gravely set forth to me in a letter from my old colleague Asibeli Kubu, the father of His Majesty's preference; it reminded me of a legal judgment delivered during Mr. Baker's term of office, when two men, indicted for the theft of a pig, were sentenced to ten years' penal servitude for conspiracy, because in the evidence it had transpired that by mutual agreement one of the accused had kept watch while the other did the stealing. "Therefore," said his worship, "not only did you steal the pig, which is a small matter in itself, but you conspired together to steal it; and having sought in the index of this code for the clause concerning conspiracy, I find the minimum sentence to be ten years. To that term I sentence you, and you may think yourselves fortunate that I do not punish you for the theft as well."

To have the "Konisitutone" thrown at their heads was more than the nobles had reckoned upon. They might be wrong in law, but they knew what they wanted, and they broke up their page 161meeting grumbling, and departed, each to his own home. The king, boycotted by all but his immediate adherents and the relations of his bride, kept close within the palace compound; the marriage feast was but sparsely attended, and the dissatisfaction of the people vented itself in attempts to burn public buildings and the houses of unpopular members of the royal party. The last of these incendiary attempts had occurred shortly before my visit.

Meanwhile, my old acquaintance Mr. Shirley Waldemar Baker, a person so remarkable in the Pacific that it will some day be a public duty to write his biography, had turned up again. Having spent several years in Auckland after his deportation by the High Commissioner, he had made overtures to the Free Church of Tonga to accept him as their president. The Conference considered his application with the utmost gravity, and replied that, while they would be glad to welcome him as a minister, the office of president happened to be filled. That the Church of his own creation should treat him so was more than he could bear, and his next letter was a grim intimation that they would hear of him again. Those who knew him best may have felt an uncomfortable shiver at the threat, but none in page 162his wildest dreams can have guessed how he would carry it out. For when Mr. Baker came back to Tonga it was as an emissary of the Church of England, speciously introduced to the Tongans as the Jiaji a Vika (the Church of Queen Victoria). Rebuffed by the Bishop of Honolulu, to whom the Bishop of London has delegated his authority over this part of the globe, he had persuaded the Bishop of Dunedin to give him a licence as lay reader. It is no part of my business to criticise this bishop's action, or to relate how the bishops of New Zealand intervened to dissuade him from going himself to Tonga to support his protégé, but I may be pardoned for asking under what authority of custom or ecclesiastical law one bishop can issue a licence for what is virtually the diocese of another.

The new Church was just the political weapon that the party of the rejected princess wanted. It offered a proof of discontent, it was a new experiment in Churches, and, above all, it annoyed the king. It was safer than burning houses, because, at the first whisper of reprisal, you could stand boldly forth and quote the Constitution about liberty of conscience. At the time of our visit Ofa had joined the new page 163Church with most of her relations; and poor blind Tungi, her kinsman, had so far conquered his aversion to Mr. Baker as to permit services to be held in his premises. Mr. Baker had been careful not to define his exact position to the Tongans. All that a stole and surplus could do towards making him an ordained clergyman had been done. He did not bother the Tongans with any nonsense about Church government; the one thing he did understand was making a collection, and he held his first while I was at Nukualofa. Something under three hundred adherents subscribed nearly £200. I asked Ofa who kept the money. Had they churchwardens?

"Churchwardens," she said, "what are they?"

I explained. No, they had no churchwardens.

"Then who keeps the money?"

"Misa Beika."

It was melancholy to see how cruelly Fortune had used Tungi, whom I had left the most influential chief in Tonga. While his son Tukuaho was still alive his sight had begun to fail, and he had made the voyage to Samoa to consult a German oculist, who pronounced his case to be beyond hope. Hardly had night closed in upon him when Tukuaho, his only son and the most popular chief in Tonga, died suddenly of heart page 164disease while riding with the king. Then came the jilting of Ofa, his near kinswoman, an insult to his family which must have hit him hard. He had retired to his little house in Nukualofa and was living quietly on the rents of the adjoining property, which he had enjoyed undisputed for many years, when the government suddenly put in a claim to it and dispossessed him, reducing him to poverty. I do not know the rights of the matter; I only know that the man who, failing royal issue, stood next to the throne, who was the most courtly and imposing of the chiefs of the old time, the last repository of ancient lore and tradition, was reduced to living in a hovel in which you would not stable a horse, blind, deserted, and in utter penury. A few weeks after our departure the last link with the past was severed by his death.

Beyond the birth of a princess three weeks before our arrival nothing had occurred to change the position. The king was in voluntary confinement in his compound, estranged from his chiefs, and consorting with three of his ministers, his kinsmen, and his guardboys, who tumbled into uniform only when a foreign ship was in port. The government of the country was nominally in the hands of old Sateki, my old page break
Uiliame TungiThe Blind Chief of Hahake

Uiliame Tungi
The Blind Chief of Hahake

page 165auditor-general, then regarded as a sort of Sea-green Incorruptible, but now openly accused of acting at the behest of the firm of Hebrew merchants who were contractors to the government The Treasury was empty and the salaries in arrear, but the country was not in debt, probably because its credit was not strong enough to carry a loan. The chronic depletion of the Treasury was due partly to the lighthearted Polynesian habit of turning money into goods on the first opportunity, and partly to the light-fingered ease with which the Treasury officials helped themselves to the contents of the till. It reminded me of old times to hear that a sum of £2,000 was missing from one of the sub-treasuries; that the treasurer, put upon his trial, had challenged an audit; and that the auditors, after completing their task, had stated that they were not quite sure whether the money had ever been received, or, if it had been received, whether it had been paid out legitimately or purloined. The foreshore was littered with dressed stone, intended for the thief-proof treasury which had been projected even in my time—"to keep out the rats," as the Chief Justice remarked facetiously, "only the rats that gnaw the money-bags will come in through page 166the door." The Europeans made much of these defalcations as a factor in the general discontent, but in reality the grumbling was confined to the European traders, who naturally object to pay taxes under such conditions, for the Tongan does not greatly care what becomes of his money after he has paid it.