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

Chapter XII — The King and His Ministers

page 167

Chapter XII
The King and His Ministers

Punctually at ten next morning we made our official landing, taking with us Her Majesty's presents to the King of Tonga—her portrait and a sword of honour inscribed with his name. The kodak representations of our procession were not flattering, but the large crowd of Tongans in the public square was too much preoccupied to perceive the humour in the show. For after passing the guard of honour on the wharf, we had to skirt the flagstaff, and we were told afterwards that, according to Mr. Baker, we should halt there and run up the Jack in place of the Geneva cross that fluttered aloft. But we passed the fatal spot, to the evident relief of the natives sitting on the grass and the disappointment of the Europeans who had their kodaks ready levelled.

The entire Tongan army was drawn up in the palace compound as a guard of honour, and its page 168band played our national anthem very creditably as we approached. While the rank and file numbered about thirty, as in my time, I noticed that the roll of officers had increased until they formed a third line nearly as close as that of the men: their uniforms were so spotless and correct that some of my companions mistook them for Europeans. We were ushered into the throne-room, where two rows of chairs were drawn up facing one another, each with a be-crowned armchair in the centre. On these, after the first greetings, we took our seats. I knew the room well, and it called up many memories, for here old King George had often received me informally, and all the state functions and receptions of foreign officials, which the old king disliked so heartily and underwent so cheerfully, had taken place. At an earlier date, when Mr. Baker had sought protection in the palace with his family, it had been Mrs. Baker's parlour, and from that epoch dated the fairy lights, wax flowers, and other incongruities. The faces of the king's suite were all familiar, for they had been my own colleagues when I was a Tongan like themselves. There was Fatafehi in his sober suit of black; Kubu, now swelled to the dignity of a sovereign's in-page 169law, in a French-looking uniform with a cocked hat; Sateki, greyer and more care-lined than of old, and the two uniformed aides-de-camp, both famous cricketers in my day, but now inclining to obesity. Towering above all was the king, something over six feet in height and so broad in proportion that he cannot weigh much less than twenty stone. His tight uniform tunic, which enhanced his bulk, was covered with orders, which on closer examination proved to be the various classes of some Tongan decoration instituted by himself, designed by a jeweller in Sydney, and not yet bestowed upon lesser men. He has a broad, intelligent, good-humoured face, with black, languid eyes, and a strong family likeness to his kinsman, poor Tukuaho. His manners are scarcely less genial and engaging, though he has not much taste for the society of Europeans, who cannot help feeling in his company qu'il ne montre jamais le fond du sac. Of his intelligence it is enough to say that, though he has never been abroad save for a few weeks spent in Auckland, he speaks English fairly well and reads the English newspapers; that he conducts his own correspondence with a typewriter, and can write Pitman's system of shorthand with facility. Though there are said page 170to be flaws in his nature which prevent him from becoming a strong or popular ruler, he is by no means wanting in character. He has never been tempted by strong liquors, like so many of the Polynesian chiefs; his private life is regular; he has always known how to hold himself aloof from the lower sort of European; and I do not doubt that the insincerity of which he is so generally accused is really due to the desire of pleasing and the dislike of refusing a request. His health is not all that could be desired. Remembering the early death of all his family, until he alone was left to succeed his great-grandfather, we could not regard his stoutness, which had been characteristic of all of them, as a healthy sign, especially when we heard that he only took exercise in the palace compound at the direct order of his doctor. His mother and his uncles had all died of fatty degeneration of the heart when under forty, and none were so stout as he at twenty-seven.

A foreign language is apt to rust on the tongue after disuse for ten years, and my speech, presenting my credentials and the Queen's presents, ran less trippingly than I could have wished. But words came back to me as I talked, and, having plenty of time before me, I left politics page break
George Tubou II., King of Tonga

George Tubou II., King of Tonga

page 171alone. Then came the usual presentation of the naval officers, and a promise that the king would visit H.M.S. Porpoise on the morrow.

Next morning we sent on shore for the royal standard of Tonga to hoist at the masthead when the king came on board. His Majesty came off in his barge, manned by a crew clad in black jumpers and valas fastened at the waist with a red sash, his band playing the Tongan national anthem as he left the wharf. Mounting the gangway alone, he seemed a little bewildered at finding a guard of honour drawn up to receive him, and not a little heated by the weight of his uniform and the orders that plastered it. His suite, consisting of Kubu, Fatafehi, and his aidesde-camp, quite filled the captain's cabin, and being the only medium of communication between hosts and guests, I found the burden of conversation rather difficult, for good manners in Tonga require that on formal occasions chiefs should confine themselves to monosyllables, and have their talking done for them. Once on deck, however, the ball rolled of itself, for the captain had rigged a mine, which the king fired with a button, sending a volcano of water into the air and slaying innumerable fish. The men then went through gun drill with the six-inch page 172guns, which, it was explained, would carry with precision to the farthest limits of the island, and ended up with the imaginary ramming of an enemy. As the king left the side the three-pounders roared out a salute of twenty-one guns, perhaps the part of the entertainment which the king enjoyed best, for, whatever our mission might portend, it had so far left him the outward symbol of royalty.

That afternoon the draft treaty was sent to him, and then the tussle began. Besides the acknowledgment of a Protectorate, which would prevent the country falling into other hands, two definite concessions had to be made. In the port of Neiafu, in Vavau, Tonga possesses the best harbour in the Pacific—a land-locked basin with an easily defended entrance three or four miles long. In 1876, as the price of her treaty with Germany, Tonga had ceded a coaling-station in this harbour, and the Germans had dumped some twenty tons of coal upon their concession as a proof of occupation, and had thereafter forgotten all about it. Though we had succeeded to their treaty rights, it was necessary, not only to obtain the consent of the Tongans to the transfer, but to acquire the site for a fort to defend the coaling-station—a matter which had page break
A Tongan Girl.

A Tongan Girl.

page 173been neglected by the Germans. The second matter was more important, Tonga had made three treaties, ceding her jurisdiction over the subjects of the Powers concerned to their respective consuls, but, inasmuch as England only had a consular court in the group, it followed that Germans and Americans who committed a crime could not be punished for it, while the subjects of other Powers, in theory amenable to the native courts, in practice were free to break the law with impunity. The Samoa Convention gave the jurisdiction over Germans to us, but the experience of Zanzibar has taught us that a Protectorate without jurisdiction over all foreigners is a very unsatisfactory arrangement. The only person who could legally confer the jurisdiction over foreigners upon our courts was the King of Tonga, who nominally possessed it, and this he had to be asked to do. If he had been anxious to part with his responsibilities there would have been little difficulty, but Tongans share with schoolboys a light-hearted contempt for the dangers of responsibility, and are, besides, rather proud of their law courts. We soon found that it was to be a long and tortuous business, calling for all the patience that we had at command.
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It was common gossip that the most influential chiefs and a large number of the people were secretly in favour of a Protectorate, but that the real obstacle was the king. Not long before my visit he had received a letter from the deposed queen of Hawaii, greeting him as the last independent sovereign of the Polynesian race, and condoling with him upon the threatened loss of his independence. Fully alive to the advantages it would give him in securing him from the constant demands for compensation pressed upon him by foreigners, he feared that if he voluntarily ceded a Protectorate his opponents would accuse him of having sold his country; and he thought, no doubt, that it was the first step towards depriving him of the outward pomp of royalty which was so dear to him. One cannot but understand his attitude, though it was inconsistent with the welfare of his country.

At my first private interview with the king as in duty bound I asked to be presented to the queen and the new-born princess. The queen was still confined to her room. His Majesty led me upstairs. The whole of the wall space on the staircase is filled by a colossal equestrian portrait of the first Kaiser, very ill-painted, and so large that the frame must either have been page 175carried in piecemeal or the palace built round it. It belonged to the period when the Germans acquired their coaling-station and Mr. Baker was decorated with the Red Eagle of Prussia. There are four large rooms on the upper floor, three of them furnished in European style, and the fourth used as a lumber-room for the toys and litter which Polynesian chiefs buy so readily and tire of so quickly. We found Her Majesty in the best bedroom, which is furnished with a four-post bed and Brussels carpet. Everything was immaculately clean, and there was nothing to show that the room did not belong to an European lady. The queen wore a pink silk wrapper, and was sitting in a low chair with her brown baby on her knee. Her illness, which at one time had caused great anxiety, accounted for her pallor and her delicate appearance. Though she is not handsome, her slenderness and her delicacy of feature give her a certain air of distinction, and, like all Tongan women of good family, she has pretty manners. Having made my christening present and kissed the baby, I took my leave. During the queen's illness Dr. Maclennan had a busy time, for, though the king has an implicit belief in European treatment, the old ladies about the court insist upon administering nos-page 176trums of their own on the principle of "more medicine, quicker cure." It is only by simulated outbursts of indignation that Dr. Maclennan can get his orders obeyed.

In surgery alone do the Tongans frankly admit their helplessness. An old shed in our host's compound had been hastily converted into an operating-room, in order that the presence of a naval surgeon to assist in operations might be turned to account. For several days in succession the two doctors were operating on bad cases of elephantiasis, the relations of the patients camping outside to act as hospital nurses. Even under these unfavourable conditions the patients all made rapid recovery, but there was one painful case in which the patient deliberately preferred death. A young man, while pig-shooting in the bush, had put a charge of shot into his own leg, shattering the ankle. There was nothing for him but amputation, but when his relations heard that he must lose his foot, they refused to allow the operation. They would try herbs, they said, and for a day or two they brought reports that he was better. Gangrene at last set in, and while there was yet time I went to reason with the lad's mother. Secretly, I fear, the reflection that if he lived the lad would page 177be a helpless cripple on their hands had some weight with them. At last they were brought so far as to put him on a litter to carry him to the operating-room, but their hearts failed them in the end and he never came. The lad himself seemed to prefer death, so great is the Polynesian's horror of mutilation.

It is not always for human beings that Dr. Maclennan is asked to prescribe. Having been much troubled by his neighbours' pigs, he gave public warning of his intention of shooting intruders at sight. The very next night he executed his threat by moonlight, and heard the trespasser make off with an agonised squeal. Next morning he received an urgent summons from the inspector of police, a particular friend of his, to see his favourite pig which had been taken violently ill. One glance was enough to show him what ailed it, and he said, "The pig is very ill; it cannot live many hours, but if you kill and eat it at once, the meat will be perfectly wholesome." The owner took his advice, but unhappily, in carving the meat, he came across a bullet. It cost the doctor more than the value of the pig to patch the friendship up. By dint of a happy mingling of kindliness and mock ferocity he contrives to get his orders page 178obeyed, and the people have an extraordinary respect and affection for him.

I had more than one interview with the chief justice—not the somnolent old gentleman of ten years ago, but William Maealiuaki, who was then but an over-intelligent Radical member of Parliament. Persecution (he was an exile for conscience' sake in Mr. Baker's time), prosperity, or promotion had not been good for him; he had parted with even that little meed of modesty which adorns even the loftiest eminence. He took his duties very seriously, however, and whenever he came to see me it was to resolve some legal doubt that had arisen in the course of his duties on the bench. "You see," he said one day, "I have to be more careful now that there are loya listening to my judgments."

"Lawyers?" I inquired in surprise.

"Yes," he said, with pride; "and that is your work."

It was, I confess with shame, only too true. In Mr. Baker's days no one knew the law—not even the magistrates—and, as judgments went by favour, a suitor lost nothing by pleading his own case. But the code which I had drafted for them changed all that. It was furnished with an index, and a copy could be bought page 179for less than a dollar. As soon as it transpired that there was nothing in it to preclude one Tongan from pleading for another, every native who could talk better than he could work took to loafing about the police courts, offering himself as a mouthpiece to the litigants. His fees were tentative at first—"give me what you like if I get you off," and so on—but now he likes to be paid in advance, though you can brief him with a sucking-pig and keep him going with an armful of yams as a "refresher." The loya who enjoyed the largest practice were those who had the code at their finger-ends, and had acquired-a high reputation for obscuring the issue and confusing the common sense of the court.

The chief justice also gave me a summary of the birth and death returns for the nine years ending December, 1899. I do not regard them with any confidence, partly because I know the haphazard way in which the registers are kept, and partly because, assuming the total population of the kingdom to be not less than 19,000,* the death-rate is represented as low as eleven per thousand and the birth-rate as high page 180as twenty-six per thousand, which is very unlikely, seeing that families of more than three living children are rare. Nevertheless, the Tongans are all agreed that, in spite of a devastating epidemic of measles in 1893, there has been an increase of population of over 200 in the nine years; the returns say 203. I think myself that the population is stationary, or slightly decreasing, but that there has been no very marked decline, as in Hawaii, New Zealand, and Fiji since the beginning of the nineteenth century. The people, moreover, are so fearful of foreign epidemics and so sensitive about quarantine that there is not much likelihood of a sudden decline for many years to come.

It was very pleasant to renew acquaintance with the European colony at the Consulate. Many of them are prosperous merchants, and their appearance of rude health justified the saying that the climate of Tonga is the healthiest in the Pacific. The little gathering did not pass off without incident. While I was talking to two new arrivals an elderly and rather feeble little gentleman in black entered the room, and my two visitors hastily seized their hats and took their leave before I had had time to exchange a word with them. The features of my page 181new visitor seemed familiar, but the suspicion that crossed my mind while he was talking affably of the weather and the earthquake and other general topics died away, as I noticed how decrepit and broken he seemed. Suddenly through the open window I saw a party of new arrivals stop short, hesitate for a moment, and then turn tail, and knowing that there was but one man in all Tonga who could produce this effect, I recognised my visitor. It was Mr. Shirley Waldemar Baker himself. He was greatly changed from the masterful and prosperous minister of King George, whose name had been a byword throughout the Pacific and Australasia. His gains were all gone; years of hard living had played havoc with his health and prematurely aged him; he seemed to have lost even the self-confidence behind which he had concealed his lack of education. And yet even in this broken state he was able to make himself feared. Why he came and what he wanted I do not know; his motive can scarcely have been friendly after the criticism of his proceedings that I had been obliged to publish ten years before. Probably he wished to prove to the adherents of his new Church that he was on terms with the authorities.

* The Mission returns put the total population at 19,968: Tongatabu, 8,454; Haapai, 5,087; Vavau, 4,589; Niuatobutabu, 710; Niuafoou, 1,128. The males exceed the females by 454, or 2.2 per cent., and the adults outnumber the children.