A Night with the King of Tonga

In 1985 David Lange made a short tour of the South Pacific as a prelude to a meeting of the South Pacific Forum in Rarotonga. The main business of the meeting was to adopt the long-discussed South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone but even then only eight members were ready to sign it, on a table under the palms looking over the sea. Thereafter the Prime Minister made a short visit to Tonga.

We were accommodated in Tufumahina, the royal guest house where our only fellow guest was a rather dodgy American evangelist who specialised in prayer breakfasts which were enthusiastically backed by the King who was rarely up in time for breakfast.

Our first call was on the King in his Victorian wooden palace. We sat in a drawing-room furnished with silk curtains and cushions, nursing English cups of fine china and plates with cucumber sandwiches and listening to the royal band playing a medley of English dance tunes outside. It was mid-afternoon, the hottest time of the day, and the meeting was marked by restful silences.  At one point the King roused himself to ask Lange if he knew what was being played. He didn’t and both turned to me who didn’t know either. The restful silence resumed and we were finally able to take our leave as the band burst into God Defend New Zealand.

I had not expected the ebullient Lange to be so quiet and the King, whom I had known from his visits to Samoa as Crown Prince, was a famously energetic talker.  So the omens did not look good as we drove to our next appointment with Prince Tuipelehake, the King’s younger brother who was Prime Minister and a man of few words. I warned David Lange that the conversation might be sticky but if all else failed he should ask about Tuipelehake’s interest in growing vanilla.

The three of us clustered round one end of the Cabinet table. The talk flowed like laughter in a funeral parlour and when Lange looked at me I nodded.  It was time to play the vanilla card.  David said, “Prime Minister, I understand that you are interested in growing vanilla.”      “Yes”, said Tuipelehake and silence fell again.  Lange was rightly derisive of my advice as we drove to the next engagement, the opening of the New Zealand High Commission building.  But the Lange enquiry must have started something. When everyone toured the upstairs offices of the building, Tuipelehake, whose legs were not good, sat on a nearby couch. I sat beside him to keep him company and received a ten-minute lecture on the value and disadvantages of the vanilla bean.

That night the High Commissioner, Priscilla Williams, gave a dinner to mark the occasion.       It was perfectly done but David Lange, perhaps tired by the journey, was not his usual entertaining self. I ended up with the King in a small snug and we knew one another well enough from my time in Samoa to have an agreeable South Pacific gossip. The King  reappeared as the good talker he was with energetic and sometimes arrestingly unorthodox opinions and I enjoyed myself.  By 11pm, though, I had just begun to feel a little weary when David Lange appeared in the doorway behind the King, making merry motions of forthcoming departure. I explained to His Majesty that Mr Lange regretted having to leave so early but that he had left Rarotonga before dawn and needed a rest.  The King agreed heartily, saying that he had no such difficulty, having not got up till noon.  My spirits sank, having hoped that His Majesty would have noted that I must also have got up before dawn.

The royal conversation went on unstoppably as I became sleepier and sleepier.  I had given up any hope of relief when near 2 am the British High Commissioner came into the room.  He of course, like everyone else, was not free to leave until the King did and in what may have been a cunning diplomatic plan brought some photos of a recent picnic. The King got to his feet to examine them more clearly whereupon the band, crouching in the foliage outside, burst into the national anthem.  We all stood up immediately and the King said regretfully, “I suppose I will have to go now.”  With insincere cries of “What a shame to have to end such an evening” we got the King to the door and into his car.   I fell asleep on my way back to the guest house.

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