Running After Royalty

King Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV of Tonga died last night in Auckland after a long illness. He was 88. I never met him.

Of course, most people would take that last point as read—who on earth expects to meet the reigning monarch of a tiny country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? But I did at least try to meet him. When I was a Ph.D. student I spent seven weeks in Tonga interviewing various public figures about tradition and politics, and of course the King was top of my wishlist. Every week I asked the Palace Office if there was any chance of an audience, and every week was politely declined. He was a busy man, after all, in a country known for its furious pace of life.

It wasn’t that surprising, really. Anything that touched on the political system was a sensitive subject at a time when democratic agitation in Tonga was getting stronger. And I did get the chance to talk with some members of the royal family, which probably yielded more candid interviews. But it was amusing to be told there was no room in his schedule when he found time at one point to see some bloke who was cycling his way around the world. (Via Tonga? Sounds like a shortcut if ever I heard of one. Unless he did it in a diving suit.)

But then sport and exercise were subjects close to the King’s heart. Taufa‘ahau was famously overweight in the 1970s, and virtually every Western report on the man has mentioned it ever since—even now that he’s gone. It’s unfair, really, given that he had slimmed down dramatically by the late 1980s and was looking quite svelte in his later years. (Relatively speaking.) One of my favourite postcards ever was one I sent Jane and my family at the time, showing various photos of the King rowing a skiff, the King riding a bike, and the King jogging around in a nifty tracksuit with bodyguards in tow. You’ve got to love a monarch who fancies himself as Rocky.

And love him Tonga did, despite the constitutional ructions. In much the same way as Elizabeth II, the enormous social change he presided over during his long reign increased people’s affection for their constant figurehead, just as it had for his mother before him. It will be fascinating to see what changes and what doesn’t under his son; not to mention the funeral celebrations, as they’re paradoxically called. I expect those will eclipse even his silver jubilee celebrations.

It would be fascinating to see Tonga again, full stop. I’d love to visit again—there’s an empty beach facing out to ‘Eua I’ve always wanted to spend more time on—but from this side of the world it’s a fair hike. Maybe I could cycle there.

I wonder if that cyclist is blogging his memories of Taufa‘ahau today.

As near as I got to Taufa'ahau Tupou IV in 1993

11 September 2006 · Events

Added by Rory on 11 September 2006.

The funeral procession from the airport to the Royal Palace on Wednesday:

Added by Rory on 15 September 2006.

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