Published: November 2007

Two Worlds of Tonga

Tonga Feature

While the King Sleeps

The island nation embraces both age-old tradition and modern values, including 99 percent literacy rate. Now democracy is astir in the South Pacific’s last monarchy.

By Matthew Teague
Photograph by Amy Toensing

The royal guards slouched a little, and wore pith helmets. They stood looking at their feet, so that their faces disappeared behind the helmet brims. One guard swept a boot across the gravel, as though an explanation might lie hidden underneath.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It could be a while.”

The crown prince of Tonga had sent word earlier that morning that he would grant me an audience. Now the sun stood high overhead, and we all sweated in the royal driveway, clearing our throats and crunching the gravel underfoot.

The prince’s mansion sat on a high hill overlooking much of the kingdom. It’s the last true monarchy in the Pacific, and one of the last in the world. A few weeks earlier in the summer, the beloved and ancient king had checked into a hospital in New Zealand. Now his unloved son, the prince, prepared to ascend the throne.

Prince Tupouto‘a could live at the royal palace by the sea, but he prefers the sprawling hilltop redoubt. Tongans call it “the villa,” when they speak of it. It’s a neoclassical affair, with marble columns and a pool where he sometimes plays with toy boats. On this particular day the guards washed the crown prince’s cars: a jaunty Jaguar, a sport-utility vehicle, and a London black taxicab. His Royal Highness had seen the taxi in England, a guard explained, and decided to ship one back home. No one seemed to know why, and I promised to ask the prince.

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