The king during my visit, Tupou IV, enjoyed respect from his people for decades. He even looked royal from a distance—six feet two inches (1.87 meters) tall and weighing up to 460 pounds (210 kilograms). When he was younger, he surfed and dived, and the islanders adored him. But in recent years, as the king’s health failed and his attention wandered, the royal family stumbled into a series of schemes that can only be described as wacky.
The king, for instance, committed millions of dollars trying to convert seawater to natural gas. His oldest son, the crown prince, proposed making their islands a nuclear waste disposal site. The monarchy led an expensive search for oil, despite slim geologic evidence there was any oil to find. They registered foreign ships with giddy abandon, including some that turned out to be, embarrassingly, part of al Qaeda’s fleet. The list goes on.
But the plot that really angered the kingdom’s subjects started in the 1980s, when the king hit on the idea of selling Tongan passports. The world’s most unwanted citizens—and sometimes “wanted”—jumped at the opportunity. Imelda Marcos, for instance, became a Tongan citizen. The sale ultimately rang up 25 million dollars before protests ended it. But that’s when the deal took its weirdest turn: The king turned over the money to an American schemer named Jesse Bogdonoff, whose previous business dealings included selling magnetic bracelets. The king appointed him official court jester. He was the only one in the world, and a royal decree pronounced him “King of Jesters and Jester to the King, to fulfill his royal duty sharing mirthful wisdom and joy as a special goodwill ambassador to the world.”
His first turn as jester was a vanishing act: He invested the kingdom’s money in an insurance scheme and lost it all, then disappeared. The Tongan people, feeling less than mirthful, started to question the role of the royal family. The monarchy seemed increasingly out of touch. The crown prince, for instance, had spent much of his upbringing abroad, educated at Sandhurst and Oxford. He wore impeccably tailored tweed suits and sometimes a monocle. He spoke with a precise British accent, and liked to collect toy soldiers. In 1998 he quit a cabinet position to pursue business interests, and soon he owned the brewery, electric company, a telecommunications company, airline, and more. Watching it all, his people were incredulous, but the prince didn’t seem to care. He told newspapers that without royal guidance, Tongans would “urinate in elevators.” He dismissed Tongan livelihoods, such as “basket weaving or whatever it is these people do.” Increasingly, many Tongans wondered whether the prince hated them. Or more to the point, whether they hated the prince.