Published: November 2007 Two Worlds of Tonga
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

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.

From the villa a great white driveway descended the hill, sweeping past a fountain and a guardhouse. There it joined the road into Tonga’s capital, a hot and dusty town called Nuku‘alofa, home to a third of the country’s 100,000 inhabitants. At the base of the hill, on the road to town, a woman sat making brooms from palm fronds, hoping to trade them later on in this largely barter economy. Farther toward town, a little yellow food stand bore the slogan “Democracy, not Hypocrisy.” Farther still, the royal tombs stood vast and ageless, where workers prepared for the king’s imminent death. Farthest of all, beyond the prince’s hilltop view, squatters lived at the island’s garbage dump, scrounging for anything salvageable.

There’s a movement afoot among Tongan commoners. While the Western world struggles to plant democracy other places around the globe, in Tonga it’s sprouting from the soil. Its growth has been nurtured by the forces of modernity, which have crashed into Tonga in a relative instant: the ease of air travel and the improvement of technology. Geographic distance no longer means ideological isolation. So the country now finds itself at a moment of decision: stuck midway between the past and future, monarchy and democracy, isolation and global engagement.

The apologetic, pith-helmeted guard trotted away, and returned a few minutes later. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “His Royal Highness is asleep. Everyone is afraid to wake him.”

Tongan royals deserve a measure of fear. Starting about 900 years ago, a long lineage of kings used war and diplomacy to spread Tonga’s influence to other gentler island neighbors, including Samoa and perhaps Fiji. Even today Tonga remains the only country in the Pacific never to be governed by a foreign power.

The country’s history is one of relative isolation, and Tongans are among the most ethnically homogeneous people on the planet. But the culture has been buffeted by waves from afar—explorers, missionaries, swindlers, and suitors all leaving their mark. Captain James Cook arrived in the 1770s, and impressed by the hospitality of the locals (and unaware of their plans to try to kill him), dubbed it the Friendly Isles, a nickname that stuck. When swimming, many Tongans wear clothes, often black, instead of swimsuits, modesty that reflects the nation’s large and conservative Methodist and Mormon populations. Tonga has a literacy rate of 99 percent and claims to produce more Ph.D.’s per capita than other nations in the region, but the country’s largest source of income is money sent home by Tongans who have moved overseas. And Tonga has a 32-seat parliament, but only nine members are elected by the people. The others are selected by the king and the nobles, and all decisions are subject to the king’s approval.

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.

In the 1980s a young man named ‘Akilisi Pohiva emerged as a voice of dissent. He stood in public and railed against the monarchy. Other Tongans laughed at him. He thought differently than they did, and even looked different: Among round people with round features, Pohiva looked like a hawk, with eyes that gazed down either side of a sharp nose. He was jailed twice for speaking against the government.

But after years of royal goofs, Pohiva’s calls for political reform have slowly taken hold, culminating in open unrest in 2005. It started as a strike by the country’s civil employees, who wanted pay increases. But the protest grew into a full-on demand for democracy. Rioters overturned cars, marched the streets, firebombed a royal residence, and—unthinkably, in Tongan culture—threatened bloodshed.

After my first attempt to meet the crown prince, his secretary told me it might be a while before he would see me. So while I waited, I set out to see the kingdom. At the airport outside the capital city, a languorous clerk checked bags for island-hopping flights by Peau Vava‘u, the crown prince’s airline. “Please place your luggage on the scale,” she said, noting the weight with a pencil. It brought strange comfort, in an age of plastic explosives and sniffer dogs, that somewhere in the world an airline still depends on longhand arithmetic.

“And now you,” she said.

“Yes?”

“Please step on the scale.”

The prince’s plane, she explained, was “not new,” and so it was crucial that she total all cargo, from luggage to passengers to pigs. Out on the tarmac I saw just how “not new” the prince’s airplane was: There sat a gleaming Douglas DC-3, left over from the Second World War. Dwight Eisenhower flew in one when he was just a general, and these days they’re rarely seen outside museums, much less flown in daily commercial use. But the prince loves them. After a white-gloved attendant waved the passengers aboard, the ancient Pratt & Whitney radial motors sputtered awake and strained to heave us skyward, riding up and down the waves of wind like a ship on water. I realized, as ukulele music floated through the cabin, that we were flying aboard the prince’s favorite toy airplane.

From high above, Tonga looked like green flecks against a blue background. Its islands are tiny and far-flung: 500 miles (800 kilometers) from one end to the other, and almost all water. The islands fall into three main groups—Vava‘u, Ha‘apai, and Tongatapu—each so different that to the visitor they lack any meaningful connection. Traveling between them feels less like a geographic journey than a chronological one; each island group seems to exist within a different point in the country’s history.

My first destination was the Vava‘u Group: Tonga of the future.

Yes, yes, the boat captain said. We’ve got a couple of sharks off the bow, but they’re only “little ones.” Which would have sounded a good deal more reassuring if we hadn’t just pushed several tourists off the stern.

The sharks disappeared underwater, and the captain, a New Zealander named Allan Bowe, grinned. “They’ll be fine,” he said, laughing. Bowe is a whale hunter, of a peculiar sort. His long gray beard whipped in the wind, and sunlight got lost in the wrinkles around his eyes. Meanwhile the tourists bobbed in the deep water like chum.

Humpback whales migrate north each year from cold Antarctic waters and spend five months among the islands. Big and strong, the whales look like they could swallow a dugout canoe without a burp. Bowe, though, saw an opportunity. On a boating trip to Vava‘u about 15 years ago, he took a leap, diving into the water to splash around with the whales. “It scared me witless at first,” he said. But the humpbacks just nosed around like enormous underwater basset hounds, and in an instant Bowe conceived a new industry: swimming with whales.

Vava‘u draws in dreamers and sailors from around the world; tourists park their yachts in the Port of Refuge and come ashore to sip coffee at The Mermaid. Yachts sail in easily from New Zealand or Hawaii, but to leave they’ve got to sail far east or west to catch homeward trade winds. So, often they simply never leave. Some yacht sailors have stayed anchored off Vava‘u for years, or even lifetimes.

After Allan Bowe’s epiphany about swimming with whales, he bought a boat, outfitted it for the business, and sparked a debate among conservationists and thrill seekers. Scientists haven’t agreed on the impact of swimming with whales. Some people say it disturbs them and their environment, while others argue anything that brings attention to the whales helps save them from hunting.

On Bowe’s boat, batch after batch of tourists plunked into the water and survived despite the sharks. Again and again they climbed back into the boat with tales of a mystical experience. They had communed with nature, they said, and felt the wonder of the moment. So I pulled on a pair of flippers and hopped off the stern along with three other swimmers. We paddled toward a pair of humpbacks, a mother and baby, and almost immediately they turned away. With one mighty swoosh they were gone.

We saw grace there, and beauty and awe, but overwhelmingly I sensed something else. I felt like a man walking on an empty beach, who happens across a couple reclining together on a towel, and suddenly decides to plop down beside them.

The whales seemed, more than anything, annoyed.

The prince’s antique airplane rattled into tiny Lifuka, the main island of the Ha‘apai Group, and parked at the one-room airport. As soon as the pilot cut the engines, a deep silence saturated the island. After the touristy bustle of Vava‘u, Ha‘apai felt like a patch of some other era: Tonga of the past.

A lone car sat outside the airport, with a barefoot man standing beside it, grinning. “Ride?” The island is only a few miles square, and the driver crossed it at little more than a walking pace. This happens all over Tonga, where cars only caught on in recent years, and people drive them as if they were horses. But in Ha‘apai cars barely outnumber horses. The island group is flat, unspoiled, and quiet. The people live simple lives, fishing and farming. They care little for politics and have little exposure to tourism. Many live on Lifuka and keep animals on a nearby island, Uoleva. At low tide they can cross on horseback.

One day I met a young man named Roni who offered to let me come along for a pig feeding on Uoleva. We rode bareback with homemade rope bridles, and the outgoing tide washed over the flanks of the horses. They tripped across a coral seafloor, angling their bodies to lower their profile against the current. We emerged onto the Uoleva beach, and the horses surged from the water, so that we felt like the conquerors of some tiny and faraway new world.

At the grove where he keeps his pigs, Roni climbed a tree and knocked down some coconuts, which we cracked open and drank. He filled a water bowl for the animals and scattered some food. Then he ran and leaped at his horse, vaulting onto its back. Before we left, he trotted around a bit, awash in a sea of tranquility.

The troubles on Tongatapu, the kingdom’s main island—Tonga of the present—seemed centuries away.

After sundown the village of Houma, like every other village on Tongatapu, goes well and truly dark. And on this particular night, dozens of villagers emerged from the blackness into a tin-roofed meeting hall to plot a democracy.

The room was lit only by a few weak fluorescent bulbs, with murals on the walls. The women sat on metal folding chairs with their hands folded in their laps. The men sat in an oval on the floor, around a great six-footed wooden bowl of kava. It’s a gently narcotic drink, made from a local root and served in halved coconut shells. Tongan men drink it down to the bitter residue at the bottom of the shell, then fling the shell toward the big bowl for a refill. Kava tends to slow down time for its drinker, so such sessions often last all night.

The men at the democracy meeting invited me to sit and drink. I did, and worked to keep pace, but it didn’t matter because the drink didn’t seem to have any effect. Everyone just laughed and told jokes about the crown prince and his wealth, and we drank kava. Someone complained about taxes, and we drank kava. Then slowly the eyes of the men in the oval seemed to soften, and their smiles lingered long after each joke had faded. An old man danced in the corner to no music, and another old man with purple hair sat singing softly to himself. Someone gave Prince Tupouto‘a the new name of Prince Tippytoes.

‘Akilisi Pohiva strode into the room, and immediately stood out from his stoned compatriots. Time has not dulled the edges of his hawkish face, or his rhetoric. No one laughs at him now; he’s one of the few members of parliament elected by the people, and the longest serving. As the men and women gathered around, he spoke. “Last year I was charged with sedition,” he told the crowd. The penalty for speaking out, he said, “is indicative of their pressure. They are putting pressure on us.”

Pohiva grew up on a tiny island in the Ha‘apai Group. His parents died when he was a child, so his brothers raised him. There had been no school for boys previously in Ha‘apai, and young Pohiva was one of the original 25 students at the first school. He did well, and later attended the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. He told me that’s where he started to question the Tongan royal family, and learned about democracy. “At the university,” he told me on another day, “I was exposed to the alternatives. The history of other countries, democracy, communism, socialism. That really helped widen my knowledge.”

After several hours of speeches from the meeting attendees, thoughts blurred by kava had resharpened their edges. One of the democracy organizers set a document on a table at the front of the room. It was a petition to wrest power from the royal family by giving more seats in parliament to the people. The organizers didn’t want to destroy the royal family, but to set it aside, after the British model.

One by one they stepped up to the desk, picked up the pen, and signed their names. And so among these strange surroundings, saturated in kava and singing old songs, the Tongans shaped democracy in their own image.

The crown prince, after some weeks, granted an audience.

The guard at the entrance to the property waved me in, and I climbed the hill toward the villa. I waited on the lawn while His Royal Highness finished a meeting with the ambassador from the Netherlands; the king of Tonga was ill in New Zealand and would die within a few weeks, so the crown prince was serving as the country’s interim ruler. Scores of guards lounged in the sun with a variety of brass instruments. When the ambassador emerged, they snapped to attention and played a march until she had climbed into her car and pulled away.

The crown prince’s personal secretary brought me to the villa’s front door. It opened onto a breezeway that separated the house’s two wings. The day was warm, but the villa sat atop a hill, and a cool breeze swept in. The sound of the secretary’s shoes echoed off marble floors and columns. The walls were mostly bare, but painted in the trompe l’oeil style to convey the illusion of depth.

The secretary left me alone in a sitting room that seemed to belong to three or four different people. Ancient religious icons lined the mantel of the fireplace, a collection of Japanese art filled one corner, abstract art hung elsewhere. A piano sat in another corner; the prince plays jazz, and once formed a band in England. The electric outlets were all of the American type, instead of the local current, because the prince prefers appliances bought in the U.S.

A few minutes later the prince entered the room. “Hello,” he said, in a British accent as rich as plum pudding. He extended a hand, with a palm so soft it felt wet. He sat on an ottoman, unbuttoning the jacket of a gray tweed three-piece suit. A woman appeared. She crossed the room with what appeared at first to be an empty silver serving tray, but when she bent toward the prince, he picked up a cigarette.

We chatted for a while about his background and upbringing in England. I asked him about the taxi imported from London, and his desire for it. “Practicality, really,” he said. “A London taxi is easier to get in and out of when you’re wearing a sword.”

There’s another practicality: The cab features curtains in the windows, which the prince pulls shut as he rides around his country, so that his people can’t see him, and he can’t see them. I asked if things would change, once he ascended.

“I think we’ll probably carry on doing things the way we have in the past, which has been very successful,” said the future king.

A few days earlier I had visited Tonga’s school for disabled children, where the computers were donated by Australia, and the vehicle was donated by the people of Japan. It seems unfair, I said, sweeping a hand toward the Japanese art and the view beyond, for the royals and the nobles to have what is relative opulence and wealth, while other, less fortunate people rely on foreign help. Is that an unfair criticism?

He dismissed it with a wave of his hand, noting that despite America’s reputation for wealth and power, it also has poor people in inner cities and rural areas. “Lubbock, Texas,” he said, “and such places.”

His hand rose slowly, and he pulled a long breath from a new cigarette. “Foreign aid is foreign aid,” he said. “So how you treat other people’s kindnesses is not their business, it’s yours.”

I pondered that statement for a bit, and decided I had been told off, in the royal way. The audience didn’t last much longer. At the end I thanked the prince for his time, and for …

“Goodbye,” he said. The sharp interruption stood in such contrast to the warm smile on his face that I didn’t realize for several moments that I had been dismissed. The prince turned his back and walked away, leaving me alone.

I wandered back outside into the sunlight, where the prince’s driver, Harry Moala, washed the royal vehicles. He saw me and smiled, and asked if I needed a ride back to town.

“Sure.”

“How about in the Jaguar?” he said.

We flew down the long royal driveway and reached breakneck speeds on the byroads of Nuku‘alofa. Two months later, in November 2006, most of the city’s downtown would go up in flames during a second wave of political riots. Thick black smoke would hang over the city, as crowds flipped cars, set fire to offices, and threw stones at government buildings, demanding more democratic representation. Eight people would die, hundreds would be arrested, and five democratic leaders—including ‘Akilisi Pohiva—would be charged with sedition.

For now, though, Moala dodged slower cars and reflected on His Royal Highness.

“Up to one week I don’t see him. He just stays in his room. He gets the food taken to his room, up to one week,” he said. “The HRH stays lonely in his room. Maybe he likes to stay by himself. But busy on computer. Stays on the computer all day and night.”

I knew what he meant: The new king remains asleep, and everyone is afraid to wake him.