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Wellington Evening Post
Wellington, New Zealand

Queen Salote of Tonga by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem (Auckland University Press NZ$ 69.95)

By Michael Field

For so long now Tongans have long built up a false picture of themselves.

Just before he died, the head of the Catholic Church there, Bishop Patelisio Finau, told me that this characteristic, "more Tongan than truthful," allowed a ridiculous, vaguely oppressive political system to thrive in the country of 100,000.

"There is not in the world a little Kingdom like Tonga, peaceful, contented and happy," said Queen Salote in 1937, and quoted at the beginning of this most remarkable biography. This elegant and impressive volume is one of the key works in Pacific history published in this decade.

Were it not for the fact that the Methodist Church objects to saints, Tongans would have long deified the woman who was queen from 1918 to 1965.

"The mythology of a beloved monarch that surrounds Queen Salote's name has concealed her human qualities and obscured her very real political achievements," Wood-Ellem writes.

Wood-Ellem has managed to infiltrate the very highest ranks of Tongan society and expose, at times in a cutting and almost savage fashion, the corruption, ineptness and cruelty present there. Her account of Tongan failure in the face of Spanish influenza is grim reading.

The achievement of this stunning study is that it is much more than a recital of great moments of Queen Salote's life, but rather a perceptive look at the nature of Tongan culture itself. Nonetheless the book does recount that media highlight of her life when, at the coronation of Elizabeth II, she rode in a carriage in pouring rain with the roof down so people could see her -- winning the hearts of Londoners in the process.

"I told the policeman to leave the hood of our carriage down," the Queen is quoted as saying. "I did not think to ask the chief (the Sultan of Kelantan), and he maintained silence with good grace."

She does not repeat the famous line attributed to Noel Coward who, asked who it was that was riding with the Tongan Queen, replied "her lunch."

The book is a revelation, lightly written and controversial.

"Since the death of Queen Salote in 1965, Tonga has been struggling with the forces of modern economics; so much so that change seems to be spinning out of control, and Tonga survives only because about 40 percent of its people live overseas," she writes in the final paragraph.

Michael Field, Agence France-Presse's Pacific correspondent has, due to his political reporting on Tonga, been banned from entering the kingdom since 1996.

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