admin's picture


By Michael J. Field Commissioned by the Wellington Evening Post

By Margaret Hixon
University of Otago Press
NZ$ 49.95


It is a curious thing about Tonga that outsiders can became sycophantic cheerleaders for the royal family.

Scholarship is replaced with gushiness, mixing tropical paradise tourism writing with patronizing insight into culture.

Queen Salote (1900-1965) developed many myths when she was alive and has come close to deification since death. It came to an end last year with Queen Salote of Tonga by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem, a remarkable piece of work from a woman born in the kingdom who put 25 years of work into her book.

Hixon has come along a year later with her biography that follows a first visit to Tonga in 1987.

The author, the publishers say, "was encouraged to write this book by the Tongan royal family," a way of saying this new book is the "official" account.

In 1918 influenza hit Tonga and Wood-Ellem says the queen failed her first test of her leadership during the epidemic.

"Her government broke down and took no action whatsoever to ameliorate the effects of the epidemic, either locally or nationally," she wrote.

A white official strongly reprimanded her at one point when she wanted to make a royal visit through Tongatapu villages. It was pointed out to her that more deaths would follow as a result.

"Salote took the reproach to heart, and was never again so neglectful of the welfare of her subjects," Wood-Ellem said.

Hixon's account is passive, linking it with the death of her father and the birth of her first child, concluding with the trite comment that Salote "had grown up overnight."

Both biographers looked at Salote's long celebrated ride in the rain during the London Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Hixon draws mostly on the media accounts of riding in a carriage in pouring rain with the roof down so people could see her -- winning the hearts of Londoners in the process.

The slimness of the new volume is revealed in its last paragraph. Wood-Ellem wrote of Tonga's future "spinning out of control" while Hixon notes that at the Cultural Centre in Nuku'alofa Salote's stuffed pet tortoise turns "its blind eyes gaze toward her effigy."

Very little serious scholarship is directed toward the Pacific and few publishers take a chance on it anything other than lightweight myth recycling. Salote was an important figure in the region -- but not monumentally so and hardly worthy of the precious publishing investment on two biographies in short order.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail:  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: 

Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment