Queen Salote Tupou in her cabin on board ship, travelling to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, 1953.
Courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, neg. no: 116431

Queen Salote Tupou (1900-1965)

Queen Salote reigned in Tonga from 1918 to 1965, her reign characterised by peace, unity and stability. However, it was not always that way in the early days.

Only 18 years old when she ascended the throne, she inherited a politically unstable country with a hostile parliament and the threat of annexation from England.

Queen Salote had not been educated for leadership as a son might have been, but her marriage to Tungi Mailefihi, well-educated with strong kainga (family) support, was an astute move and helped ensure the survival of her dynasty.

Her moves to appoint papalagi (Europeans) to cabinet were seen by Queen Salote's opponents as an effort to stack cabinet in her favour and, in 1920, parliament refused to conduct its business as some members unsuccessfully tried to undermine British confidence in its protectorate's Queen.

However, challenges such as these gave Queen Salote experience in developing her own political tactics, which she deployed most successfully later on.

The biggest crisis she faced was her attempt to reunify Tonga's two Methodist churches - the Free Church and the Wesleyan. The Free Church was the richest and most numerous (17,000 members compared to the Wesleyans 4000) and was opposed to Queen Salote.

Reunification with the better-organised Wesleyans meant that the Free Church, led by the powerful Jabez B Watkin, would lose its assets and Watkin would lose his power.

Queen Salote triumphed with almost no support from other chiefly families or her parliament, and beating Watkin gave her great mana.

After the war, as copra prices rose, Tonga earned high revenues. However, Queen Salote wanted this prosperity to reinforce the traditional Tongan way of life, not destroy it.

Government spending was increased and new schools and other public assets were built, public health was improved, including the elimination of yaws - a contagious tropical disease previously prevalent in Tonga. Scholarships for Tongans to study overseas were introduced, family planning implemented, crops diversified, and tourism developed.

Queen Salote sought experts from overseas to advise on Tonga's development, eventually replacing them with qualified Tongans, who had studied overseas on government scholarships she had implemented.

When Queen Salote died in 1965, she was deeply mourned; a loved and respected monarch. Her combination of political ability and ardent support of Tongan traditions meant that, in Tonga, the Tupou dynasty was secure. Her son, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, is the King of Tonga today.

Queen Salote was sent to school in Auckland in 1909 and stayed there until she was 14. It was out of friendships formed during this period that the Dominion Museum was gifted Queen Salote's mat.

After Queen Salote died in Auckland in 1965, her body was flown back to Tonga. The ngatu (barkcloth) which was later gifted to the Dominion Museum was placed underneath Queen Salote's coffin on the plane.

More information

Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves, or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may also be ordered from Images, on Level 4.
  • Campbell, I C. (1992). Island Kingdom: Tonga, ancient and modern. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press.
  • Forman, Charles W. (1978). "Tonga's Tortured Venture in Church Unity"; The Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 13 No. 1- 2.
  • Ellem, Elizabeth Wood. (1987). "Queen Salote Tupou of Tonga as Tu'i Fefine"; The Journal of Pacific History, Vol 22. No. 3-4.
  • Macquarie, Hector. (1955). Friendly Queen. London: Heinemann.

Not reigning on the parade leads to media saturation

In 1953, Queen Salote attended the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. At the time, Queen Salote was the monarch of a tiny Pacific Island kingdom, unknown outside it. However, that was soon to change.

On the day of the coronation it started to rain, hard. The hood was raised on Queen Elizabeth's carriage, and then all the other carriages in the coronation procession - except one - Queen Salote's.

Tongan custom dictates that in order to show respect you must demonstrate humility, and you cannot imitate the person you are honouring, so Queen Salote insisted her hood stayed down. She was utterly saturated, but on that day gained the love and affection of people all around the world.

'Few visitors', said a British newspaper, 'can ever have endeared themselves... to the British people as the majestic lady who braved the drenching of the Coronation procession in her open carriage.'