Dr Jenny Newell, Curator, Oceania (Polynesia), Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the British Museum
Tonga, 1967, 39 x 29 cm. Donated by Noelle Sandwith Oc,1994,01.64
This wall hanging was made in Tonga to commemorate the royal coronation on 4 July 1967. I selected this object partly as a commemoration of my own; King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV died on 10 September 2006. I also chose it because I like its quirky, fundamentally Tongan conjunction of materials: a plaited pandanus leaf backing, decorated barkcloth surface, finished with a postcard pasted in the centre. The object’s home-made quality and use of everyday materials lends an intimate aspect and conveys, more effectively than mass-produced royal merchandise of the sort we see in souvenir shops in Britain, a fond, individualised attachment to the royal couple. It could well have been created for the souvenir market, however – the best clue we have of its intentions was provided by the maker emblazoning ‘Tonga’ across the cloth, a proud statement of nation and the nation’s newly-appointed leaders.
Objects made for sale to tourists as souvenirs typically bear the name of the site being visited – all the better to remember it by. The maker could, of course, have intended the hanging for his or her own wall, and wrote ‘Tonga’ as a consciously patriotic proclamation. But displaying an image of the King and Queen would surely be a sufficient statement. What we do know is after the hanging was created, it was used as part-souvenir, part-gift. Some Tongans (unidentified) sent it to their friend, Noelle Sandwith, in Britain shortly after the coronation. Sandwith had spent time in Tonga in the 1950s. She was clearly impressed by Tonga and her experiences there: she wrote about them, calling her account ‘Wide-eyed in Tonga: A South-Seas odyssey’. She also made drawings, paintings and took photographs. All of these are held at the British Museum’s Centre for Anthropology, providing context for many of the objects she donated. This object, however, is not covered: it was sent after her return to England, it post-dates her text and images.
The postcard allows us to glimpse the neckline and shoulders of the King and Queen’s coronation dresses. They are not dressed in a traditional style. The 170 islands of the Tongan archipelago were taken over as a British Protectorate in 1900, and many aspects of the archipelago’s governance followed British forms. Taufa’ahau and Halaevalu decided to wear English garments.
King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV had a long and effective reign. His family had established a constitutional monarchy in 1875, built on the foundations of the hereditary chieftanships in place on the main island of Tongatapu from at least AD950. Taufa’ahau held an arts-law degree from the University of Sydney, returned to Tonga to head up several of his government’s ministries. The King did much to promote Tonga internationally.
I wonder what commemorations of Taufa’ahau are being created in Tonga in these weeks following his death. They are likely to be more complicated, less cheerfully fond objects than the wall hanging. In the last few years of Taufa’ahau’s reign, he was implicated in corruption scandals and clamped down on pro-democracy activists. If anyone in or visiting Tonga would like to keep an eye out for contemporary commemorations of Taufa’ahau, I would be interested to hear what they find!