Friday 27 January 2017

The Queen of Tonga by Janie Hampton

Here’s a story to cheer you up on a miserable cold day at the end of January. On a June afternoon in 1953, a golden coach was pulled through the crowded streets of London in the pouring rain by eight grey horses.

The pouring rain did not dampen coronation spirits
A procession of soldiers, military bands, generals on horseback, bagpipers and foreign monarchs in horse-drawn carriages wound through central London on a five-mile route from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace. Hundreds of thousands of people had been waiting all night and most of the day in the rain. Considering it was June, with the trees in full leaf and the days so long, the weather was cold and miserable. When it wasn’t damp, it was drizzling; and when not drizzling, it poured. But the crowds remained upbeat and excited. After the dark years of the Second World War and the austerity that followed it, at last there was a reason to celebrate. They had been waiting for this day for over a year: the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. ‘It was all organised by the Duke of Norfolk,’ said 12 year old Jane Roberts. ‘He had a face like a miserable dog.' The route was lined with policemen in capes, naval cadets, and soldiers from around the world, wearing the medals they had won in the war. As the procession made its stately way towards the palace, the roar of applause cascaded down the streets like a Mexican wave at a sports ground. The children cheered the Canadian Mounties in their red uniforms on their sleek dark horses. Scottish people cheered the bagpipers, with their swinging kilts. Older people cheered Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, stately and courageous, sitting in a glass coach with her glamorous daughter Princess Margaret. Others cheered the Life Guards in their pointed helmets with white plumes and shining brass breastplates. They all marched in unison to the thumping beat of the military bands playing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and the Victorian marching song, ‘We’re the soldiers of the Queen, m’lud’. But the strongest image that remains with everybody who was there that day is not of the beautiful young woman in the golden coach. The loudest and longest applause was for a monarch nobody had seen before, a woman of over six feet in height and 300 pounds in weight. Waving and smiling enthusiastically from her open carriage, her dark skin glistening in the rain, was the large and joyful Queen of Tonga, 
‘We heard the roar of the crowds from a mile away,’ said Enid Brown, who had come down from Birmingham with her sister Joyce. ‘We thought it must be for our new queen. The sound like the roar of a storm, it made my spine tingle. When the black carriage appeared we could see why. There was the usual pair of lovely black horses pulling. All the other carriages had their hoods up and you couldn’t really see who was inside. But this one was different alright. The top was down and there was this big lady. When we saw her, oh how we cheered! It was her joyful disdain of the pelting rain. You could see she wasn’t going to let a small thing like that ruin the day. We didn’t know who she was, but we still loved her.’

Queen Salote Mafile‘o Pilolevu Tupou III  of Tonga

Word went round the crowd that she was the Queen of Tonga. 'Who’d ever heard of Tonga? Some said it was in Africa, others said it was in the Pacific Ocean,'said Enid Brown, 'Some said she had come in a canoe. Well wherever it was, it was her spirit, her style, that won us all over,'
  Queen Salote of Tonga was one of 129 heads of state who had come to London to witness the coronation of Elizabeth II. Her landau carriage, with facing seats over a dropped footwell and hinged soft folding top, was driven by two old coachmen in top hats and velvet coats. Bringing up the rear was an escort of four mounted military police. She had insisted on keeping the hood of her carriage down, so that she could see the crowds, and they could see her. The 53-year-old Queen was dressed in gold and crimson robes, topped off by a golden tiara with a tall, red feather. She laughed and waved, and the people laughed and waved back, and she became the star of the day.
   The Kingdom of Tonga is an archipelago of nearly two hundred islands between New Zealand and Hawaii, scattered over five hundred miles in the Southern Pacific Ocean, with only fifty-five thousand inhabitants. First settled in 800 BC, with the same royal family since 1600, it was named the ‘Friendly Islands’ by Captain James Cook after his first visit in 1773. In 1900 Tonga became a British Protectorate but remained a monarchy. As well as ruling, Queen Salote Mafile‘o Pilolevu Tupou III wrote songs, love poems and lakalaka – the traditional Tongan dance performed en masse with synchronised arm movements.
Queen Salote was six foot two inches tall, part of a royal dynasty far older than the British monarchy.
     John Douglas was an army officer on duty on The Mall. ‘I had a splendid view of all the procession. The loudest cheer was not for Queen Elizabeth but for the Queen of Tonga. This very large lady was in an open carriage despite the torrential rain and waving furiously at the crowds, who admired her fortitude.’ For many people it was the first time they had seen foreigners other than American GIs in the war. Cross-cultural tolerance was required in all directions. The Sheiks from the British Protectorate of Qatar thought it perfectly proper to bring their personal African slaves. Nobody had thought to tell them that slavery had been abolished in Britain a hundred and fifty years earlier.
       On his small black and white television at home, the playwright Noel Coward and his companion were watching the procession. Perched opposite the Queen of Tonga in her carriage was the diminutive Sultan of Kelantan in Malaysia, husband to three wives and father of twenty-three children. Coward’s friend asked him, ‘And who is that sitting in Queen Salote’s carriage?’ ‘Luncheon,’ he replied.
When singing The Queen of Tonga, the author of this blog drinks coffee from this coronation mug
 Jack Fishman, editor of the Sunday newspaper The Empire News, wrote a popular song about that rainy day in June, with a lilting ‘calypso’ rhythm and catchy tune. Sung by Edmundo Ros, ‘The Queen of Tonga’, soon caught on and was being whistled all over the country.
In the pacific Islands of Tonga,
They make their people stronger,
Oh it can rain or storm or squall,
But they don’t feel nothin’ at all.
Chorus: Oh! The Queen of Tonga Cross’d the ocean from far away.
Oh! The Queen of Tonga Came to Britain for Co-ro-nat-ion Day.
And when the people saw her on that torrential morn,
She captured all before her, took ev’ryone by storm.
 In every heart will always live longer,
That reign-in’ Queen of Tonga.


Sue Purkiss said...

My parents must have watched the Coronation on television - someone else's, because they didn't have one. But I remember them saying that the Queen of Tonga was the highlight, and how everybody loved her!

Penny Dolan said...

Such confidence and such an open and friendly style, in contrast to the refined waves of the aristocracy. The Queen of Tonga was a most admirable Majesty!

Ann Turnbull said...

Oh, I remember her so well! She was wonderful, exotic - and where on earth was Tonga?! As you say, Janie, no one knew. I was nine, nearly ten. We didn't have TV then, but my sister and I went round to our friends who did. And of course there would have been pictures in the newspapers too. Thank you for this memory.

Janie Hampton said...

Isn't it extraordinary when one is old enough to have been IN history?

Anonymous said...

My uncle bought a TV especially to watch the Coronation and, as you say, Queen Salote was the highlight of the day.

We lived in South Wales and had a street party - the weather was so much better than it was in London, sunny and warm.

Jeni Robinson said...

What a fabulous retelling of a never-to-be-forgotten moment for those who had the thrill of seeing the Queen of Tonga in all her glory on that exciting day. She sure must have been a character with a generous heart for the masses. Good on her.
I had never heard this story until this morning while reviewing a novel by Penny Vincenzi for the publishers and the Starts at 60 FB page and website where it is mentioned ... “The star of the procession, apart from the Queen, radiantly beautiful, was undoubtedly Queen Salote of Tonga, who insisted on having the roof of her carriage open and sat waving, smiling determinedly, and getting extremely wet.”
So I did a search online and found your well-written piece. Thank you for enlightening me even further.

Jeni Robinson said...

Simply amazing!

Unknown said...

Noel Coward has denied the "lunch" crack. He never said it and it was more likely the work of a tabloid hack, casting cannibal aspersions and fat shaming a noble queen. It was offensive to all Tongans then, even more so now. Perhaps it's time to stop quoting this racist slur, which reflects poorly on an otherwise fabulous coronation.