Queen Sālote on the world stage

For Tongan language week 2014 – Uike Kātoanga’i ‘o e Lea Faka-Tonga I have been thinking about how our Tongan collection reflects this year’s theme “Ko e Kai ia ‘a e Tonga” – “Enriching Aotearoa with Tongan Wisdom”. My first thought was of the large ngatu pepa (2007) produced by Ilo Me’a Fo’ou a Wellington-based kautaha koka’anga (women’s bark cloth making collective).

Ngatu Pepa [Vilene Tapa], 03.1996, Upper Hutt. Ilo Me'a Fo'ou (New Creations) - Tongan Womans Group. Purchased 1997 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board Funds. Te Papa

Ngatu Pepa [Vilene Tapa], 03.1996, Upper Hutt. Ilo Me’a Fo’ou (New Creations) – Tongan Womans Group. Purchased 1997 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board Funds. Te Papa

Although now defunct, group member Sokopeti Sina commented in retrospect that for many women the production of ngatu ‘connected them back to their home in Tonga’. The idea that Tongan people carry wisdom with them wherever they go is best evidenced in the leadership of the late Queen Sālote (1900–65), the beloved monarch of Tonga.

In 1953 Queen Sālote attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in England, and captured the hearts of millions of Britons. Following the coronation ceremony (the first to be televised) the Queen’s procession, a mere 16,000 people commenced the 7.2 km return journey to Buckingham Palace in the pouring rain. Hoods were quickly raised over the horse-driven carriages in the procession, all except one. As an expression of faka’apa’apa (respect) for Queen Elizabeth, Queen Sālote humbly refused to draw the hood of her carriage and continued to smile and wave at the adoring crowds. Queen Sālote’s decision to remain undaunted by the weather gained her world acclaim placing the island kingdom of Tonga on the world map.  In this rare clip recorded in Sydney, Australia she speaks humbly of her actions as a ‘a good soaking’.

The relationship between the two monarchs can be seen in this ngatu launima in our collection. This ngatu was made in 1953 to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Tonga. You can see photos from this visit on Te Papa Collections Online.

Ngatu launima (tapa cloth), 1955, Tonga. Maker unknown. Gift of Flight Lieutenant McAllister, 1968. Te Papa

Ngatu launima (tapa cloth), 1955, Tonga. Maker unknown. Gift of Flight Lieutenant McAllister, 1968. Te Papa

When Queen Sālote passed away in 1965, this same ngatu was placed under her coffin when her body was flown back to Tonga from New Zealand. The ngatu was gifted to the Dominion Museum (Te Papa’s predecessor) in 1968 by Flight Lieutenant McAllister, the pilot of the plane that took Queen Sālote’s body back to Tonga.

For many Tongan people Queen Sālote’s legacy is celebrated in her poems, compositions and in the fond recollection of her famous open carriage ride that placed the kingdom of Tonga on the world map.

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