Friday, September 12, 2008

The Lion Crown the King

Burning Spear is a reggae band that has been on heavy rotation in the Litzow/Abookire world since, well, before there was a joint Litzow/Abookire world. One of our favorite songs is about the coronation of Haile Selaise:

The lion, the lion crown the king.
The lion, the lion crown the king.
In Addis Ababa

Heady stuff. One of my finest travel moments ever was when Tom Van Pelt and I, completely unexpectedly, came across the unburied casket of Haile Selasie in the crypt of an Ethiopian Orthodox church in Addis Ababa. Although his body had been repatriated after the fall of the Derg, the question of whether he would receive a state funeral was too politically sensitive to be answered, so his casket was in limbo, behind glass, in the well-lit basement beneath the altar, where we were ushered by a priest after paying a few birr “to see the crypt”, no mention of the last Emperor of Ethiopia being made. And that was really heady stuff, for anyone who has been casually pumping reggae into their ears since high school, to suddenly be presented with the earthly remains of Ras Tafari, the Mighty Lion of Judah, the last representative of a monarchy claiming its legitimacy from the union of King Soloman and the Queen of Sheba.

It all becomes less heady after you read The Emperor, by Ryszard Kapuściński, which will be all the corrective action that your imagination will ever need for the story of that particular historical figure.

With Haile Selasie deposed and dead, the universe of old-fashioned monarchs, people who enjoy significant political power based on heredity, shrank significantly. Alisa and I recently got to listing the remaining monarchies in the world that we could bring to mind. There’s Saudi Arabia, of course, but that’s a tough travel destination. And, there’s Tonga. We knew before we arrived that Tonga was a kingdom, but we didn’t know what a chance we would have to see the trappings of Tongan royalty on display.

We tied up at the customs dock in Neiafu, the biggest town in the Vava’u island group in the northern part of the kingdom, and the first thing we heard was the king was coming.

Lofi, the nice old man who meets every yacht that he can, took our lines and sold us a loaf of bread for five dollars US, which turned out to be five times what it cost at the bakery. “I brought you bread. I bring bread to every yacht,” Lofi said. He also said, “The king is coming on Sunday. There will be festivities and feasts and you are welcome to join in. You are very lucky to be here now.”

A parade of officials followed: the health inspector, the customs guy, and a third guy who I think represented “quarantine”. They all enjoyed coffee and leftover birthday cake in the cockpit, charged us a few bucks, and bummed smokes from our stash of trade-and-gifts and parenthood-is-getting-me-down cigarettes. The customs guy told me, “Don’t do any business with Lofi. He pesters all the yachts.” All three officials agreed that we were lucky to be visiting at this time. The word “coronation” came up a few times, and I realized that a new king was being installed. The last king had reined for about 46 years, one of the officials explained. After an interregnum of two years following his death, his son had just been crowned in Nuku’alofa, the capitol, and was travelling to all the island groups of the kingdom for celebrations of the event. The three officials left, and, after I had visited the immigration office and fetched local currency from the bank to pay our quarantine fee, we were cleared into the country.

Alisa and I were genuinely excited about this chance to get such a unique look at Tongan culture. We had a few days before the festivities began, so we checked out the town and caught up with some old acquaintances and made some new ones and we went to an outlying anchorage to hear music at a Spanish restaurant. And then we came back to Neiafu and met up with our friends on Macy, whom we had last seen in Raiatea. They knew from email to expect us, and had been sitting in a waterfront bar waiting for Pelagic to pull into the harbor. Seeing them tearing out to meet us in their dinghy, big grins on their faces and their hair pushed back from their faces by the wind, was one of the best people moments that we’ve had on Pelagic in a long time. We caught up on each other’s news, and I told them the story of my missed 40th birthday. They returned for dinner with a birthday gift, a bottle of Panamaniam rum that we put away that night. And they began the process of cooling our ardor for the coronation celebrations.

They had been in Nuituputapu, in the far northern part of the kingdom, when the coronation had been celebrated.

“We waited at the airport for four hours,” Dave said. “And we didn’t see the king for more than two minutes. There was another event we went to, all these kids from the school were dressed up and ready to perform, and the king never even showed.”

That, it turned out, was a foretaste of the general attitude among the yachties we spoke to. The chief complaint was that there was no telling when the various events would happen, since nothing in Tonga can be counted on to begin on time. When we told the crew of one boat how excited we were about the impending festivities, we were met with knowing expressions and a response of “Yeah, the king was supposed to be here last week, but he never showed.”

There was also more than a bit of knowing cynicsm among resident expats about the new king’s character. He was a little simple. He was a sixty year old man who still played with toy soldiers. He wasn’t married and had no children. For years he had escaped the confines of Nukualofa, the capitol, and come up to Neiafu to party. The local people couldn’t take him seriously. He lacked the common touch.

The Tongans I spoke to said the king was a savvy businessman. He had already signed the papers to institute democracy in two years. Or, in two years he would abdicate in favor of his younger brother, who has children, so that the continuity of the monarchy would be guaranteed.

Armed with a schedule of events from the visitors’ bureau, we managed to find our way to two instances of celebration. First, we managed to find our way to the kava celebration for the new king. This was held in a field at the local college. Men dressed in white were sitting in a huge circle in the field, with the king sitting under a canopy at one side of the circle and officiants, and the kava bowl, at the other. In the center of the circle were gifts to the new king: twenty-odd hogs, kava root, and a couple hundred baskets of food.

We were waved away from the area behind the king’s canopy by an army officer, and we sat down with other spectators far back from the kava circle. One man was singing or chanting the same phrase over and over on a loudspeaker, and a few people were coming and going at the far end of the circle, by the kava bowl. We had no idea what was going on. We had arrived late, and soon the king got up and left.

Once the king was gone the ceremony was over and the security relaxed. I wandered over to the pile of gifts, where the men in white were milling around. I met two of them, who introduced themselves as Tuamololu and Mafilauncave. They explained that they were matapules, the “hands of the nobles”, who serve at ceremonies such as this. Tuamololu is the man with the colorful necklace on the right in this picture. The title of matapule is hereditary, with a son assuming the office only after his father has died, which explains the older demographic that you see here.

After they sat for a group portrait, the matapules began dividing up the gifts: the hogs (tuaka toho), the baskets of food (umu kaveitau) and the kava root (kava tohu).

In these baskets I saw cooked chicken and spareribs, taro, canned sardines and hot dogs still in the wrapper. Tuamololu explained that the food was divided among the king, the nobles and the higher order of common people.

It was a fun spectacle, but this sort of event is all opaque when you’re an outsider who has no idea of the significance of anything. I was provided one little piece of perspective by an account of pre-Christian Tonga that I’ve been reading. It was written by William Mariner, a fourteen year old clerk on the English ship Port au Prince, who was stranded here in 1806 after the rest of the ship’s crew was massacred by Tongans. Mariner writes extensively about the matapules, who at that time were advisors to the Tongan chiefs. Having read that, it became great fun to meet some real matapules, and see the continuity of the tradition.

There was an officical reception that night that I talked big about crashing, but we settled for rowing by the waterfront hotel where it was being held. A military band was playing old swing tunes from a landing craft that was docked bow-on at the hotel. The guests looked listless – no dancing, no obvious fun. The king was obviously either gone or had never arrived. But the band sounded good (“American music,” I said to Alisa as they launched into Glenn Miller), and it was a beautiful and romantic setting, these uniformed musicians playing under the stars in this South Pacific port, with a circle of fires that had been lit all the way around the bay in celebration.

The next event that looked appropriate for a couple of palangi with a two year old was the military parade the following day. We returned to the same field where the kava ceremony had been, and again arrived late, just as various soldiers and sailors were finishing their drill around the parade ground. Soon after we arrived, the king departed from the reviewing stand.

We expected that he would be part of a general parade into town, though we had no idea what route that parade would take. It turned out that the king’s motorcade was leaving the event alone, and, to our surprise, he took a right-hand turn after leaving the field and headed right for us.

We happened to be the only people standing on this section of road. As the king passed us, Alisa gave him her biggest uninhibited-in-public American wave. The king looked right at her, smiled, and waved.

And then the moment was over – the motorcade drove into the palace, and the king was seen no more. Alisa was ecstatic. “Did you see that?” she asked me. “He looked right at me! I didn’t know what to do, should I wave, I asked myself, and I thought, yeah, that’s the king right there, why shouldn’t I wave? So I gave him a big wave and a smile and did you see that little look and that wave he gave me? He was looking right at me there was no one else there but Eli. Wow, I hope you got that on film.” And then she laughed, “ha ha”, just like that, and I was suddenly back with the twenty two year old grad student who I first met in Fairbanks fourteen years ago, who was prone to outbursts of unbridled enthusiasm at any moment of the day, before she became a serious government biologist and then an occasionaly frazzled mother of a two year old. “Wow!” She punched me on the arm and looked up with a big grin. We were walking down the hill back to town, pushing Elias in his stroller. “Wait ‘till those other yachties hear about this.”

That turned out to be our peak experience of the celebration. A block party was on the schedule for the next day and we figured that would be the event that would live up to the excited descriptions we had heard on the customs wharf, our real chance to feast with the locals and watch their traditional dances and entertainments. But it rained off and on through the day and when we showed up downtown all we found was about a hundred Tongans under a tent in the middle of one of the main streets, far gone in beer. Not the scene for two palangi with a two year old. But we did stay long enough to hear some local musicians play one song. They were just sitting around a table and playing for themselves, and I was struck by how similar the music sounded to what we had heard in Anaho Bay, in the Marquesas, and also how similar it sounded to what you might imagine music from Hawai’i to sound like. As in other music we had heard in Tonga, the ukulele featured heavily, and there was the same longing, plaintive, lilting, resigned air as what we had heard in Anaho. Really beautiful stuff, and it’s a great instance of how strongly pan-Polynesian culture persists. It’s too bad that most Polynesian music seems to fare so poorly in the recording studio.

The king was evidently a no-show at a few events, including the celebratory church service the Sunday that he arrived in town. “There were all these school kids ready to perform, and he never even turned up,” a yachtie told us. I wondered if that was part of the royal mystique, the fact that he wasn’t beholden to appear just because the people were putting on a celebration of his ascendence to the throne. And of course we weren’t looking to be particularly impressed by the king in any case. Being in a monarchy just gave us the American’s perogative of entertaining democratic ideals and being faintly amused at the notion of hereditary political power.

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