The Contemporary Pacific 12.2 (2000) 526-528
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Queen Salote of Tonga: The Story of an Era 1900-1965
Queen Salote of Tonga: The Story of an Era 1900-1965, by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1999. ISBN 1-86940-205-7, xviii + 376 pages, maps, figures, photographs, illustrations, notes, glossary, bibliography, index. NZ$69.95.
The appearance of this work is a landmark event for all those scholars interested in the historic development of modern Tongan society as well as for Tongans themselves in their seeking a systematic understanding of their own recent historic past. It is also a very good, well-crafted read, an exemplar of storytelling in the genre of narrative history.
I met Elizabeth Wood-Ellem briefly in 1974 on her arrival in Tonga and my exit from a year of dissertation fieldwork concerning the conditions of the nobility a century after Tupou I's reforms. She was in the unusual circumstance of being thoroughly familiar with Tonga through her own family past (she begins, "Queen Salote Tupou III of Tonga was the great figure of my childhood, a myth in her own lifetime . . ." ix), yet of being personally unfamiliar with what Tongan society was like in the 1970s when she was in Tonga to undertake her dissertation research (completed in 1981 with an impressive work that is the foundation for this carefully nurtured publication nearly twenty years later).
She was born in Tonga, the daughter of the Rev Dr Harold and Dr Olive Wood, important figures in the Wesleyan education system in Tonga during the 1920s and 1930s, who knew Queen Salote well (Dr Wood gave the oration at the Queen's funeral in 1965). In reconnecting with Tonga as a scholar, Wood-Ellem both made use of extraordinary venues of access to information and had the distanced critical eye of an outsider's inquiry. This is a carefully considered and weighed history of events and persons, produced according to the highest standards of scholarship, yet at every turn it is an intimate, empathetic account as well. Written very much from the Queen's point of view, it succeeds at being both biography and "the story of an era" as its subtitle claims. Perhaps, only in an aristocentric society that is structured by kingship from top to bottom has such an achievement of writing the history of the monarch simultaneously with that of the society been possible.
Wood-Ellem claims that her history is the fulfillment of the desire of Queen Salote herself for a history of Tonga including her reign. It is also likely to be the fulfillment of a family legacy: Dr Wood's brief, but much used text, History and Geography of Tonga, was influential in giving generations of Tongans a structured sense of their early history (it was referred to authoritatively and countless times in the villages where I lived in the 1970s); this account, however it circulates, will give Tongans the same structured, but much more detailed and elaborate frame in which to reference and think about their present. It captures a history very much alive in the 1970s, but now less so in younger generations. Still, this story of Tonga in the first half of the twentieth century is no less vital for understanding a very different sort of present now unfolding.
Certainly for those scholars who have worked in and on Tonga during the reign of Tupou IV (1965-), this [End Page 526] volume will fill a critical gap. Especially for anthropologists, the history of Tongan modernity has been a blind spot, making it very difficult to properly temporalize their work. Even the very best contemporary ethnographic work in Tonga has constantly been contextualized and measured in terms of Tongan society at the time of Captain Cook or Tongan society in the time of Tupou I, for which excellent sources exist (for example, the writings of Elizabeth Bott, with Tavi, Noel Rutherford, Sione Latukefu, and H G Cummins). There was always the sense of seeing the present in Tonga in...