News of the death in Hong Kong of the Tongan monarch, King George Tupou V, came as a huge shock to his island kingdom and the Tongan diaspora. Although he’d had surgery to remove a cancerous kidney in Los Angeles last year, there had been no warning of any deterioration in the condition of the 63-year old and the announcement stunned everyone but his immediate circle. The country has been plunged into a period of extended royal mourning for the second time in less than six years.

Before he acceded to the throne in 2006 on the death of his venerable and truly majestic father, Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, many Tongans dreaded the notion of George as king, regarding him as an eccentric dilettante. Yes, he was that but much more. He enters history as the man who turned an absolute monarchy into a democracy, transforming himself from a ruler with total power to one who acted only on the advice of his ministers. This makes his short reign a watershed in the lives of his subjects and he’s certain to be remembered fondly.

Meeting of eccentrics ( Photo: Royal Household)

King George will also be missed by anyone the world over who values eccentricity over drabness. A global audience of millions got to see his majestic arrival at Westminster Abbey last year- resplendent in frock coat and top hat – for the royal nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton. A graduate of Oxford and the Sandhurst Military Academy, George had embraced the British upper classes with alacrity, cut glass accent and all. He was almost certainly the only living person in the Asia Pacific region to refer to his great southern neighbour as “Orstralia”.

Was it affectation? Of course it was, and good for him. What a splendid vision he presented- white pith helmet atop bemedalled tunic, monocle to the eye, spats at his ankles, gazing into the middle distance with a haughty, benevolent stare. He was unapologetically from another age – Edwardian – and also pursued the hobbies of another age – model trains and boats and antique lead soldiers. Mark Johnson, the Fiji-born Australian banker, recalls playing with George as a child in the royal palace in Nuku’alofa, lining up their toy legions on the floor and being surprised to find that unlike other kids, the then Crown Prince took it all very seriously. But royalty is undoubtedly a serious business, even in the Ruritania of the South Seas. His designated successor -his brother, Crown Prince Tupou’toa Lavaka – is unlikely to be so colourful.

South Seas Ruritania (Photo: AP/Getty Images)

George’s funeral will be an epic affair despite the crushing burden on Tongan coffers. His death has certainly sealed the fate of hundreds of pigs, which will be devoured by a guest list comprising other royals, diplomats and regional leaders. The event will certainly be a test of royal protocol if, as seems likely, the guests include the neighbouring Fijian leader, Frank Bainimarama, who’s also the current chairman of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. King George strongly disapproved of Bainimarama’s 2006 coup and enraged the military chief when he sent a Tongan patrol boat to rescue his blood relative, Ratu Tevita Mara, from Bainimarama’s clutches after he was charged with sedition.

Sadly missed ( Photo: Tongan Government)

Bainimarama will have to be seated not only a long way from Mara but from his other nemesis, the Samoan leader, Tuilaepa Malielegaoi. The two have long exchanged the sharpest of barbs, Tuilaepa branding Bainimarama a brutal dictator and Bainimarama branding him an Australian and NZ puppet.

All this, however, won’t eclipse a genuine sense of loss for the king turned democrat and not only among his subjects. George chose a London taxi as his official transport, adamant that it was the right proportions for someone wearing spurs and a sword. “I realise this isn’t an everyday consideration for your average mum and dad but for some people it’s important”, he said. And “By George”, he had a point.

VIDEO: Click the following link and you’ll quickly realise that without George Tupou V, the world will be a much less interesting place.


This article has subsequently appeared in The Australian.