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King Tupou IV of Tonga

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King Tupou IV of Tonga.

Born on 4 July, 1918, Tāufa'āhau Tupou was the son of Queen Salote Tupou III1, who had succeeded the throne of the Kingdom of Tonga from her father King George Tupou II earlier that year. The fourth ruler in a monarchy covering the entire country, King Tupou IV's mother died in 1965 and he was crowned in 1967 after a protracted period of mourning. He reigned for over forty years before passing away at the age of 88 on 10 September, 2006, leaving the throne to his eldest son, King George Tupou V. During his life he had absolute power over 170 islands, and he received several awards as well as an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. At his most obese, King Tupou IV weighed over 200 kilograms, making him officially the heaviest monarch in the world.

Life As A Prince

Born as Crown Prince Tupouto'a Tungī, during his childhood Tāufa'āhau Tupou was anything but overweight. He was a keen sportsman and was into cricket, rugby, tennis and rowing. At the age of fourteen he became one of the country's top pole-vaulters and was able to clear a height of three metres. He also took up various instruments, ranging from the piano and guitar to the balalaika and the Tongan nose flute. He studied at the University of Sydney in Australia and gained Bachelor's degrees in both Law and the Arts, becoming the first Tongan to graduate from a university. He was appointed Minister of Education by his mother in 1943. The following year he became Minister of Health, and by 1949 his family saw fit to make him Tonga's Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the Tongan monarchy gained fame when Queen Salote visited the UK for Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 19532.


Having married his consort Halaevalu Mata'aho 'Ahome'e in 1947, Tāufa'āhau fathered four children between 1948 and 1959, with his eldest son succeeding him in 2006. His other children consisted of a daughter and two sons, though his second son married a 'common' woman and was stripped of his title. His third son was later made Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defence, becoming Prime Minister in 2000. However, he resigned this position in early 2006, appointing an elected politician to take his place.

Life As King

After the death of his mother in 1965, Tāufa'āhau Tupou and the Tongan nation grieved, wearing black and following other mourning traditions for two years. Tupou IV was crowned in 1967 during a nation-wide ceremony which involved 71,000 roast suckling pigs, a mildly narcotic drink and a party which lasted five days. The ceremony itself was rather British, with the Duke and Duchess of Kent attending Tupou IV's crowning on 4 July in the Royal Palace of the capital, Nuku'alofa. At one point he acquired a leather jacket which he became rather fond of, as he wore it to many state functions during his reign.

Through adopting an easy lifestyle and eating Tongan staples such as coconut, steaks and fatty sheep tails, by the 1970s Tupou IV weighed up to 209.5kg, making him the heaviest monarch in the world. He was also the only one to carry a bottle of Tabasco sauce wherever he went, and was also quite tall at 6'5" (1.95 metres), making him the sort of monarch that even Henry VIII might think twice about offending. Although traditional Tongan ideals value obesity, the king soon learnt his lesson and organised a diet and exercise regime for his entire country. Tupou IV managed to lose 70 kilograms during this time, mostly through 'eating lots of soup'. He was also known for having an airport runway closed one day each week so that he could ride a custom-built bicycle along it while six bodyguards ran alongside. However, his weight wasn't the only number he was having problems with.

Financial Scandals

Having taken over of most of the country's assets, Tupou IV had the opportunity to take control of many businesses and made quite a few mistakes while profiteering. These included using the taxpayer's money to start Royal Tongan Airlines, a company which soon failed. However, Tupou IV then sold the country's only airline licence to one of the princes so as to keep hold of the monopoly. During the 1980s and 1990s, Tonga also sold passports and citizenship to various Asians; those living in Hong Kong were drawn to buy passes to Tonga through worries about the transfer back to Chinese control. By 1999 this market had disappeared, but in 2002, Tupou IV's court jester Jesse Bogdonoff was revealed to have been involved in an investment scandal, allowing the Millennium Asset Management Company to swindle millions through false accounting.


Before all this happened, Tupou IV had received several awards from the British Empire. Tonga became part of the British Commonwealth in 1970 after it ended its days as a protectorate, although unlike many Commonwealth countries, Tonga still had its own monarchy and remained more or less untouched during colonial times. He had been made a Knight of the British Empire in 1958, and then became a Knight Grand Cross of the The Royal Victorian Order when Tonga entered the Commonwealth in 1970. In 1977, Tupou was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, an award given to those rendering important services to the Commonwealth. Apparently, Tupou IV once said that his 'knowledge of foreign affairs came entirely from BBC radio, to which he listened all day long'.


During his reign, Tupou IV accumulated a collection of at least a hundred ukuleles. Apparently, a captain in the Soviet Navy came to visit and asked Tupou IV what he would like as a gift on the captain's next visit, and he replied that he wanted an example of the tiny Hawaiian guitar. This information was somehow recorded in a KGB information file on the Tongan king, and since then the ukuleles have flooded into the country.


Tupou IV remained a Methodist lay preacher throughout his reign, making him the world's only Methodist monarch. In fact, he was baptised in the River Jordan with his wife in 1990. By 2006, he had reigned for 41 years and had reached 88, a reasonable age for someone who had suffered from health problems during his later life. However, in August 2006 it was announced that he was suffering from an unspecified illness, and he died a month later. The entire country, who had until then been praying for their king, began the process of mourning. In 2006, there were 26 different descendants of Queen Salote with claims to Tupou IV's throne, with his son King George Tupou V being first in line and therefore taking over control.

Calls For Democracy

Tonga had previously been proud of their monarchy, which represented a country almost completely inhabited by its indigenous population, but with the financial failures of Tupou IV's reign came calls for devolution of power to parliament. In 2005, the government spent several tense weeks in talks with unions while many of the country's workers went on strike for better pay. At the same time many of the country's citizens took to the streets to demand democracy, and in 2006 parliament was taken over by the elected politician Feleti Sevele, the first Prime Minister of Tonga not to be a member of the aristocracy. It is likely that the death of Tupou IV will bring more calls for change, and that Tupou V will have to tread carefully during his first years as the Tongan monarch.

1The numbers simply follow the order of the Tupou monarchs, so that the first of their line was Tupou I, while the fifth is Tupou V.2When his friends wondered out loud who the small man accompanying the 181 kilogram Queen Salote was, Noël Coward is said to have replied 'Her lunch.'

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