The British Empire Library

The New Friendly Islanders

by Kenneth Bain

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Jill Weston (wife of Q.V.L. Weston, OBE Commissioner and Consul in Tonga 1959-1965)
This is an entertaining and exceedingly interesting book written by a man who really knows Tonga. In the 1950s he worked as Secretary to the Tongan Government, seconded from Fiji and, having a part-Tongan wife and a Tongan son-in-law, he has maintained close contacts with the Kingdom ever since. In 1991 he went back there to collect material for this book, which was published on the occasion of King Taufa-ahau Tupou's 75th birthday in July 1993.

There is a great deal to enjoy in the book - reminiscences of Kenneth Bain's first visit to Tonga, the problems he encountered with customs and unfamiliar procedures, historical tales, legends, stories and fascinating encounters, all related with affectionate understanding and humour, usually at his own expense.

Kenneth Bain's career, first in the Colonial Service, later at the Commonwealth Secretariat, and finally as Financial Secretary and Deputy Governor of the British Virgin Islands, has given him wide experience of the problems of developing countries: this no doubt enabled him to ask the right questions during the interviews he had with a great variety of people, nearly all Tongan, in 1991 - Church leaders, politicians, government servants, an academic, a banker, old-time residents, the Crown Prince and his youngest brother and, above all, with the King himself. All welcomed his interest and appear to have been glad to have the opportunity to express their views, although some of the answers took off in rather unexpected directions.

The King regards himself as "the Guardian of popular leadership in Tonga" and Tonga as "the stable rock around which the waters of the South Pacific wash". On the other hand, one Church leader is recorded as saying "all our troubles stem from the top", and another one, referring to the nobles, "some of those in power use it unwisely, just to show off that they have the power", and, I think the author thought, "to show that they believe themselves to be above the law".

Another critic of the political situation in Tonga, an intelligent and exceptionally well qualified government servant who claimed to be a "total traditionalist", said "ninety per cent of the people are discontented about the corruption and inefficiency in government and the continuing lack of accountability in the democratic sense" and "I wish someone could persuade the King to understand that it is not just his kingship which is at risk, but the very entity and identity of Tonga and its people: the soul of a nation. Perhaps an outsider can persuade him". No doubt the critics of the system of government hope that this book may help to persuade the King to understand their fears. Many Tongans have faith in the Crown Prince, who is seen by one as perceiving "a great need for change in the upper levels of government", while others fear that he may be out of touch with the people and their customs.

The openness with which people discussed the social, political and economic problems of Tonga with Kenneth Bain in their encounters with him reflect the King's own approval of open debate on all subjects. He himself went to considerable lengths to explain his own pet schemes, but is clearly more concerned with money-making than with political or social change: "When we get this oil refinery and the industries in place it will be an even firmer rock than it was!"

Kenneth Bain fears that excessive concern with money may result in "the commercial prostitution of a great heritage". At the end of the book he offers his own suggestions for change: "The first is a fundamental change of attitude to privileged status within a crucial section of Tongan society" (it is the nobles to whom he refers) and "The second is reform of the structures and tools of government". His vision is of "power voluntarily relinquished" which would preserve the stability of the kingdom.

The good news is that the King has read the book and has contributed a foreword in which he uses the word "controversial" but says that it is written with "insight, frankness and humour". It is the King's blessing on this book which makes it particularly remarkable.

British Empire Book
Kenneth Bain
Hodder & Stoughton


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