Robert Seward, Pacific Women's Voices: Heroine and Queen


Caption: Piilani and Kaluaikoolau with their son, Kaleimanu, and Kaluaikoolau's mother, Kukui Kaleimanu. This family's refusal to be confined in Hawaii's leper colony, while dramatic, was not unique. There were similar rebellions. In a number of incidences lepers lived among relatives and friends where they evaded the police who attempted to round them up.  Cover photo courtesy of Hawaii State Archives, ©University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

update: 09/20




 A rebel and a Queen: Two Voices from the Pacific

The True Story of Kaluaikoolau: As Told by His Wife, Piilani. Translated by Frances N. Frazier. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Distributed for the Kauai Historical Society, 2001. $14.95 ISBN: 0-9703293-0-X (paper) and 0-9607542-9-6 (cloth). 160 pp. Illustrations.

Queen Salote of Tonga: The Story of an Era, 1900–1965. By Elizabeth Wood-Ellem. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001. $22 ISBN 0-8248-2529-2 (paper). 376 pp. Illustrations.

Reviewed by Robert Seward[1

The voices of Pacific women are heard here in two very different books. In one, The True Story of Kaluaikoolau: As Told by His Wife, Piilani, a native Hawaiian describes her family’s experiences in defiance of provincial authorities, just before the turn of the twentieth century. In the other, Queen Salote of Tonga: The Story of an Era, 1900–1965, by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem, it is the biography of Polynesian royalty.

Kaluaikoolau takes place in the period following the American overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani. Hawaiian life is gripped by the panic surrounding Hansen’s disease—otherwise known as leprosy—the only contemporary comparison probably being the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when contagion was widely feared. Piilani, in this first-person narrative, translated sympathetically by Frances Frazier, recounts how her husband comes to realize that he, as well as their son, has contracted the dread disease. In a heartrending moment, he vows never to be separated from his family, never to succumb to exile. In turn, the wife chants her own pledge:

With me, my husband Kaluaikoolau,
Me a‘u kuu Kane Kaluaikoolau,
With me, my child Kaleimanu,
Me a‘u kuu Kane Kaleimanu,
With me, you two, until the bones are laid to rest,
Me a‘u olua a waiho na iwi,
With me, you two, until the final disappearance!
Me a‘u olua a nalo mau loa!

            When the authorities come to take her husband away—either dead or alive, in which case he will be deported to the leper colony on Molokai—the family has already made up their mind. In an initial confrontation a white police official is shot. They flee to the mountains of Kauai. In pursuit, the local militia—who are from illustrations, also white—track the family to their hiding place on a cliff, firing upon them with guns and cannon. But Piilani’s husband is the superior marksman, and several men in the militia are felled.

The family lives in the mountains in solitary isolation, on the run, for three and a half years before the disease claims Piilani’s husband and son. She buries them in, as she puts it, their “native soil,” which she covers with—lehua blossoms, ti leaves, ferns and fragrant leaves of trees. In anguish and with lamentation, Piilani leaves the mountains and reunites with her family and community.

Some years later she recounts her story, which is transcribed into written Hawaiian and published around 1906. The tale is sufficiently compelling that Jack London based a short story of his own on it.

The story has assumed the proportions of a great legend of the Pacific. It is the story of the strength and commitment of a Hawaiian woman, told in her own voice and rendered into English with sensitivity for the time when oral tradition held sway. Biblical references entwine with native Hawaiian belief. Of course the translation dives into sentimentality, yet it would be a shame to judge it by contemporary ways of thinking, by a contemporary construction of a gendered order. Piilani’s tale contains its own convictions and political meanings from the turn of the century—and confusions not unlike our own.

In the end it is Piilani’s story, her devotion and love, that captures one’s imagination.

Queen Salote of Tonga is quite another tale. While not hagiography, this life story of the “beloved queen” is written with the approval of the Tongan royal family.

In opening the Tongan parliament in 1937, the queen declaimed that “There is not in the world a little Kingdom like Tonga, peaceful, contented and happy.” That wasn’t true then, and it certainly isn’t true these days either. Tonga is one of the only remaining monarchies in the world—still controlled by the king and nobility—and it is not without significant problems. Nevertheless, there is much instructive and compelling material in Elizabeth Wood-Ellem’s biography.

            The author draws not only from official resources and oral accounts but from her own intimate knowledge of Tongan society, where she grew up and lived for many years. There are few studies that are better on the complexities of marriage, the role of rank and status, and the intricate kinship relations among the aristocratic families of the kingdom. That the queen maneuvered these intricacies is a wonder, and the details carry the narrative of the biography.

Of necessity, perhaps, Wood-Ellem tells the by now tiresome story of Queen Salote as she attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. If you have been to Tonga, you’ve heard the story many times: It rained and the Tongan Queen didn’t raise the roof of her carriage; she got wet but preserved her “natural dignity.” That incident made the international news.

In the end, it is not anecdotes of this kind that lead to an interest in Salote. Politics and the complicated social structure of the kingdom are related as they intertwine the life and reign of the queen, which ended in 1965. The interplay of religion—the queen was a fervent Christian and the kingdom still is—and gender play throughout the pages of the book.

            The queen may have been regarded as “kind,” but she was no pushover. She let her son, the crown prince, know that she didn’t appreciate his male-centric, European views. In Tongan society, as in the Tongan family, it is the sister who determines the destiny of the group and is the ultimate authority on social relationships. Brothers govern the land and its bounty.

Salote was cognizant of a twentieth-century change in attitudes toward women, particularly those of high and middle rank. While she herself represented the traditional Tongan privilege afforded women, she observed women losing ground to a masculine ideology, to fakapalangi ways where Tongans aspired to a European lifestyle, and cautioned against it.

Women should maintain their dignity, she believed. And in the modern world women should take their place beside—not behind—men, just as they did in traditional society. The queen was far in advance of the women’s movement.

In this kingdom located 2 hours and 45 minutes flying time northeast of New Zealand, Salote played a prominent role in founding women’s organizations, not only for religious purposes but also with the aim of improving health and the domestic economy. She was astute in using these organizations for her larger political purpose. She discouraged, for example, Tongan women joining the Pan Pacific and South-East Asian Women’s Association because “they were not yet ready to join an international organization.” Instead she set up her own organization for nation-building.

Quotidian events in the life of the queen’s subjects, however, are far removed from this biography, and there is little offered of their lives except from the royal perspective. But in a period when the controversies over globalization confront us, the queen’s concerns about the erosion of Tongan values—love, respect, common helpfulness—in the service of economic gain are instructive. This is a narrative that has continuity with the present time.

Salote’s legacy would seem to persist, to a degree, as Tongans seek to preserve their identity, even as the contemporary democracy movement struggles to take hold. The kingdom is quite unlike other parts of the colonized Pacific, although the British and missionaries did their best to muck about. (The Friendly Islands, as Tonga is also known, was once a British protectorate.)

These days the kingdom is suing the King’s American “court jester,” a low-level mutual funds manager, for mismanagement (or theft) of a $24 million government trust fund. Human rights organizations accuse the government of stifling the press. There are more gloomy reports.

Queen Salote of Tonga is indeed the story of an era, a period when a powerful woman ruled. The biography shows that women—at least this queen—can be a potent force in shaping change as well. And the queen’s view of the “advantages of a society where everyone knew their place” still endures. As Wood-Ellem writes, “In Salote’s view, Parliament was an aberration of history, rather than an arm of government.”

To invoke a wider cultural and political context, pay close attention to detail in this biography, and don’t go romantic over a Pacific Polynesian queen. Salote stabilized the fractious country of feuding aristocrats, nobles and lesser chiefs, but neither democracy nor free markets found their ways to these shores. That was true during Salote’s time, and it’s generally true now too.

The book is, nevertheless, a welcome read, a biography to reflect on when bad news about the kingdom drives out the good.

[1] This review appeared in Pacific Reader, An Asian Pacific North American Review of Books (International Examiner), 622 South Washington Street, Seattle, Washington 98104. Fall 2002