Tonga (along with Japan, Thailand, Nepal, and a few Middle Eastern states) is one of the few countries in the world never to experience colonization by a European power. Germany had strong influence in Tonga during the late 19th century and wanted to include it in its colonial empire, but bowed out to the British in exchange for a free hand in Samoa. In 1900, Tupou I's grandson, King George Tupou II (ruled 1893-1918), signed a new Treaty of Friendship with Britain, which gave the latter control of Tonga's foreign affairs as a means of forestalling encroachments by other colonial powers. The British protection remained in effect until 1970, but the rule of the royal family continued unbroken.
Although just short of his mother Queen Salote's two-meter height, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, the present monarch's father, looked every bit the absolute Polynesian monarch he was. As crown prince during WW II, he studied at the University of Sydney, becoming the first Tongan to earn a university degree. He served as prime minister from 1949 until his coronation in 1967. Tupou IV initiated a cautious modernization program, opening Tonga to the world by having the airport upgraded for jet aircraft and approving the construction of the first large hotels. On June 4, 1970, he reestablished Tonga's full sovereignty, which allowed Tonga to receive aid money from other countries.
For almost four decades, Tupou IV steered Tonga on a conservative course. Yet way back in 1976, Tonga became the first South Pacific country to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, leading to an absurd panic over alleged Soviet expansionism in the Pacific. This worked to Tonga's advantage, as overdue aid money from Australia, New Zealand, and the United States came pouring in. Unlike Samoa, which has had diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China for decades, Tonga recognized the Taiwan-based Republic of China until 1998. Then it abruptly switched recognition to Beijing, which facilitated Tonga's admission to the United Nations in 1999.
Magnificent, much-loved Queen Salote Tupou III ruled Tonga from 1918 until her death in 1965. Her achievements included the reunification of part of the Wesleyan church and the development of public health and education services.
In 1953, she won the hearts of millions by riding through London in an open coach, despite torrential rain, at Queen Elizabeth's coronation. In fact, she was only observing the Tongan custom of showing respect for royalty by appearing before them unprotected in bad weather. (Actor Noel Coward quipped that the diminutive Asian sultan riding next to Salote in the carriage was "her lunch.").
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