By Jack Beesley
Sālote Tupou III (13 March 1900 – 16 December 1965), Queen of Tonga, was born Sālote Mafile‘o Pilolevu, the eldest daughter of King George Tupou II of Tonga and his first wife, Queen Lavinia Veiongo.
At her birth, Sālote was disliked due to the unpopularity of her parent’s marriage. It was hoped that Sālote’s father would marry Princess ʻOfakivavaʻu. However, the king was determined to marry Lavinia Veiongo, who was considered unsuitable.
The rejection of Princess ʻOfakivavaʻu led to riots and a near civil war. For her safety, Sālote was kept inside palace grounds during her childhood. Tragically, her mother died in 1902.
In December 1909, Sālote was sent to Auckland to begin her education. In essence, this was an exile, as King George’s new wife, Queen Anaseini Takipō, was expected to produce a male heir who would displace Sālote. However, the queen delivered two daughters, one of whom, Princess Elisiva Fusipala, survived into adulthood.
A rival court emerged supporting the claim of Sālote’s half-sister. Despite this, the king ordered Sālote to return to Tonga in December 1914 to prepare for her future role as queen. In 1916, the king chose Viliami Tungī Mailefihi, a Tongan high chieftain, as Sālote’s husband. Their marriage, although arranged, was happy and popular. Tungī would serve as Sālote’s Prime Minister from 1923 until his death in 1941.
On April 5, 1918, King George died and the eighteen-year-old Sālote became queen. The early years of her reign were fraught with struggles, from a republican movement to a schism between two branches of the Methodist Church. Sālote overcame these difficulties and sought to improve the lives of her people, from the development of women’s rights to the improvement of health facilities.
In 1953, Sālote garnered international attention to Tonga at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, fostering a close relationship with the British royal family that lasts to this day.
Sālote died on December 16, 1965, the longest-reigning monarch in Tongan history. Since then, she has become a Tongan icon.
Elizabeth Wood-Ellem, Queen Sālote of Tonga: The Story of an Era, 1900-65 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001).