Sunday, April 11, 2010

Her Lunch II

Upon further investigation, the myth of Queen Sālote’s lunch turns out to have been an especially blunt expression of what in London in 1953 was quite widespread speculation about the visiting monarch’s character, race, and color.

In an unsigned article entitled “‘Queen of Paradise’ at the Coronation,” for example, which was widely syndicated to many English-language newpapers including the Sydney Herald (May 31, 1953, p. 22) “a special correspondent” reported that “Queen Salote, who has never been to this country before, will be waiving one of the rules of international court procedure, for it is not usual for a ruling monarch to attend the coronation of another.” That much was certainly true.

“But this dusky queen’s position is perhaps unique. She is the sovereign of the Tongan Islands, which have been under British protection since 1900, the year the Queen herself was born...”

(The language here is ambiguous. What was signed in 1900 was a treaty of friendship, not a surrender of sovereignty, nor a dual mandate—even if it was occasionally misinterpreted as such in the Government Houses of Suva, Port Moresby, Wellington, Melbourne, Sydney, and indeed in Whitehall, or even further up the line. In her playful reminiscence For My Grandchildren (London: Evans Brothers, 1966, p. 286), for example, Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, recalled: “Before our turn came to leave Buckingham Palace in the procession we watched the rulers of states under Her Majesty’s protection, including sultans from Malaya and Zanzibar resplendent in their national costumes. But it was the statuesque figure of Queen Salote of Tonga, swathed in the voluminous pink mantle of the Order of the British Empire, who stole the limelight and caught the public eye” [my italics].)

The “special correspondent” continued: “In fact the little princess was named Salote (Charlotte) in honor of the House of Hanover. And so Queen Salote, who is the only other Queen Regnant in the Commonwealth, will be in the Abbey to see Queen Elizabeth crowned. There is a regal air about the Queen of Tonga that is bred of a dynasty that has its roots in a thousand years of history. The term ‘every inch a queen’ is perhaps particularly applicable to this dark-haired, sloe-eyed sovereign who is certainly the tallest queen on record, standing 6 ft. 3 in. in her bare feet and weighing over 20 stone [280 pounds]…She rules her 50,000 brown-skinned islanders as a Queen and as a mother...”

“Paradise,” “dusky,” “sloe-eyed,” “bare feet,” “20 stone,” “brown-skinned”—the racial stereotypes are not just cued in, one after another, but shouted through a megaphone, and certainly ill-contained by the over-use of “perhaps”; the “regal air”; that fantastic, indeed false assertion about the 1,000-year Tupou dynasty; the slightly crude reference to the Queen’s height, and the highly indelicate and certainly exaggerated stab at guessing exactly how much Her Majesty weighed. It would not surprise me to discover that by some corresponding, nearly universal exercise of British and Commonwealth editorial discretion no estimate of the physical weight in stones of Queen Elizabeth II has ever made it into print, even lately.

Princess Alice was only marginally less condescending by choosing the words “statuesque” and “voluminous,” while also drawing careful attention to the petunia mantle which Queen Sālote was entitled to wear on account of her G.B.E.—petunia, not “pink.” Although at this date the Queen shared that honour with Lady Churchill, nevertheless Princess Alice knew better than most how many finely chiseled notches separated it from the more senior Orders of the Bath, the Thistle, and the Garter.

Interestingly, when in 1962 Era Bell Thompson, co-managing editor of Ebony magazine, met and interviewed Queen Sālote in New Zealand (an encounter she described in Jet, Vol. 22, No. 10, June 28, 1962, p. 15), “officials told Miss Thompson that she was the first Negro woman” ever to visit Tonga, implying that the many African-American servicemen stationed there during World War II were regarded locally as equally curious and unfamiliar. Yet on that same occasion the Queen herself spoke to Miss Thompson of “we people of color,” presumably reflecting her own commonsense view, and not a mere impulse toward hospitality, good will, or even regal noblesse oblige.

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