Tongan King, world's heaviest monarch, dies after 41-year reign
11th September 2006

King Tupou IV

The world's biggest and heaviest ruler in the smallest kingdom has died at the age of 88.

The people of the South Pacific island of Tonga are mourning the death of King Tupou IV following a reign of 41 years. His eldest son, Crown Prince Tupouto will ascend to the throne.

Twenty-stone King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga made international headlines in 1976 when he entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world's heaviest monarch weighing in at 209 kg (32 st).

He had since shed a substantial amount of weight, particularly over the past decade, when he worked out three times a week and dropped to 130 kg (20.5st).

Details of his health problems have not been released, but he was believed to have been suffering from heart disease, diabetes and associated ailments.

Because of ill-health, he has spent most of the past year in Auckland, where he owns a residence, making frequent visits to hospital.

He was Tonga's first university graduate and is ferociously knowledgeable about subjects such as Napoleon and the American Civil War.

Public buildings were yesterday being draped with black and purple as a mark of respect and the 106,000 Polynesian inhabitants of Tonga's 170 coral-island archipelago, a former British protectorate, began what will be a year of mourning.

His 57-year-old eldest son, Crown Prince Tupouto'a, known for his love of dressing up in military uniforms and driving around the main island in a London cab, was sworn in as the new king in a brief ceremony yesterday, but it may be another 12 months before a full coronation.

The world was told of the death of King Tupou, who passed away from what is believed to be a kidney disease, when the Tongan government made a formal announcement which needed no explanation.

"The sun has set in the kingdom of Tonga," it said, confirming the news that the king's subjects had been expecting as he clung to life 1500 miles away in a New Zealand Hospital.

He will be remembered for his tight control over Tonga's semi-feudal political system during his 41-year reign, which made him the world's fourth-longest serving monarch.

But he will also be remembered, bizarrely, for his enormous weight.

His royal throne had to be specially strengthened and it was said that whenever he flew he needed two airline seats to accommodate his girth.

In the 1990s he headed up a national fitness campaign to fight obesity which is a major problem in the island kingdom, dubbed 'The Friendly Isles' by English explorer Captain James Cook.

The king shed a third of his weight, and succeeded in encouraging many Tongans to do the same.

Tupou took over the monarchy in 1965 on the death of his mother, Queen Salote, and quickly set about modernising the archipelago's education system and its infrastructure, but he and the royal family controlled the country's political system and most of the economy, which is dependent upon farming, fishing and remittances from expatriate Tongans, most of whom live in New Zealand.

Five years after his coronation, Tonga ceased to be a British protectorate and became fully independent, while remaining within the Commonwealth.

While he had the respect of most of his subjects and other leaders throughout the South Pacific, King Tupou found himself on the receiving end of increasing dissent in recent years.

Just last year, thousands of people took to the streets to demand democracy and public ownership of key assets.

Shortly after the country's first pro-democracy party was founded, the King's youngest son, Prince Ulukalala Lavaka Ata was appointed Prime Minister, increasing the power of the royal family.

The man who has now acceded to the throne, Crown Prince Tupouto'a, is a controversial figure because of his ownership of some of the country's biggest businesses, controlling the only power company, brewery and mobile phone company.

Yesterday as the country began its months of mourning, Mr Sione Fonua, editor of a local magazine, said the king would be remembered for helping to modernise the country, while preserving its culture.

"His Majesty's vision was the right prescription at the right time for a country still yet merged in feudal and common thinking," he said.

The formal announcement of the King Tupou IV's death stated: "The sun has set in the Kingdom of Tonga."

It said the king was surrounded by his wife Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho and members of the royal family. The body of the late king, accompanied by royal family members, has since been removed from the hospital.

It was to be taken to the Tongan royal residence in Auckland where it would lie in state for one night. This was to allow thousands of Tongan residents of New Zealand to pay respects to their late monarch.

A New Zealand air force airplane will then fly the body back to Tonga on Wednesday where it will lie in state. Details of his funeral were still to finalized, Fielakepa said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said the people of Tonga had revered the king throughout his 41-year reign.

She said King Tupou IV, who assumed the throne in 1965 after the death of his mother Queen Salote Tupou, had presided over Tonga's transformation into a fully fledged member of the Commonwealth and the United Nations as an independent sovereign state, she said.

He had followed a path of peace and stability for his country, she added. "While retaining the important cultural heritage and institutions of Tonga, he also sought to place Tonga in a position to take advantage of the benefits of economic globalization. Achieving this difficult balance will be perhaps the king's greatest legacy for Tonga," Clark said in a statement.

Flags on New Zealand government buildings were to fly at half staff Monday and on the day of the funeral as a mark of respect to the king, she noted.