Assault on growers’ co-operative by dictatorial British consul gave King Tupou II opportunity to re-assert his authority

This is the third and final articles marking Emancipation Day.

A fight over a growers’ co-operative helped King Tupou II regain his authority and curbed the power of the British Consul in Tonga.

The Tonga Ma’a Tonga Kautaha  was established to help Tongan growers sell their copra without going through European middlemen. Despite its rackety accounting procedures and its seat-of-the-pants administration, it increased growers’ incomes so much that some European traders began to worry they would go out of business.

The co-operative was the brainchild of Alexander Cameron, the kind of dissolute, disreputable young man that English families despatched to the colonies in the hope that even if they didn’t do terribly well, they would no longer disgrace the family.

Cameron failed in Sri Lanka and Australia, tried peddling aluminium ladders in India and eventually washed up in Tonga, where, having failed in one more job, he followed the traditional path of the beachcomber and took to drink and the local women.

Setting up the Tonga Ma’a Tonga Kautaha was a stroke of genius. Tongan growers received the same profit for their exports as Europeans and Cameron was regarded with reverence by many of the co-ops members who believed he was “an angel descended from Heaven to deliver them from the bondage of the White traders.”

The success of the Tonga Ma’a Tonga Kautaha co-op drew the attention of the new British consul, William Telfer Campbell, who enlisted the aid of the British-backed Prime Minister Mateialona to shut down the operation and get rid of Cameron.

Campbell has been described as arrogant, pretentious, humourless, unbending, dictatorial and self-important. He interfered in the most trivial matters, terrified his staff and was convinced that the previous Treaties of Friendship and their amendments – particularly that of 1905 – gave him the authority to order the king and Parliament about as he saw fit. He also seems to have been prone to paranoia, seeing plots against him wherever he looked.

Campbell made it clear he regarded King Tupou II as incompetent and believed Tonga should be annexed and the king deposed. He certainly believed that every decision made by the king or the Tongan Parliament had to be referred to him. He tried to interfere in government appointments and insulted members of the nobility by berating them in public.

Campbell then focussed his attention on the Tonga Ma’a Tonga Kautaha, instigating its closure and the seizure of its books and assets. His actions cost about £8,000 in Tonga taxpayers’ money.

According to historian Penelope Lavaka, on whose PhD thesis is article is largely based, the co-operative association served as a vehicle for Tongan hopes of regaining some independence.  Members hoped that European business skills would provide the key to economic improvement.

By February 1910 the association had 3280 members (1280 in Tongatapu, 1200 in Vava’u and 800 in Ha’apai), comprising about 60% of all taxpayers. Among their members were many of Tonga’s most influential chiefs and nobles.

Campbell had nothing but contempt for the co-op and its attempts to bypass European traders. He seems to have found Cameron’s lifestyle, drinking and marriage to the daughter of a European trader and a Tongan woman as reprehensible.

Campbell seized his chance to move against Cameron when he presided over a libel suit Cameron had brought against a former employee. This was when he impounded the co-ops books and after an audit made by a Sydney accountant who was passing through town, Campbell used the resulting report to declare that the books had been faked. He then used this to induce the Prime Minister to close the Tonga Ma’a Tonga Kautaha.

Cameron was charged in the High Commissioner’s Court with having “unlawfully, wilfully and with intent to defraud” published a false balance sheet and embezzled co-op funds. However, when the case went to court in late 1910, the embezzlement charge was  thrown out and Cameron was cleared of falsifying the balance sheet.

Undaunted, Campbell continued his attack on Cameron and the co-op, which had re-emerged as a flourishing business under the direction of Cameron’s former Auckland agent, Robert Millar. Campbell wanted to have Cameron and Millar removed from Tonga, but when the motion was put to the Acting High Commissioner in Fiji, he was told not to involve the High Commission in any way. Given Cameron’s acquittal, the popularity of the co-op and reservations about Campbell’s behaviour, the High Commission saw the situation as politically dangerous. More importantly, the British authorities in Suva saw the power of their agent in Tonga as more limited than he did.

The Tonga Ma’a Tonga Kautaha struck back with their own law suit. They lost the case, but in fact the verdict opened up legal considerations that changed the whole political situation. The Colonial office thought the outcome could be reversed on appeal and believed Prime Minister Mateialona lied during the trial. A week after the trial the co-op re-formed and legislation enacted in Tonga to reinforce the anti-Kautaha faction was found to be constitutionally invalid.

However, Campbell still believed the Treaties and subsequent amendments overrode the Constitution and tried to persuade the High Commissioner to remove the king and deport his European opponents.

Tupou II now argued that Clause III of the 1900 Treaty stopped the British Consul from interfering in Tonga’s internal affairs and said Campbell’’s view of his own position was “totally erroneous.” He said that if he were forced to do whatever Campbell wanted, Tonga would lose the last shreds of independence.

“I have tried to preserve to my people’s national existence, but there is a limit to my endurance,” His Majesty wrote.

“What does Great Britain want? Does she desire to further extend her dominions by adding to her wide empire the little kingdom of Tonga? No resistance can be offered. We can make no appeal to arms. Our only appeal can be made to the justice which is supposed to characterise Great Britain’s treatment of weaker nations.

“Does Great Britain desire to render the foreign traders richer, or does she truly desire to leave my people happy and contented?”

The King also asked for Campbell to be removed, saying his behaviour was ”most  distasteful.”

“We are not deficient in intelligence,” the king wrote.

“Send us a wise and tactful man, to whom we can safely appeal for advice, and you will find that we are not slow to take advantage of wisdom.”

For the first time since the signing of the 1900 Treaty, the Western Pacific High Commission was forced to adopt a new respect for the Kingdom’s autonomy. The Colonial Office said that the 1905 Agreement did not mean the British Consul could insist that the Tongan authorities had to follow their advice on any matter.

The High Commission blamed Campbell for the financial, administrative, legal and constitutional problems arising from his attack on the Tonga Ma’a Tonga Kautaha. He was sent back to England and pensioned off. His successor treated the king much more politely.

On October 14, 1911, Tupou II informed the High Commissioner that Prime Minister Nateialona had lost his confidence. The Tongan constitution empowered the King to dismiss the Prime Minister. The Colonial office realised Mateialona was being punished for his loyalty to the British Consul, but they had to admit they had no legal right to intervene.

In return for the withdrawal of the charges and the promise of a noble title, Mateialona resigned as Prime Minister.  By 1912 the British-Tongan relationship was re-defined to Tonga’s advantage and the authority of King Tupou II was re-established.

As historian Penelope Lavaka put it, the battle over the Tonga Ma’a Tonga Kautaha had given the king a significant victory. It reinforced  the Tongan Government’s right to determine its own policies without the interference of the British Government.

The King has established his ascendancy over the British and over his own Kingdom.

The main points

  • A fight over a growers’ co-operative helped King Tupou II regain his authority and curbed the power of the British Consul in Tonga.
  • The Tonga Ma’a Tonga Kautaha was established to help Tongan growers sell their copra without going through European middlemen. Despite its rackety accounting procedures and its seat-of-the-pants administration, it increased growers’ incomes so much that some European traders began to worry they would go out of business.

For more information

Penelope Lavaka. The Limits of Advice. Britain and the Kingdom of Tonga 1900-1970. PhD thesis. Australian National University, 1981.

Amanda Lee (2019) Tau: A brief history of the Tongan military from the late nineteenth century to the present. MA thesis. University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, 2019.

Heather Devere, Simon Mark & Jane Verbitsky. ‘The language of friendship in international treaties.’ Paper presented to the IXth Congress of the French Association of Political Science, Toulouse, 2007.

Paul van der Grip. Manifestations of Mana: Political power and divine inspiration in Polynesia. LIT Verlag Munster 2014.

Peter Hempenstall & Noel Rutherford,  Protest and Dissent in the Colonial Pacific, USP, 1984.

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