By Dr Niel Gunson
(as it appeared in the Tongan History Association Newsletter)
I have been given the privilege of paying tribute to my friend and colleague Sione Latukefu whom we remember as a scholar, Tongan patriot and Christian gentleman. As many of you know Sione was born at Kolovai on Tongatapu in 1927, where his family were prominent commoners with important traditional responsibilities. His grandfather was a distinguished Tongan poet and his family were closely involved in the sufferings, educational achievements and faithful witness of the Wesleyan mission and afterwards the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga. After secondary education at Tupou College Sione trained for a teaching career in Tonga and then, with scholarships, at the University of Queensland. He had already been ordained a minister of the Free Wesleyan Church in 1960.
Sione’s autobiographical essay ‘The making of the first Tongan-born professional historian’, in the book Pacific Islands History, edited by Dr. Brij Lal, glosses over most of his educational advancement. The boy from Kolovai was not meant to aspire to academinc honours. Yet the highest in the land acknowledged his ability. Queen Salote, herself a scholar of traditional matters, recognized Sione’s potential, gave him encouragement and, in her last days, passed on some of her own knowledge to him.
I had the privilege of working closely with Sione during his early years at the Australian National University. As I filled a supervisory role he was amused by the fact that I was a few years younger than him and he would pat me approvingly and say in his slow, dry way, ‘You know something about Tonga’. In an era when Phd Degrees were still fairly novel throughout the world, Sione was one of the first Pacific Islanders to obtain one. He was a generous, careful and perceptive historian.
Although Queen Salote had hoped to that Sione would take charge of the Tongan Archives her death in 1965 caused him to take a different path. While at ANU he met his beloved life-partner, then Dr. Ruth Fink, when he was carrying out research at the Mitchell Library and they were married in Sydney in 1966. Both Ruth and Sione successfully appolied for the positions of anthropologist and historian respectively at the new University of Papua New Guinea. At Port Moresby they helped lay the groundwork for future courses and trained a new generation of Papua New Guinean leaders. Sione was also a successful funds raiser and from 1969 to 1988 he was secretary and executive officere of the Te Rangi Hiroa Fund for promoting the study of Pacific history.
After 18 years of dedicated service, by which time Sione was an Associate Professor, they retired for a while to Canberra to live. Sione’s dedication then led him to accept the post of Principal of the Pacific Theological College in Suva which he held from 1989 to 1991 when ill health led to his return to Canberra. At the college he proved a stabilising influence and helped to give the curriculum a greater academic emphasis. In Canberra he contined to work on various research projects surviving a triple by-pass operation and other setbacks with great courage and aplomb. He participated fully in the life of the new Division of Pacific and Asian History and he was still writing articles and working on a book at the time of his death.
Professor Jim Davidson once said jokingly that if Sione ever became persona non garta in Tonga for his controversial article on Tonga after Queen Salote he and Ruth could always retire to the south of France and write books. Former British agent and Consul, Archie Reid, told me in 1970 that he would be surprised if Sione would be allowed back in Tonga. But it was transparent to all thinking Tongans that Sione had Tonga’s best interests at heart. His book Church and State in Tonga which went through several printings, was regarded as a Pacific Classic. It was not surprising when Sione was asked to write a book to celebrate the centenary of the Tongan Constitution in 1975. He took the leading role in founding the Tongan History Association in Ha’apai in 1989 and remained its president until his death.
Sione’s Loyalty to Tonga and pride in Tonga’s ability to avoid direct colonisation was deep-seated. He regarded King Taufa’ahau Tupou I of Tonga as a latter day King David with a divine mandate to lead Tonga in to the modern world byt he regretted that very often the liberties that had been guaranteed by the 1875 Constitution had been obscured or countermanded by chiefly custom. He followed the modern pro-democracy movement with sympathy and interest. Above all he was a moderating influence which will be sadly missed since he deplored alike radical revolutionary sentiments on the one hand and reactionary intolerance on the other. Indeed his views expressed at the Constitutional Convention in Tonga in 1992 were the most sensible and most pragmatic.
Sione alone was a good man. He could say with more accuracy than King David:
The Lord rewards me because I do what is right;
he blesses me because I am innocent …
he knows that I am faultless,
that I have kept myself from wrong doing.
And so he rewards me because I do what is right …
Sione Latukefu had those rewards. He had the love of his extended family both in Tonga and the Canberra-Queanbeyan region. He had the admiration of the Tongan people at home and abroad. He was patriarch, pastor and friend. Above all he had the love of his wife and children. Last year I had the privilege of attending two conferences in Europe in the company of Sione and Ruth. In the beautiful environment of the monastery Kloster Andechs in Bavaria Sione told us how being asked to speak at the Conference he had been able to fulfil a wish and a promise to bring Ruth to visit her birthplace in Europe. In recent times how proud he was to see ‘Alopi complete a successful University course and Lotte embark on internationally promising singing career, presently based in New York.
Throughout his life Sione took his ministerial vocation seriously preaching and teaching. I will share a memory of his ministry of love and practical Christianity which I believe I also mentioned at Sione and Ruth’s wedding breakfast. When Sione was a single man he accompanied me on a trip to Victoria. We called at the Methodist parsonage at Sale where I wished to follow up some historical questions. The minister’s wife was apprehensive at the sight of strangers at the door, the washing machine was overflowing, babies were crying, all seemed chaos. While I tried to explain who we were Sione disappeared. Before he was missed he returned having changed at least three nappies and mopped up the water.
Sione’s love of the Methodist tradition led him to play a prominent role in the World Methodist Historical Society in which he was a Pacific representative. The Conference in Rome last year was organised by the Society in conjunction with the Benedictine Order also appealed to his ecumenical spirit.
To list all Sione’s achievements, offices held and good works would take too long but they would testify to his commitment to scholarly pursuits, Tongan interests and pastoral care. His life was ordered; his day allowed time for gardening, and it was in his garden, with his loving wife beside him, that he ended his days. Let us now praise famous men and our fathers who begot us for he surely belongs to them.