Nuku’alofa: Tonga and My Grandparents


My brother John, an occasional Guest Author here, posted the following a week ago on Facebook. I thought it would be interesting to share here. He talks about our maternal grandparents and particularly our grandfather, Dr. William Edgar Geil (1865-1925). Our grandfather was the first person of any race or nationality documented to have walked the entire length of the Great Wall of China — roughly 1,500 miles. He did this between June 1 and August 21, 1908. “Uncle Edgar,” as he was known to us, was a missionary and explorer. He traveled widely throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere, including the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific about 3,200 miles east of Australia. I selected the images seen here, including the Royal Palace in 1900 (above title).

Nuku’alofa: Tonga and My Grandparents

By John E. Laycock
Originally Published on Facebook, January 4, 2021

This year I’ve posted memes of “Merry Christmas” in various languages. Finding one for Samoa reminded me that in 1901 William Edgar Geil, my grandfather by adoption, visited the Kingdom of Tonga. Uncle Edgar (as he is known in my family) was traveling by ocean liner from the U.S. to China via the South Pacific. Ports of call included Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines.

William Edgar Geil on voyage.

Edgar’s biography — a sedate, often plodding account of his life as a missionary-explorer-author-evangelist — indicates his lively interest in the evolution of native peoples from cannibalism to Christianity. As a VIP, Edgar was often accorded hospitality. On such occasions in the South Seas, Edgar may have wondered about the origins of the cuisine.

Uncle Edgar was the first private U.S. citizen to be received by the King and Queen of Tonga [pictured below], probably because of his status as a missionary of the Baptist and Presbyterian Churches. King George Tupoe II, who reigned from 1893-1918, was an imposing fellow weighing over 300 pounds. “That they got on famously together is evident,” according to Edgar’s biographer. That included sharing a Sunday worship at which my grandfather preached.

While visiting the palace, it is possible that Edgar crossed paths with the couple’s daughter Salote, then a year-old toddler. In 1918, she succeeded George II and reigned for 48 years. At some point in my own boyhood, possibly in an old issue of Life Magazine, I came across a photograph of Queen Salote Tupou II of Tonga at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

King George Tupou II and Queen Lavinia Veiongo of Tonga.

Salote was a crowd favorite, a “rock star” in today’s lingo. First, she was as imposing as her daddy, standing 6’3”. Second, her coronation gown was a study in regal simplicity — if memory serves, a dove gray silk dress with a full-length evening coat of the same material. But third and most importantly, Queen Salote was conveyed to the coronation service at Westminster Abbey in an open carriage. It was raining heavily but Salote refused to deploy the carriage roof, choosing instead to greet the crowds in the streets of London with a beaming smile and a warm wave. Her carriage mate was the Raja of Something-abad and he was not pleased to be soaked. But in Tonga, it rains one day out of three. Salote would not let a little rain ruin her splendid procession.

Queen Salote Tupou II of Tonga.
Screenshot from British Pathé film available on YouTube.

Edgar must have been impressed with Tonga and in particular with its capital city Nuku’alofa. A decade later, when building a house for his soon-to-be bride, my adoptive grandmother Constance, he had the name Nuku’alofa carved into the surround for the fireplace in the master bedroom. A few years ago the current owner of the house asked if we knew what that word meant. After considerable research, we discovered that, in Tongan, it means “abode (harbor) of love.” My grandparents were more romantic than I imagined.

Learn more about my grandfather, Dr. William Edgar Geil, and his historic walk in 1908 along the entire length of China’s Great Wall.

Title image showing the Royal Palace of Tonga in 1900 is in the Public Domain.
Image of King George Tupou II and Queen Lavinia Veiongo is Public Domain.

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