Like a lot of this region of the world it was in the 17th and 18th centuries that these island were first visited by Europeans. Wallis—no, the name doesn’t sound very French—is named after the Brit Samuel Wallis, explorer extraordinaire. The locals got along fairly happily, even after French missionaries converted them to Catholicism, until in 1842 they asked for French protection: part of the population had rebelled, and the other part didn’t like that much. In 1887 this relationship was formalised when the queen of Uvea signed off on the treaty that official made the islands a protectorate. Until 1959 the islands were under the authority of New Caledonia—then they voted to go from protectorate status to territory status.
So there’s still a monarchy in place. In fact, traditionally there are three kings—the King of Uvea, the King of Alo and the King of Sigave. The recent king of Uvea, King Tomasi Kulimoetoke II, got in some hot water when he gave his grandson sanctuary after said grandson was convicted of manslaughter. Not happy with the French legal system he declared that his grandson should be judged under tribal law. The population did not, shall we say, whole-heartedly concur. There were riots, resulting in victory for the pro-Tomasi side. Still, it comes late in the game—Tomasi Kulimoetoke died in May 2007. Officially there was a six month mourning period, and mentioning a successor was taboo. It’s only this month that a new king has been announced—the role goes to Kapiliele Faupala. He joins King Visesio Moeliku of Sigave. I don’t think there’s currently a King of Alo—one short of a triumvirate. Oh, and the King of Tonga will be helping celebrate the coronation of Faupala. I haven’t heard whether Nicolas Sarkozy was invited.
A poem? Yes, a poem. I was afraid it would give me some trouble, but I tracked one day. It’s from the book entitled Uvea: Uvea. (This is currently my favourite book title out there.) I found it online here. Our poet is Virginie Tafilagi.
Below the chest, around the waist
Tattooed bark-cloths float and swirl.
Around the ankles and the wrists
Woven lafo intertwine.
The adorned stand up, move forward,
The mala’e becomes silent.
If the just word is joyous
Let it now be spoken!
On the bold canoe, still unmoving,
Our tears soar to the firmament:
In our bodies and in our hands,
Crushed against the silence
Lies the impatient hope
Of the sons and daughters of the land of Uvea.
Let those who no longer feel it
Reconquer its memory
Let rip the shrouding veils!
May the boldest delight in shattering
The keen-edged flight.
In our hearts and in our souls,
Sailing ceaselessly on,
Is our mighty dream
For the children of the land of Uvea.
Let those who do not share it
Put out to sea.
Be wakeful if you will!
Let the toughest delight in taming
The crashing trade winds.
May the oar of the Ocean
Rid us of them forever.
May the blood-red Earth
Breathe fire into us at last.
The choirs have struck up the ancient songs
Which alone the Sons of the earth yearn to hear,
The chanted Word governs all their dances
Toward the sacred forest where the voyage begins,