Tongan royal historian Dr Elizabeth Wood-Ellem dies | Pacific Beat

Tongan royal historian Dr Elizabeth Wood-Ellem dies

Tongan royal historian Dr Elizabeth Wood-Ellem dies

Updated 11 September 2012, 17:29 AEST

One of the foremost experts on Tongan history, Dr Elizabeth Wood-Ellem, has died in Melbourne, two days before her 82nd birthday.

She was the child of missionaries, and grew up knowing members of the Tongan royal family.

Bessie, as she was known, wrote the definitive biography of Queen Salote, and maintained her close links with Tonga all her life.

Bruce Hill asked one of her colleagues, Dr Helen Lee from La Trobe University, how serious a blow Dr Wood-Ellem's death is for Tonga.

Presenter: Bruce Hill

Speaker:archive recording of Dr Elizabeth Wood-Ellem, Dr Helen Lee, from La Trobe University, a colleague of the late Bessie Wood-Ellem



LEE: Well I mean it's lost its major Tongan historian, she's really someone who has a vast knowledge of Tongan history, particularly of the royal family. Elizabeth actually was born in Tonga and she was raised in her early years in Tonga, because her parents were missionaries and her father was the principal of Tupou College. And so she had a life-long association with Tonga and she got to know members of the royal family from very early on and maintained those connections right throughout her life.
HILL: She was in fact quite a source of information, not just for people outside Tonga, but also for quite a few Tongans on the history of the royal family and the nobles and who married who, and they actually turned to her for advice quite often?
LEE: That's right, I mean she was incredibly highly regarded by Tongans for her knowledge, and her sensitivity of her knowledge as well. And she had accessed a whole lot of archives that nobody else had really ever seen, so she had areas of knowledge, particularly in terms of royal genealogies that a lot of ordinary Tongans and even noble and chiefly Tongans wouldn't have had access to. It was quite amazing, I mean if you had a conversation with her the names that she could bring out and all of their connections and who was married to who and whose children belonged to who, it was just quite amazing the depth of her knowledge. 
HILL: And that knowledge of Tongan royal protocol and tradition was on show when Bessie Wood-Ellem spoke to Pacific Beat earlier this year about the wedding of the then Crown Prince Tupouto'a 'Ulukalala, to Sinaitakala Fakafanua.
WOOD-ELLEM: People will expect quite a lot of celebrations, but quite a few of those will be Tongan customs of course, like the exchange of gifts between families and this exchange is often of family things, old pieces of bark cloth, if they're very special they'll have a name and they're passed from one generation to another. So it's not as though they'll be buying very expensive gifts for the young couple.
HILL: Being the child of missionaries meant that she sort of had a foot in both camps, she was Palangi but also had a very deep understanding and sympathy with Tongan culture didn't she?
LEE: That's right, I think a lot of Tongans regarded her as an unofficially Tongan, an honorary Tongan I think.
HILL: What's going to fill the gap that she leaves now? Is there anyone with that level of knowledge of genealogy and Tongan history now?
LEE: Well unfortunately there are very few Tongan historians these days and there are some Tongans certainly who are starting to come through and study that area, but it really is going to be a neglected area. We of course have other important historians of Tonga like Adrienne Kaeppler and Phyllis Herda and people like that. But Bessie Wood-Ellem's particularly area of expertise in the royal family is really unsurpassed and there isn't anyone likely to fill those shoes in the immediate future.
HILL: Although as you say she might be regarded as something of an honorary Tongan, her Palangi side allowed her to be quite acerbic sometimes in her comments?
LEE: Yeah she was not backward in coming forward with her opinions on things. But she was very careful about where she gave those opinions, and she was always deeply respectful at the same time. 
HILL: What was she like as a person? She always struck me as being good fun, she was an old lady, she was 82 years old, but she actually found being an old lady quite useful, she could pretend to be deaf if she didn't like what she was hearing?
LEE: Oh yes she was very selective in her hearing but also just incredibly good company. We had a gathering at her house only a couple of weeks ago where a number of us were just who were interested in Tonga were just talking and she was the life of the party, she was involved in every conversation, she was as caring and as fun as always. She was a very fund person to be around.


Bruce Hill

Bruce Hill


Bruce is one of the Pacific’s most experienced journalists with nearly 20 years covering the region and has won several international awards.

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