A Tortoise for the
Queen of Tonga
She died in the palace gardens in 1966, of extreme old age and a
heart that had swelled insupportably from nearly two centuries of
loneliness. For a day no one noticed, not because she was neglected
but because her metabolism was so inert that immobility did not
arouse suspicion. The crabs discovered her first, hordes of frenetic,
land-dwelling red crabs with pincers for cutlery. The dogs found her
next, but because they neither bayed nor howled, they kept the secret
to themselves. Only when the pigs got wind of it and began to squeal
with excitement did the queen"s gardener rouse himself from the shade
of a casuarina tree and stroll with detached curiosity toward the
community of living things that had gathered to feast on the remains
of the tortoise.
"Tu"iMalila is dead," the gardener announced to the queen"s
"Your Royal Highness," said the queen"s secretary to the
king, "Tu"i Malila is dead."
"Royal Wife and Queen," said the king to the queen, "Tu"i
Malila is dead."
The queen did not rise from her wrought iron chaise under the
banyan tree, but she did signal to her ladies in waiting to stop
swirling the palm-frond fans around her head as her huge moonface
quivered and her dark eyes filled with tears.
For more than two decades, long after the pigs had been spit-
roasted and the umu ovens had been dug for the funeral feast, which
drew nobility from all over Tongatapu, the giant tortoise lay where
she had died. In the course of time her empty carapace became as much
a feature of the palace gardens as the huge Norfolk Island pines and
the red gingerbread gables of the wooden palace. Generations of
princes and princesses played hide-and-seek behind her shell, until
in 1988 she was moved to the new Tonga National Center outside
Nuku"alofa, where her remains were displayed alongside portraits of
the monarchs. Visitors wondered at the vast parchment of her shell,
its surface scarred, chipped, burned, and in places worn as thin as a
fingernail from her encounters with pirates, explorers, missionaries,
kings, queens, and hurricanes.
Captain James Cook bought the giant tortoise in 1776 from a Dutch
merchant in Cape Town, South Africa, as he embarked on his third and
final voyage of the Pacific. She was not yet an adult, although she
was probably thirty years old, her skin young and supple with the
soft patina of sea glass. The Dutch merchant had bought her from
English pirates, who had manhandled her from her home on the atoll of
Aldabra, off the coast of Africa. She spent weeks in the dark bellies
of various ships, trussed, unwatered, and unfed, panicking at the
strange motion of the sea, the perpetual blackness, the stench of
men, the attacks of sea lice and rats. The sailors did not treat her
as a living thing. They kicked her, or carelessly dripped hot lamp
oil on her, and laughed.
She retreated into a hallucinogenic state in which she could
see in her mind"s eye the yellow light of Aldabra, the turquoise sea,
the opalescent sky decorated with the black kites of soaring frigate
birds. In that quiet world the rumble of surf on the barrier reef was
punctuated only by the trilling calls of terns or the scratching of
crabs scrambling across the rocks or the soft thud of giant tortoises
settling down for a nap. Most afternoons brought showers and thunder,
but even those were soothing sounds marking the passage of day toward
night. Nothing she had known in her native home could have prepared
her for the din of a wooden ship in rough seas, crowded with men and
Captain Cook took her aboard along with a menagerie of sheep,
goats, cattle, horses, and chickens, which turned his ship,
Resolution, into a floating ark. The giant tortoise was considered a
particularly valuable part of his oceangoing savings account, because
she could survive up to a year in the hold without food or water.
When called upon in a time of need, she would become turtle soup.
The sailors lowered her into the dank hold and the hatches
dropped down onto darkness. Resolution plunged south into the
mountainous waves of the Roaring Forties, where the ship began to
leak, squalls tore the mizzen topmast off, the horses tap-danced
nervously, and the sheep shivered and died. When a fog as dense as
smoke settled over the sea, Resolution and her companion ship,
Discovery, maintained contact with each other by the steady firing of
Months later the ships reached the tropical islands of Tonga,
where William Bligh, the young master of Resolution, oversaw the
tricky business of getting the tortoise onto a launch. Two sailors
ran the deck winch while three others waited below in the open boat.
The tortoise emerged from the darkness with her head drawn deep into
her shell and her eyes squeezed shut.
"A dozen lashes to any fool who drops it," shouted Bligh as
the sailors heaved. But the ropes shifted, the knots slipped, and the
tortoise crashed onto the boat"s thwart, chipping a bony plate on the
left side of her carapace.
Captain Cook accepted a gift a day from the Tu"i Tonga, the king of
the islands of Tonga, which Cook called "the Friendly Isles." He
accepted a sacred red feather bonnet, bowls of intoxicating kava to
drink, and exquisite paintings on bark, called tapa. In return, the
king took few gifts, showing no interest in the novelties that his
people borrowed with infuriating regularity from Resolution: cats,
muskets, buttons, nails, anchors. The king did not care for such
things. He accepted only one small glass bowl, some livestock, and
the tortoise, which Cook calculated that he would no longer need now
that the ship was sailing through lands of plenty. "For my wife,"
said the king, turning and awarding the tortoise to the queen.
The queen adored the tortoise from the start: her lustrous
shell, her eyes as darkas mirrors, the way she stretched her long
neck and tilted her head and hissed. It was a soft and undemanding
sound, yet one that never failed to catch the queen"s ear, even above
the sibilant hissings of the court.
Nearly a year had passed since the tortoise had been taken
from Aldabra, and by the time she arrived on Tonga she was emaciated
and dehydrated. The queen understood this at once and began to feed
her by hand, offering tempting gardenia blossoms, fe"i bananas,
coconut milk, and, wonder of wonders, the tart fruit of the
Polynesian screw pine. This screw pine was so much like the one on
Aldabra that when the tortoise ate it, the yellow flesh frothed up on
her lipless mouth and damp rings formed around her
eyes. "Faka "ofa "ofa," said the queen, recognizing the tortoise"s
favorite, and she promptly summoned slaves to bring in screw pine
fruit from all over Tongatapu and, toward the end of the fruiting
season, from as far away as Vava"u. The tortoise responded to these
feasts by swelling back into her skin so that the wrinkles and sags
The queen admired the tortoise"s girth. The queen was also
stout, the stoutest person in the islands other than her husband.
Serendipitously, the tortoise met all the criteria for Tongan
royalty: hugeness, ponderousness, dignity, silence. Soon the tortoise
began to join the king and queen on their stroll down the beach each
morning, their three stately bodies drifting in corpulent elegance
from the shade beneath one palm tree to that beneath another. To an
outsider they looked like a trio creeping against a hard current
"The tortoise lives faka tonga," the Tongan way, said the
queen to the king. "We will call him Tu"i Malila," King Malila. The
royal title guaranteed the tortoise"s future. Of all the animals that
Cook bestowed on or lent to the Tongans, only the tortoise escaped
the cooking fires.
In early summer the seabirds known as sooty terns returned by the
thousands to Tongatapu, swirling in on the long red streamers of
sunset, calling wide-awake, wide-awake. By twos and threes, Tongans
sat on sand esi, resting mounds on the beach, staring out to sea and
admiring the lines of the birds" wings as they hovered, then plunged
through the surface and rose with shiny fish in their bills.
Each afternoon, as slaves cast webs across the shallows and
gathered jewel-colored reef fish for the royal tables, the tortoise
joined the queen on the shore. While warriors drove canoes with
synchronous cuts of their paddles and girls slithered naked through
the water and the king bobbed on the waves, nude, brown, enormous,
buoyant, with terns butterflying around him, the queen"s ladies in
waiting removed her ta"ovala, her pandanus-mat clothing, and guided
her by the elbows to the water"s edge. With each step her flesh
rippled, rolls of fat cascading into motion up and down her body. The
king raised his head from his pillow on the waves and watched
Following the queen"s lead, the tortoise learned to swim,
sinking until only the crown of her shell remained dry, her long neck
snaking up through the surface each time she took a breath. She let
the warm water flood the secret folds of skin in her armpits, under
her tail, inside her shell. Although in Aldabra she had been
surrounded by the sea, she had never entered it before, and here,
dipping her head under, she studied its wonders: the queen"s
buttocks, huge, dimpled, swaying in the surge, the king"s hair
dangling like the tentacles of a jellyfish. Clouds of neon-blue
chromis rose to the surface to greet her. Needlefish skimmed the
mirrored underside of the waves.
Sometimes sea turtles flew past, thrusting long flippers
backward in graceful arcs. They were not tortoises, and yet they were
so similar that the tortoise found herself pistoning with her legs,
trying to follow into their blue world. But she was a creature of the
land, with feet, not flippers, and would never be able to dive. She
could only thrash at the surface until white bubbles boiled up,
The tortoise felt her loneliness most in the season when the sea
turtles came ashore. Although their realm was the ocean, they
returned to their birth islands once a year to lay their eggs. On
moonless nights they dragged themselves up the beaches, tears
streaming down their cheeks, to flipper open nests in the sand. The
sight of their smooth shells evoked ancient needs in the tortoise,
and she found herself drawn to sandy plateaus on the island, where
she dug her own holes and laid clutches of infertile eggs. On summer
nights she felt an irresistible attraction to fields of volcanic
boulders, which in the darkness resembled giant tortoises. Her shell
recorded the first of many deep abrasions from squeezing in between
The queen was admiring the smoky luster that reflected from the
tortoise"s shell when the news arrived. "The Captain Cook is dead,"
said the king to the queen. "He has died in the islands far to the
north." The queen had never been to Hawaii, but she knew about it.
"He died in battle with a king," said the king. "He was
cooked on a slow fire and eaten, and some of his bones are now kept
in a stone langi, a tomb, where they are worshipped."
The queen nodded. It was a fitting end for a grand enemy, and
the king himself could expect no better in battle. With her hand
resting on the tortoise"s neck, the queen remembered Cook"s white
wigs and frogged jackets, his kindness in leaving her Tu"i Malila.
She wondered what he had tasted like.
Late every summer, the Tongans gathered on the beaches as a slice of
the moon tumbled slowly through the sky and watched the sea turtles
squeeze out clutches of jellylike eggs and cover them with sand.
Cutting into a few select nests, the Tongans gathered eggs for the
royal table: for the king, who liked to pop an egg into each cheek
and squeeze it against his teeth until it burst and the salty proto-
turtle fluid gushed out, and for the queen, who preferred to roll one
around on her tongue until the outer membrane grew as thin as tissue
paper and the inner jelly dissolved. As the eggs were aphrodisiacs,
the king was soon roused to a tower of passion. Taking their cue, the
queen"s ladies in waiting discreetly removed her ta"ovala while the
king"s valets helped him shed his.
Afterward, when the tides of the winter solstice washed away
the sea turtle tracks and the spring equinox brought the flowering of
the poison-fish tree, the queen gave birth to her sixth child, her
sixth son. The queen was disappointed. Sons were wonderful, worthy,
strong, and often handsome, but they were not daughters. So she did
what many a daughterless Tongan family did: declared her youngest
child fakaleiti, like a lady. He was called Lini, a girl"s name, and
he was dressed like a girl and put out to play with the girls. The
queen crooned to him about skin potions and hair ornaments as she
taught him to weave flowers into garlands and arranged for him to
learn to dance the tau"olunga, the slow, sinuous solo dance of the
As he grew, Lini learned to seduce men with the cant of his
slim hips and the smolder in his pretty eyes. The king didn"t mind.
The queen had already given him five manly sons. He had other wives,
and through them other sons. His seed was broadcast plentifully.
Years passed, and Lini and the tortoise became inseparable, spending
their mornings together roaming the island and their afternoons
napping beneath a cool banyan tree. Lini lay on his side, his vala
skirt pulled up over his head, dreaming of warriors, their skin
oiled, the muscles on their backs flexing as they rowed through the
surf. The tortoise slept with her head and legs tucked tightly into
her shell, dreaming of tortoises bedded together in sand bunkers. In
her sleep she was able to transpose the sounds of surf and birds and
even Lini"s snoring into the rumblings and belchings of giant
"My daughter," said the queen one day, sinking onto her
haunches and shaking Lini awake as her ladies in waiting shooed flies
away with fans of white tropicbird feathers. "The Englishman named
William Bligh, who first came here with Captain Cook, has returned.
Excerpted from A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga by Whitty, Julia Excerpted by permission.
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