Britain to close the doors of South Pacific outposts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2005, 12:00am

It is the epitome of the British diplomatic outpost in the tropics, from the Union Jack fluttering alongside a grove of palm trees to the immaculate white residency overlooking the deep blue waters of the South Pacific.

The British High Commission in Tonga is one of the Foreign Office's most distant and exotic postings, but its days are numbered.

The high commission, which dates back to 1901, will be mothballed within the next year, along with Britain's diplomatic missions in neighbouring Kiribati and Vanuatu.

All three countries were former British colonies or protectorates and the scrapping of the high commissions brings to an end an era that began with the explorers, whalers and merchant adventurers of the 19th century.

The closures are part of a global restructuring by Britain designed to divert more resources towards fighting terrorism, international crime and nuclear proliferation.

'It's been an absolute privilege,' said Paul Nessling, the current high commissioner, strolling through a lush garden of flame trees, banana palms and bougainvillea.

'It's the oldest British residency in the Pacific, and it's the only one to retain an aura of days gone by. Who wouldn't enjoy living in a historic wooden bungalow looking out onto the Pacific?'

The house is guarded by four navy cannons salvaged from the British privateer Port-au-Prince, which was attacked by Tongans in 1806 during one of the frequent clashes with European explorers.

It occupies the site of Tonga's main royal fortress; bones and 19th century silver coins have been unearthed by the high commission's gardeners.

Inside, the walls are decorated with photographs of the Tongan royal family, a young Queen Elizabeth and British colonial officials in pith helmets and naval uniforms.

Britain's interests in Tonga, Kiribati and Vanuatu will be transferred to the much larger high commission in Fiji, in a policy officially known as 'hub and spoke'.

But some Tongans cannot help feel that they are being abandoned by their oldest ally.

'There's a sense that we are being sidelined,' said Pesi Fonua, one of Tonga's most prominent journalists. 'The links with Britain are very deep in the Tongan psyche and there is a sense now that there will be a big gap.'

He does not see a long future for the stately residency either. 'It's riddled with termites and we won't be able to afford to look after it.'

Crown Prince Tupouto'a, 56, the son of Tonga's 86-year-old king and a former officer in a British cavalry regiment, said: 'Obviously it's a matter of sadness, but we understand the pressure the Foreign Office is under.

'We'll retain a substantial office in London, so the ties will continue.'