Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Latukefu, Sione (1927–1995)

by Donald Denoon

This article was published online in 2019

Sione Latukefu, by Bill Gammage, n.d.

Sione Latukefu, by Bill Gammage, n.d.

Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, ANU

Sione Lātūkefu (1927–1995), Methodist minister and Pacific Islands historian, was born on 16 April 1927 at Kolovai village, Tongatapu, Tonga, eldest of nine children of Siosiua 'Alopi Lātūkefu, Methodist minister, and his wife Mele Vaimoana, née ‘Ahio. Siosiua was an authority on traditional wisdom and Methodist orthodoxy, and he and his wife were prepared to make sacrifices to educate their children. Studious and quick, Sione was fascinated by traditions and Bible stories. In hierarchical Tonga, he was destined to teach in local schools or become a village pastor.

Two vital influences expanded Lātūkefu’s choices. Queen Sālote recognised his gifts and encouraged his studies; and Australian missionaries nurtured his education at Tupou College, at Sia-á-Toutai Theological College (LTh, 1954, Melbourne College of Divinity), and at the University of Queensland (BA, 1958; DipEd, 1959; BEd, 1962) where he studied history. Accustomed to the authority of traditional knowledge and rote learning, he wrestled with long reading lists and the need to argue a case. While working to support himself, he studied heroically for his degrees. The Church vetoed postgraduate studies, so he came home, taught at Tupou College (1959–62), and was ordained a minister of the Free Wesleyan Church in 1960.

With help from friends, particularly Rev. C.F. Gribble, at the time head of Methodist Missions in Sydney, and despite opposition from the Tongan Traditions Committee, Lātūkefu returned to Australia in January 1962 and found temporary work at the University of Sydney carting milk crates. The Methodist network supported his move to the Australian National University (ANU), where scholarships enabled him to study history full time (PhD, 1967). Queen Sālote hoped that he would be Tonga’s first archivist, but her death in 1965 deprived him of her patronage, and no position eventuated. Meanwhile he had courted another great influence on his life, and on 4 June 1966 he married the German-born anthropologist Ruth Annette Fink at Wesley College Chapel, University of Sydney.

Lātūkefu’s loyalty to Tonga never wavered but relations with traditional authorities back home were always delicate for a commoner with an enquiring mind and independent access to archives. In 1965 he had challenged the accepted view of King George Tupou I’s birthplace. Several notables objected, but he repeated the claim in the book arising from his thesis, Church and State in Tonga (1974), and defended his view at a meeting chaired by the premier, Prince Fatafehi Tu’i Pelahake. Eventually King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV affirmed Lātūkefu’s interpretation. A serious dispute arose in 1967 when he published ‘Tonga after Queen Sālote’ in the Journal of Pacific History, which was more analytical and less reverential than the Tongan establishment expected. His reputation in his native country was secured when he was found to be the only scholar equipped to write The Tongan Constitution, a centenary history published in 1975.

After unsuccessful attempts to obtain suitable employment in Tonga, Lātūkefu and his wife applied to lecture at the new University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). In 1967 they began eighteen productive years on Waigani campus, where he created a Pacific Islands history course. Equally important, he was a role model who embodied a successful career from mission schools to a doctorate, and he offered perspectives other than those of local politicians or Australian academics. Unlike the Polynesian pastors his students remembered, dominating the villages where they served, he did not condescend, but suggested how to reconcile Christian faith with Western rationalism. His empiricism moderated the radicalism of some colleagues and the anti-colonial zeal of some students, and his benign opinions shaped the editing of his last major publication, Papua New Guinea: A Century of Colonial Impact, 1884–1984 (1989).

Retiring from UPNG in 1985, Lātūkefu became a visiting fellow in the Research School of Pacific Studies at the ANU until 1988, when he was appointed principal of the Pacific Theological College, Suva, Fiji. Three years later a heart condition prompted his retirement. He returned to the ANU where he resumed as a visiting fellow to research the Tongan pro-democracy movement. Down to earth in every way, he had grown such fine crops in the arid soil of his Waigani garden that many suspected magic. His courtesy and steadfastness in the seminar room or on the tennis court disarmed his few opponents: he always expected the debate—or the ball—to come his way. Survived by his wife, and their daughter and son, he died in Canberra on 2 June 1995 and was cremated. His family took his ashes to be interred in Tonga.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Australian National University Archives. ANUA 395/82, Sione Lātūkefu
  • Australian National University Archives. ANUA 523, Sione Lātūkefu, Papers, 1962–95
  • Griffin, James. ‘Principled Scholar Made Tongan History.’ Australian, 14 June 1995, 12
  • Lātūkefu, Sione. ‘The Making of the First Tongan-born Professional Historian.’ In Pacific Islands History: Journeys and Transformations, edited by Brij Lal, 14–31. Canberra: The Journal of Pacific History, 1992
  • Lātūkefu, Sione. ‘Tonga after Queen Sālote.’ Journal of Pacific History 2 (1967): 159–62
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

Additional Resources

Citation details

Donald Denoon, 'Latukefu, Sione (1927–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/latukefu-sione-27650/text35141, published online 2019, accessed online 22 October 2019.

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