Book Review – Obscure Kingdoms

Michael L. Nash, Contemporary Review, December 1994



What can one say about a book which has only one footnote, and that footnote is about the meaning of life? This is an indication of this extraordinary and absorbing book. The reader is intrigued also by the author, an American who studied both at Cambridge and Columbia, and who combines a winning reticence and modesty with an original and memorable turn of phrase. It is a somewhat surprising mixture of the American film director and the traditional English scholar. In absorbing both of these cultures, Edward Fox set forth to discover the meaning of monarchy; not from the well-known and ancient monarchies of the West, so sorely tried in recent times, but from the 'obscure' monarchies of Tonga, Swaziland, Nigeria, Oman and Indonesia.

A great deal is to be learned from this book, on all kinds of levels. It is entertaining and philosophical; it is an excellent travel book of a traditional genre; it is above all (and in this it succeeds) an explanation of the world's fascination with the idea of monarchy. It explores 'the peculiar, the supernatural and the ceremonial', and using the analogy of the onion, peeling away layer after layer, attempts to get to the heart of monarchy. Fox spent a great deal of time waiting to see his chosen sovereigns. He concluded, quite correctly, that this an essential element of the institution. A great many people wait a great deal of time. In doing so, they focus the mind, though not always the patience. Englishmen could have told him that if you scratch a monarchy, you will almost certainly find British influence somewhere. He was surprised to find that the British had ruled Java from 1811 to 1816 and had left their mark, but it was so. More predictably, in Oman, in Nigeria, in Swaziland and in Tonga British influence was apparent, if not indelible.

Distance and accessibility are part of monarchy: a balance is required. The kings of Tonga, Swaziland and Oman are all heads of state; those in Nigeria and Java have a social sovereignty, and a religious one, but not necessarily a state or political one, although one tends to tip over into the other. In Java the Sultan is king and politician, (cf. the metamorphosis of Otto von Habsburg from heir to one of the greatest monarchies on earth into one of the subtlest, most consummate and experienced politicians in Europe).

When monarchies fail, their shadow is sometimes very long, as if rooted in the human psyche. In Hawaii one of its princes became a long-serving American senator; in Java the sultans were crowned at the spot where the presidents of Indonesia are now inaugurated.

What is still surprising is that all monarchies seem to have so much in common: the king has some kind of meditative or ethical role; he symbolizes the people and their identity; those through whom one can gain access are important because of this role. There is also the union of opposites; the union of male and female principles -- no wonder it is difficult being a sovereign!

One is constantly amused and delighted by Fox's language. We identify with him in every situation. He is human and witty. In Java the Sultan's throne room 'was like the interior of a gigantic Faberge egg'; of the interpreter: 'She spoke shattered English at a furious rate': more is quotable than one review would suffice.

It is perhaps fitting to end on a British quotation (even if a politically incorrect one). Attitude towards monarchy acts like some kind of solvent, or litmus paper: it changes other conceptions or overrides them. Edward VII, as Prince of Wales, tried his diplomatic skills to win over King Kalakua of Hawaii, to bring him over to the British side when he was veering towards the Americans. On a visit to London he was literally treated royally, wined and dined on every occasion, dancing with the Princess of Wales, and given precedence over mere princes. This was too much. The Crown Prince of Prussia objected. The Prince of Wales retorted: 'Either the brute is a King, or he's a common or garden nigger; and, if the latter, what's he doing here?' This, like the book, speaks volumes for both monarchy and for attitude.