Feature

The Half-Century Files: The King and I

Royalty, surf emissaries, and azure lineups in Tonga with Jeff Divine.

“Tonga, 1992. As we approached the king’s compound and were ushered into an adjacent house, we couldn’t help but notice the Yater surfboard tucked away in his garage area. King Tupou IV (1918-2006) was imposing at 400 pounds. Giant hands. Size 47 shoes. Six feet, five inches tall. I was on a photo/surf/Surfer mag safari with Tom Carroll, Kelly Slater, Jeff Booth, Todd Miller, Sonny Miller, and Ben Marcus. The king was an anglophile and was ushered around the island in a black London cab. ‘It’s easier to exit from when you are wearing a sword,’ he said. We wore jackets and ties and were properly seated in his dining area when he came in to greet his guests. There were framed photos of him with the Queen of England and other foreign dignitaries scattered about. He described that he often went surfing at his favorite local spot with a flotilla of boats, security, and hangers on. A surfing shot of him had actually run in National Geographic. He was a regular foot.

The king described that he often went surfing at his favorite local spot with a flotilla of boats, security, and hangers on. He was a regular foot.

“He told us how excited he was to know that we had been surfing the outer islands of his kingdom. Sonny showed him video clips and he couldn’t stop smiling. A day or so later we were hanging around on our chartered fishing boat when busloads of people began unloading at the harbor seawall. The masses had come to wish the king a happy birthday. As it became dark, the thousands lining the harbor started to light dried palm fronds and wave the torches in the air. Ten miles out to sea, on an outer island, you could see another lineup of flaming torches waving in the night—a happy birthday gesture for their king.” —Jeff Divine

Fifty years ago, TSJ’s photo editor Jeff Divine picked up a Pentax H1a and began shooting the surf landscape and its denizens, creating images that in many cases have now become iconic. In this semi-regular series, we’ll blow the dust off a half-century’s worth of slide-sheets and dig around for the under-seen shots, always with an eye for compositions that offer riffs on time, place, and the backstory to his body of work.