WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Church services across the tiny Pacific island nation of Samoa paused for a moment’s silence in honour of the late King Malietoa Tanumafili II on Sunday as the nation prepared for a week of official mourning.
Malietoa, who had been king of Samoa since the nation of about 180,000 people gained independence from New Zealand in 1962, died late on Friday in hospital in his country’s capital, Apia. He was 94.
The Samoan government has declared public holidays for Thursday and Friday for the king’s official funeral and burial, while flags have been lowered to half-mast across the country.
“There is a huge feeling of sadness amongst people, even from people who didn’t know the man. From the few public appearances he made, he’s touched a lot of people,” Keni Lesa, editor of the Samoan Observer newspaper told Reuters from Apia.
“He was much loved by everybody and he was highly respected.”
Malietoa inherited his royal title in 1940, and was made a special adviser to the New Zealand governor in Samoa, following the death of his father, Malietoa Tanumafili I.
He was a key figure in Samoa’s drive towards independence and was made joint head of state for life, alongside Tupua Tamasese Meaole when Samoa became the first Pacific Islands country to achieve independence in 1962.
Malietoa became sole head of state when Tupua Tamasese Meaole died in 1963.
Under Samoa’s constitution, Malietoa’s successor will be appointed for five-year terms and will be decided by the country’s Legislative Assembly, which is elected from mainly customary chiefs every five years.
Another paramount chief and former prime minister from the 1970s, Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi, is being seen as a likely successor.
Malietoa’s body will lie in state on Thursday with thousands expected to pay their respects in person, ahead of the funeral service on Friday.
Air New Zealand said it would increase capacity on flights to Samoa to cope with an expected demand by the large Samoan community to return for the funeral.
An estimated 130,000 Samoans or people of Samoan descent live in New Zealand, which captured the islands from Germany at the start of World War 1 in 1914, and ruled the country under international mandate until 1962.
A Samoan-born New Zealand member of parliament, Taito Philip Field, said Malietoa laid the foundation for the development of Samoa as a modern country.
“He held a lot of the wealth of history, what happened prior to independence and the struggle for independence,” Field told Radio New Zealand.
In 1940, Malietoa married Lili Tunu, who died in 1986, a year after their eldest son died. Another child died in infancy. He is survived by two sons and two daughters. (Additional Gyles Beckford)