Image: King Taufa'Ahau Tupou IV of Tonga
Phil Walter  /  Getty Images
King Taufa'Ahau Tupou IV of Tonga in May 2006
updated 9/10/2006 11:59:00 PM ET 2006-09-11T03:59:00

Tonga's King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, a towering figure in the tiny Pacific Island nation for four decades, has died in a New Zealand hospital, the government said Monday. He was 88.

His death ended one of the world's longest reigns by a monarch in modern times. He ruled 41 years.

King Tupou IV died after a long, unspecified illness in a hospital where he had spent most of the past several months, plunging the remote country into a mourning period expected to last for months, the Tongan government said.

"The sun has set in the kingdom of Tonga," said the formal death announcement.

His son Crown Prince Tupouto immediately ascended the throne. The new monarch, King Taufa'ahau Tupou V, will take the vows Monday, and his coronation will occur later, Tonga's Chief Justice Tony Ford said, according to New Zealand's National Radio.

The end of Tupou IV's reign is likely to fuel a push for more democracy in the near-feudal kingdom. The royal family has ruled with absolute power since tribal groups on more than 170 Polynesian islands united into a single kingdom in 1845.

Scam artists and bad decisions
Tupou IV benefited from a historical reverence for the monarchy. That sentiment has waned in recent years as most people languished in poverty even as the royal family enriched themselves from the nation's meager resources, fell prey to scam artists and oversaw bad economic decisions.

Tupou IV ascended the throne in 1965 after his mother Queen Salote died.

At age 14, he was one of Tonga's top athletes; he could pole vault more than 9 feet, played tennis, cricket, rugby and also rowed competitively in a racing skiff.

But like many of his countrymen, he became obese and remained so for most of his adult life.

National diet
In the 1990s, Tupou IV led his 108,000 people on a diet and exercise regime aimed at cutting the levels of fat in a nation where coconut flesh and mutton flaps are dietary staples.

From a weight listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the heaviest for any monarch -- 462 pounds -- the king shed around 154 pounds.

At his death, the king was surrounded by his wife Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho and members of the royal family, the government said.

The body will be taken to the Tongan royal residence in Auckland Tuesday where it will lie in state for one night to allow thousands of Tongan residents of New Zealand to pay respects.

A New Zealand air force airplane will then fly his body back to Tonga on Wednesday where it will lie in state.

Details of his funeral were still to finalized.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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