Tonga is an independent kingdom consisting of 171 islands; however, only 36 are inhabited. The islands include volcanoes (many still active) and coral atolls. The geology of Tonga is interesting in that Tonga sits on the eastern edge of the Indo-Australian Plate – a tectonic mass that is being driven upward by the Pacific Plate. This action has created a long oceanic valley running north-south that is more than 5.5 miles deep. The Tongan Trench is the second deepest of the oceanic trenches (the Marianas Trench east of the Philippines is deeper).
The Tongan islands themselves occupy less than 300 square miles, but they are spread over almost one half million square miles of the Pacific Ocean. There are four groups of islands, and they are, from north to south, the Niuas, Vava’u, Ha’apai, and Tongatapu.
The Tongan islands have been inhabited since at least 2500 BC. However, events since the fourteenth century are primarily responsible for forming today’s Tonga.
Around the fourteenth century, the king of Tonga saw himself as the spiritual leader of Tonga, and he delegated much of his secular power to his brother. This process was repeated once again years later, and three distinct lines of power resulted. The Tui Tonga (the original king of Tonga) had spiritual authority which extended over much of Polynesia (at the height of the Tongan empire, the power of the Tongan monarch extended as far as Hawaii). The Tui Ha’atakalaua and the Tui Kanokupolu, brothers of the Tui Tonga, shared the power and duties associated with the administration of the kingdom.
Contact with the western world began when Dutch navigators sighted Tonga in 1616. Another Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, was the first European to visit Tonga in 1643. He visited either the main island group of Tongatapu or Nomuka Island in the Ha’apai group – depending on the source.
Contact with the western world increased in the eighteenth century when other well-known navigators visited Tonga. Captain Cook visited the islands in 1773, 1774, and 1777. Then in 1789, Captain Bligh visited the islands, and the mutiny on the Bounty occurred in the waters of the Ha’apai group just off of Tofua Island.
The nineteenth century brought civil strife to the islands as each of the three previously established lines of kings sought dominance over the others. However, these disputes were resolved by divine intervention.
The London Missionary Society, which had a profound influence on other Pacific islands – including the Cook Islands – failed to convert the Tongans to Christianity, and they returned to England. But in 1826, two Wesleyan missionaries – Thomas and Hutchinson – arrived in Tonga, and they were successful where the London Missionary Society failed. In 1830 and 1831, Missionary John Thomas and his Tongan assistant, Pita Vi, converted Taufa’ahau – one of the claimants to the Tui Kanokupolu line – and Christianity began to spread throughout the islands. When Taufa’ahau was converted, he took the name of Siaosi (George) and his consort took the name Salote (Charlotte) in honor of King George III and Queen Charlotte of England. As Christianity spread, support for Taufa’ahau/Siaosi grew. In 1845, Siaosi was formally proclaimed King George Tupou I, and he reunited all of the Tongan islands.
In the late 19th century, after the United States abolished slavery, slave traders turned to South America and Australia to maintain their market. Between these two markets were the south pacific islands, and many Tongans became victims of this trade. Smaller populations on remote islands were more vulnerable to these ships – known as ‘blackbirders’ – and consequently, King George Tupou I ordered smaller villages to consolidate, and he ordered the evacuation of many smaller islands. Many of those islands remain uninhabited today.
At the onset of the twentieth century, Taufa’ahau’s great-grandson, George II, signed a Treaty of Friendship and Protection with the United Kingdom through which Tonga retained its independence and autonomy while the UK handled its foreign affairs and provided protection. Tonga continued to build relationships with Britain, New Zealand, and the United States over the next 50 years, and ultimately, they became an independent country on June 4, 1970.
Tonga is a hereditary absolute monarchy, and the government is administered by nobles who have lifetime appointments to Parliament. Tonga’s current king, crowned in 1965, His Majesty King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, is a direct descendant of Siaosi. The king, who is currently 87 years old, has many critics. In recent years, he has grown increasingly authoritarian and has curtailed press freedom. In response, in the 1990s, the Tongan Pro-Democracy Movement (TPDM) formed in an effort to curtail the power of the monarchy. Recent civil unrest has been an effort to change this form of government to a constitutional monarchy similar to Great Britain’s. This would include replacing lifetime appointments with elected officials, but this has not yet been passed by Parliament (which consists of lifetime appointees of the king).
Tonga has a cash economy based on farming and fishing. Their primary farming exports are squash, vanilla beans, and root crops. Most of Tonga’s commerce is with countries in the eastern hemisphere, and this seems a logical justification for Tonga adopting a time zone west of the dateline even though it is physically well east of it. However, despite their farming and fishing exports, the largest source of income in Tonga is cash remittances from relatives living abroad. Tongan expats number 24,000 in New Zealand, 10,500 in the U.S., and 4,500 in Australia.
The Tongan currency is the pa’anga. At present, the pa’anga is equivalent to approximately 55 cents in U.S. currency.
Since 1845, when Siaosi was formally proclaimed King George Tupou I, Tonga has had a constitutional obligation to avail land to its young men (but not young women) so that they can build a home and farm enough to feed their families. This unique system of land tenure entitles every Tongan male, at age 16, to lifetime rental of 8 ¼ acres of outlying land – what today’s Tongans refer to as their plantations – and a 3/8 acre plot of land in a village for his home. The young population of Tonga has grown large enough that the state can no longer meet this obligation throughout the country; however, it is still being met in the less populated areas.
Tonga’s population is something just above 100,000, and more than 98% of the Tongan people are Polynesian. Their values are characterized by their great respect for tradition and their nobles. Tongans value family and religion above all else – including material wealth. They do, however, struggle with moving toward modernization while maintaining those traditions.
In the Tongan family, each member plays a role. Women have higher status than in most other Polynesian societies, and the elderly command the most respect. Public life, however, is still dominated by men.
Religion is also of paramount importance to Tongans. Tongans not only attend church on Sundays, but their constitution has declared Sunday forever sacred. On Sunday, businesses do not operate (with a few exceptions), no sporting events take place, it is unlawful to work or trade, and contracts signed on Sunday are void.
The dress of the Tongans, like the Samoans, has been highly influenced by Christian missionaries, and it is characterized by modesty. Knees and shoulders are covered. A unique dress feature of Tonga are the woven pandanus garments. Both men and women sometimes wear a woven mat called a ta’ovala around their waists as a sign of respect for elders and royalty or as a sign of mourning. Alternatively, women may instead wear a highly decorative waistband called a kiekie. These are worn only in Tonga.
Although each island group in the Pacific has unique handicrafts, such as weavings, some crafts in Tonga are particularly unique. They are also much more than the western notion of crafts – these are an important part of Tongan life and culture. We were fortunate to find a printed discussion of Tonga’s most unique handicrafts – tapa and weaving – published by the Tonga Visitors Bureau. It is a worthy read for anyone interested in unique island handicrafts.
We arrived in Tonga from the north – from Apia, Western Samoa. So our first landfall in Tonga was the northernmost group – the Niuas. Then we traveled from the Niuas, through Vava’u, through the Ha’apai, and finally, through Tongatapu. Although all Tongans share much history and tradition, each island group also has unique features that we enjoyed as we experienced them.
Read about our stay in the Niuas, Vava’u, Ha’apai, and Tongatapu.
And now that the time has come to leave Tonga, we do so with a bit of sadness. Tonga has been a remarkable experience – the islands and especially the people. Although we have been here almost three months, we are not yet satiated with Tonga. We could stay here longer – much longer. But time dictates that we must leave, so we will leave with memories that will never leave us. Our lives are so much richer for having visited here. Nofo a, Tonga.
Follow us as we sail to New Zealand.