The name Tonga is composed of to (to plant) and nga (a place). It also means “south.” Recent archaeological findings suggest people arrived in the archipelago or “land lying in the south” about 1500 BCE from Fiji, located northwest of Tonga. These first colonists, seafaring ancestors of the Polynesians, were a culture distinguished by Lapita pottery. The Tongan creation myth explains how Maui fished the islands from the ocean.
Another myth describes the first Tui Tonga (king) as son of Tangaloa, a god, and a human female. This sacred line of kings and queens ruled from the 10th century CE to about 1470, when the reigning Tui Tonga transferred his temporal powers to his brother under the title of Tui Ha a Takalaua. A similar transfer of power about 1600 resulted in the creation of a third line of monarchs, the Tui Kanokupotu.
Many believe Captain James Cook, who called Tonga the “Friendly Islands” when he visited between 1773 and 1777, was the first European to arrive. Actually, Dutch navigators Jakob LeMaire and Abel Janszoon Tasman had been there already, in 1616 and 1645, respectively.
Volcanic undersea mountains form two roughly parallel chains of islands. The western column is higher, having been raised well above sea level by repeated volcanic activity. Four of these islands still erupt. The lower islands in the eastern chain can resist erosion because of caps made of coral rock and limestone reefs. There are 169 islands, 36 of which are inhabited by 110,000 people. The capital is Nukualofa, on Tongatapu Island. The total area is 289 square miles.
A nation of paradoxes, Tonga was one of the most centralized and highly stratified societies in the Pacific before proclaiming itself an independent constitutional monarchy in 1875. Even though change of government by constitutional means has occurred in Tonga, as it has in most Pacific nations, under the present constitution it is not likely that the government would yield its emphasis on status, titles, and hegemony following a general election. All land is owned by the king, nobles, and government and leased to citizens who pay tribute, usually with food; foreigners cannot own land. Although there are parliamentarians elected by commoners today, these are outnumbered and outvoted by representatives of nobles who are unlikely to go along with any changes proposed by the former. For the most part, commoners are still excluded from effective participation in government. The current system is undergoing challenge from an active pro-democracy movement that seeks greater accountability. Aristocrats who do not want to change the current system claim monarchy can respond more quickly to the needs of people than democracy could. They suppress calls for reform and manage to intimidate critics by means of court actions and withdrawal of publishing licenses.
Tongans are a proud people with familial bonds to the land. Social practices grounded in loyalty to kin as well as respect for elders and the “old ways” of telling stories in song and dance; making medicines from plants; raising root crops, maize, watermelons, tomatoes, tropical fruits, fowl, livestock and timber; fishing reefs; weaving baskets; beating bark cloth; celebrating; and drinking kava together have enabled the small nation to survive challenges ranging from battles between chiefs to the arrival of trade ships in the 17th century and exposure to outside commerce in the 20th. Tongans sell fish, handicrafts, coconuts, pumpkins, and vanilla to others, but they are critical of the values of visitors and of the capitalist, individualistic, mass society from which they come. They want to maintain difference between themselves and the rest of the world; yet they covet the West’s material wealth and comfort. Many have migrated to New Zealand, Australia, and the United States to find work and send remittances back to family.
Another paradoxical fact is that these warm, friendly islanders, predominantly Christian and both generous and hospitable, used to be skilled navigators and fierce warrior cannibals who had political and cultural influence over neighboring islands until two hundred years ago. Then they fought internally; civil war broke out in the 1780s. With a kingship believed to be partly divine in origin and an executive below the king determined by clear principles of inheritance from one generation to the next, there was no need for internal contests to decide who would rule until a succession of brothers held senior titles that made each an eligible heir. Aggression subsided in the 1790s but erupted again at the end of the decade with a political assassination. Sporadic but often bitter warfare continued for twenty more years. The old political system was demolished in this period, then reconstructed in the late 1820s in modified form.
Experts attribute the survival of the new system to the adroit leadership of George Tupou I, a high-ranking chief descended from persons who held the title Tui Kanokupotu and a convert to Christianity who introduced a Constitution in 1875 that eliminated the absolute power of chiefs. He was considered the only person able and willing to bring Tonga under united rule. He issued a new law code in 1850 and secured international recognition by issuing a second, bolder code of law in 1862 that included emancipation of people from serfdom, compulsory education of children, regular taxation, and new principles of land distribution.
Although Tongan is the official language, widespread knowledge of English resulted while Tonga was a British protectorate for the first 70 years of the 20th century. Today villagers know little English but enjoy an oral tradition of proverbs, religious epics, genealogies, poetry, fables, and myths. English is taught as a second language in elementary and secondary classrooms and used in business transactions in major towns. Tongan, meanwhile, is spoken in streets, shops, markets, schools, offices, and churches. Tongans are proud of nearly 100% literacy. Three separate Tongan dialects have been used in ceremonies by ha a matapule (talking chiefs) whose task it is to mediate encounters between king, nobles, and commoners during tributes to the king on each major island once a year and whose place in the hierarchical social structure is below kings and nobles, and ahead of would-be talking chiefs and commoners.
Kin groups include married couples and their children and extended family living in different households. Everyone contributes to parenting, and adoption is frequent. Traditional brother-sister avoidance is enforced, and 10-year-old boys must sleep in a separate house. Brothers and sisters do not watch videos together nor discuss topics such as sex.
Gender and age establish hierarchy at any level of society. Inherited titles and land may follow a male line of descent, but females have higher status in the social hierarchy. An egalitarian attitude exists at home and in the marketplace. Human rights are generally well respected in Tonga, although political dissent is suppressed. Other nations are watching with concern the threat to freedoms of speech and press in Tonga.
- Campbell, I. C. (1989). A history of the Pacific Islands. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Campbell, I. C. (1998). “Gone native” in Polynesia: Captivity narratives and experiences from the South Pacific. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Ferdon, E. N. (1987). Early Tonga: As the explorers saw it 1616-1810. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.