History of Tonga

The history of Tonga stretches back to around roughly 4000 B.C. when the Polynesians arrived. Tonga became known as the Tongan Empire through extensive trading. The Europeans arrived in the 17th century which was followed after a couple hundred years by a single unified Tongan kingdom.

Earliest Times

Archaeological evidence shows that the first settlers in Tonga sailed from the Santa Cruz Islands, as part of the original Austronesian-speakers' (Lapita) migration which was believed to have originated out of S.E. Asia some 6000 years before present. Archaeological dating places Tonga as the oldest known site in Polynesia for the distinctive Lapita ceramic ware, at 2800—2750 years before present. The Lapita people lived and sailed, traded, warred, and intermarried in the islands now known as Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji for 1000 years, before more explorers set off to the east to discover the Marquesas, Tahiti, and eventually the rest of the Pacific Ocean islands. For this reason, Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji are described by anthropologists as the cradle of Polynesian culture and civilization. This was part of the Austronesian expansion that spread people from southeastern Asia across the Pacific to the east and across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar and eastern Africa in the west. Over time and space, Tongan society became more settled, shaped strictly by both internal pressure and external influences. The external influences came in the form of imperial activities beginning with the Tu’i Pulotu empire in the Lau group (Fiji) and followed by the Tu’i Manu’a empire in Samoa. In other words, Tonga was under considerable influence from the imperialism of Samoa. However, Tonga was able to free herself through bitter and bloody wars from the imperial domination of the Tu’i Manu’a -- which eventually led to the formation of the Tu’i Tonga empire around AD 950 in the person of ‘Aho’eitu, the first Tu’i Tonga -- whose father was a deified Samoan high chief, Tangaloa ‘Eitumâtupu’a, and mother a Tongan woman, Va’epopua, of great noble birth. This double origin entitled the Tu’i Tonga to hold both divine and secular offices. In principle, the close cultural and historical interlinkages between Fiji, Samoa and Tonga were essentially elitist, involving the intermarriage between regional aristocratic families.

Early Culture

Centuries before Westerners arrived, Tongans created large monumental stoneworks, most notably, the Haʻamonga ʻa Maui and the Langi (terraced tombs). The Haʻamonga is 5 meters high and made of three coral-lime stones that weigh more than 40 tons each. The Langi are low, very flat, two or three tier pyramids that mark the graves of former kings.

Tongan Maritime empire

By the 12th century, Tongans, and the Tongan king, the Tuʻi Tonga, were known across the Pacific, from Niuē,Samoa to Tikopia they ruled these nations for 400 years plus, sparking some historians to refer to a 'Tongan Empire'. A network of interacting navigators, chiefs, and adventurers might be a better term. It is unclear whether chiefs of the other islands actually came to Tonga regularly to acknowledge their sovereign. Distinctive pottery and Tapa cloth designs also show that the Tongans have travelled from the far reaches of Micronesia, all the way to Fiji and even Hawaii. The Tongans were known as the powerhouse of the pacific, known for their intimidating cow skin drums, and for their amazing sailing ability, but most of all, the size and beauty of their people.

European arrival and Christianisation

In the 15th century and again in the 17th, civil war erupted. It was in this context that the first Europeans arrived, beginning with Dutch explorers Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire. Between April 21 to 23 1616 they moored at the Northern Tongan islands "Cocos Island" (Tafahi) and "Traitors Island" (Niuatoputapu), respectively. The kings of both of these islands boarded the ships and Le Maire drew up a list of Niuatoputapu words, a language now extinct. On 24 April 1616 they tried to moor at the "Island of Good Hope" (Niuafo'ou), but a less welcoming reception there made them decide to sail on.

On 21 January 1643, the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to discover and visit the main island (Tongatapu) and Haapai after rounding Australia and discovering New Zealand. The most significant impact had the visits of Captain Cook visits in 1773, 1774, and 1777, followed by the first London missionaries in 1797, and the Wesleyan Methodist Walter Lawry in 1822. Around that time most Tongans converted en masse to the Wesleyan (Methodist) and Catholic faiths. Later other denominations followed like: Pentecostal, Mormons, Bahaʻi, Seventhdays, and still more.


In 1799 the 14th Tui Kanokupolu, Tukuaho was murdered, which sent Tonga into a civil war for fifty years. Finally the islands were united into a Polynesian kingdom in 1845 by the ambitious young warrior, strategist, and orator Tāufaʻāhau. He held the chiefly title of Tu'i Kanokupolu, but was baptised with the name King George Tupou I. In 1875, with the help of missionary Shirley Baker, he declared Tonga a constitutional monarchy, at which time he emancipated the 'serfs', enshrined a code of law, land tenure, and freedom of the press, and limited the power of the chiefs. Tonga became a British protected state under a Treaty of Friendship on 18 May 1900, when European settlers and rival Tongan chiefs tried to oust the second king. The Treaty of Friendship and protected state status ended in 1970 under arrangements established prior to her death by the third monarch, Queen Sālote. Tonga joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970, and the United Nations in 1999. While exposed to colonial forces, Tonga has never lost indigenous governance, a fact that makes Tonga unique in the Pacific and gives Tongans much pride, as well as confidence in the monarchical system. The British High Commission in Tonga closed in March 2006.

Tonga's current king, George Tupou V, traces his line directly back through five generations of monarchs. The king, born in 1948, continued to have ultimate control of the government until July 2008. At that point, concerns over financial irregularities and calls for democracy led to his relinquishing most of his day-to-day powers over the government..

See also

Further reading

  • Queen Salote of Tonga: The Story of an Era 1900-1965 (ISBN 1-86940-205-7)
  • Latukefu, S. (1974)Church and State in Tonga, ANU Press, Canberra

External links

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