The more than 150 islands constitute three main groups: Tongatapu (seat of the capital) in the south, Vavau in the north, and Haapai in the center. Several of the islands are volcanic, with active craters, but most are coral atolls. The climate is tropical. Most of the people are Polynesian and Christian (primarily Methodist). Tongan, a Polynesian language, and English are spoken. Squash, coconuts, bananas, vanilla beans, cocoa, coffee, ginger, and black pepper are grown, and there is fishing. Tourism and remittances from Tongans working abroad are also important. Squash, fish, vanilla beans, and root crops are exported, while foodstuffs, machinery and equipment, fuels, and chemicals must be imported. The main trading partners are Japan, the United States, and New Zealand.
Tonga is governed under the constitution of 1875 as revised. The monarch is the head of state, and the government is headed by the prime minister, who is appointed by the monarch. The unicameral Legislative Assembly has 32 seats, with 14 reserved for cabinet ministers, nine for nobles, and nine for representatives elected by popular vote; all serve three-year terms. Tonga is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Administratively, the country is divided into the three island groups.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the islands of Tonga were settled as early as 900 B.C., but the Polynesians are believed to have arrived some 400 years after that. The current ruling dynasty traces its rise to power to the 10th cent. Dutch navigators sighted the northern islands in 1616 and the rest of the group in 1643. Capt. James Cook visited the islands in 1773 and 1777 and named them the Friendly Islands. English missionaries arrived in 1797 and helped to strengthen British political influence. Internal wars in the early 19th cent. ended with the accession of King George Tupou I (1845-93), who unified the nation and gave it a constitution (1862), a legal code, and an administrative system. His successor, King George Tupou II (1893-1918) concluded a treaty making Tonga a British protectorate in 1900. Tonga remained self-governing, with the British responsible for foreign and defense affairs. Queen Salote Tupou III ruled from 1918 to 1965, when she was succeed by her son, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. A new treaty in 1968 reduced British controls, and complete independence was attained on June 4, 1970.
Since the late 1980s, Tongans have agitated for democratic reforms, but the king has generally opposed any change that would dilute the monarchy's power. In 2001 it was revealed that as much as $37 million in government funds had disappeared as a result of investment in a Nevada asset management company, and corruption within the royal family and government remains a problem. Amendments in 2003 to the constitution permit the restriction of freedom of speech, a move that was used to silence publications critical of the government, but parts of the amendments (and restrictive media laws passed in 2003) were subsequently declared void.
In 2005 two commoners were selected to join the cabinet for the first time, and in 2006 one (Fred Sevele) was appointed prime minister, also a first. In July-Sept., 2005, the nation experienced a civil service strike that turned into a call for democratic reform, but the strike was settled without any addressing of the broader political issues. King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV died in 2006, and George Tupou V succeeded him.
Frustration over the failure of the legislature to enact reforms led to rioting in the capital in Nov., 2006; many government offices and businesses were destroyed. Following the rioting, the government imposed a state of emergency and announced that there would be new legislative elections in 2008 and that a majority of the members of the legislature would be popularly elected. Subsequently, the government arrested a number of prodemocracy legislators on charges relating to the riots and moved to set back legislative reform to as late as 2010.
In the 2008 legislative elections, prodemocracy candidates, including incumbent legislators facing sedition charges dating from the 2006 riots, won two thirds of the popularly elected seats. In July, 2008, prior to the king's formal coronation, he announced that he would yield much of his power as part of a move toward democracy, but progress toward that goal was slow. The five legislators accused of seditious conspiracy had all their indictments dismissed in Sept., 2009, except for a seditious speech charge against one representative. A tsunami the same month devastated the northern island of Niuatoputapu. In Nov., 2009, the constitutional commission issued its recommendations, which called for reducing the king's power, making the head of government answerable to the Legislative Assembly, and increasing the people's legislative representatives.
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Tonga is the only sovereign monarchy among the island nations of the Pacific Ocean, as well as being the only island nation never to have been formally colonized.
The islands are also known as the Friendly Islands because of the friendly reception accorded to Captain Cook on his first visit in 1773. He happened to arrive at the time of the inasi festival, the yearly donation of the first fruits to the Tu'i Tonga, the islands' paramount chief, and was invited to the festivities. According to the writer William Mariner, in reality the chiefs had wanted to kill Cook during the gathering, but had been unable to agree on a plan.
The word tonga means 'south' in the Tongan language, an apt name for the islands as they are the southernmost group of all neighbouring Polynesian islands. The word tonga is to be pronounced as toŋa (not as ).
By the 12th century, Tongans, and the Tongan paramount chief, the Tu'i Tonga, were known across the Pacific, from Niue to Tikopia, sparking some historians to refer to a 'Tongan Empire'. In the 15th century and again in the 17th, civil war erupted. It was in this context that the first European explorers arrived, beginning with Dutch explorers Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire in 1616, who called on the northern island of Niuatoputapu, and Abel Tasman, who visited Tongatapu and Haapai in 1643. Later noteworthy European visits were by Captain Cook in 1773, 1774, and 1777, Alessandro Malaspina in 1793, the first London missionaries in 1797, and the Wesleyan Methodist Walter Lawry Buller in 1822.
Tonga was united into a Polynesian kingdom in 1845 by the ambitious young warrior, strategist, and orator Tāufaāhau. He held the chiefly title of Tui Kanokupolu, but was baptised with the name King George. In 1875, with the help of missionary Shirley Baker, he declared Tonga a constitutional monarchy, formally adopted the western royal style, 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. Within the British Empire, which posted no higher permanent representative on Tonga than a British Consul (1901-1970), it was part of the British Western Pacific Territories (under a colonial High Commissioner, then residing on Fiji) from 1901 until 1952. Although under the protection of Britain; Tonga is the only Pacific nation never to have given up its monarchial government as did Tahiti and Hawaii. The Tongan monarchy unlike the UK follows a straight line of rulers.
The Treaty of Friendship and Tonga's protectorate status ended in 1970 under arrangements established prior to her death by Queen Salote Tupou III. Tonga joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970 (atypically as an autochthonous monarchy, that is one with its own hereditary monarch rather than Elizabeth II), and the United Nations in September 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 their monarchical system. As part of cost cutting measures across the British Foreign Service, the British Government closed the British High Commission in Nukualofa in March 2006, transferring representation of British interests in Tonga to the UK High Commissioner in Fiji. The last resident British High Commissioner was Paul Nessling.
Tonga is a constitutional monarchy. The reverence for the monarch is likened to that held in earlier centuries for the sacred paramount chief, the Tui Tonga. Criticism of the monarch is held to be contrary to Tongan culture and etiquette. A direct descendant of the first monarch, King George Tupou V, his family, some powerful nobles, and a growing non-royal elite caste live in much wealth, with the rest of the country living in relative poverty. The effects of this disparity are mitigated by three factors: education, medicine, and land tenure.
Tonga's education system is free and mandatory for all children up to the age of fourteen, with only nominal fees for secondary education, and foreign-funded scholarships for post-secondary education. Tongans are well-educated, with a 98% literacy rate, and higher education up to and including medical and graduate degrees.
Tongans also have universal access to a socialized medicine system. Tongan land is constitutionally protected and cannot be sold to foreigners (although it may be leased). While there is a land shortage on the urbanized main island of Tongatapu (where 70% of the population resides), there is farm land available in the outlying islands. The majority of the population engages in some form of subsistence production of food, with approximately half producing almost all of their basic food needs through farming, sea harvesting, and animal husbandry. Women and men have equal access to education and health care, and are fairly equal in employment, but women are discriminated against in land holding, electoral politics, and government ministries. However, in Tongan tradition women enjoy a higher social status than men, a cultural trait that is unique among the insular societies of the Pacific.
There is a pro-democracy movement in Tonga, which emphasizes reforms including better representation in the Parliament for the majority commoners, and better accountability in matters of state. An overthrow of the monarchy itself is not part of the movement and the institution of monarchy continues to hold popular support, even while reforms are advocated. Until recently, the governance issue was generally ignored by the leaders of other countries, but major aid donors and neighbours New Zealand and Australia are now expressing concerns about some Tongan government actions.
Following the precedents of Queen Sālote, and with numerous international advisors, the government of Tonga under King Tāufaāhau Tupou IV has monetized the economy, internationalized the medical and education system, and enabled access by commoners to increasing forms of material wealth (houses, cars, and other commodities), education, and overseas travel. The government has supported Olympic and other international sports competition, and contributed Peacekeepers to the United Nations (notably to Bougainville and the Solomon Islands). The Tongan government also supported the American "coalition of the willing" action in Iraq, and a small number of Tongan soldiers were deployed, as part of an American force, to Iraq in late 2004. However, the contingent of 40+ troops returned home on 17 December 2004. In 2007, a second contingent was sent to Iraq while a third left Tonga in January 2008 to be part of Tonga's continuous support for the coalition.
The previous king, Tāufaāhau and his government have made some problematic economic decisions and are accused of wasting millions of dollars in poor investments. The problems have mostly been driven by attempts to increase national revenue through a variety of schemes, considering making Tonga a nuclear waste disposal site (an idea floated in the mid-90s by the current crown prince); selling Tongan Protected Persons Passports (which eventually forced Tonga to naturalize the purchasers, sparking ethnicity-based concerns within Tonga); registering foreign ships (which proved to be engaged in illegal activities, including shipments for al-Qaeda); claiming geo-orbital satellite slots (the revenue from which seems to belong to the Princess Royal, not the state); holding a long-term charter on an unusable Boeing 757 that was sidelined in Auckland Airport, leading to the collapse of Royal Tongan Airlines; building an airport hotel and potential casino with an Interpol-accused criminal; and approving a factory for exporting cigarettes to China (against the advice of Tongan medical officials, and decades of health promotion messaging). The king has proved vulnerable to speculators with big promises and lost several million (reportedly 26 million USD) to Jesse Bogdonoff, a financial adviser who called himself the king's Court Jester. The police have imprisoned pro-democracy leaders, and the government repeatedly confiscated the newspaper The Tongan Times (which was printed in New Zealand and sold in Tonga) because the editor had been vocally critical of the king's mistakes. Notably, the Kelea, produced specifically to critique the government and printed in Tonga by pro-democracy leader Akilisi Pōhiva, was not banned during that time. Pōhiva, however, had been subjected to harassment in the form of frequent lawsuits.
In mid-2003, the government passed a radical constitutional amendment to "Tonganize" the press, by licensing and limiting freedom of the press, so as to protect the image of the monarchy. The amendment was defended by the government and by royalists on the basis of traditional cultural values. Licensure criteria include 80% ownership by Tongans living in the country. As of February 2004, those papers denied licenses under the new act included the Taimi o Tonga (Tongan Times), the Kelea and the Matangi Tonga, while those which were permitted licenses were uniformly church-based or pro-government. The bill was opposed in the form of a several-thousand-strong protest march in the capital, a call by the Tui Pelehake (a prince, nephew of the king and elected member of parliament) for Australia and other nations to pressure the Tongan government to democratize the electoral system, and a legal writ calling for a judicial investigation of the bill. The latter was supported by some 160 signatories, including seven of the nine elected "People's Representatives". The strong-arm tactics and gaffes have overshadowed the good that the aged king had done in his lifetime, as well as the many beneficial reforms of his son, Ahoeitu Unuakiotonga Tukuaho (Lavaka Ata Ulukālala), who was Prime Minister from 3 January 2000 to 11 February 2006. The former Crown Prince and current monarch, Tupoutoa, and Pilolevu, the Princess Royal, remained generally silent on the issue. In total, the changes threatened to destabilize the polity, fragment support for the status quo, and place further pressure on the monarchy.
In 2005 the government spent several weeks negotiating with striking civil service workers before reaching a settlement. The civil unrest that ensued was not limited to just Tonga; protests outside the king's New Zealand residence made headlines, too. A constitutional commission is currently (2005-06) studying proposals to update the constitution.
Prime Minister Prince Ahoeitu Unuakiotonga Tukuaho (Lavaka Ata Ulukālala) resigned suddenly on 11 February 2006, and also gave up his other cabinet portfolios. He was replaced in the interim by the elected Minister of Labour, Dr Feleti Sevele.
On 5 July 2006, Prince Tu'ipelehake Uluvalu, his wife, and their driver were killed by a reckless driver in Menlo Park, California Tu'ipelehake, 55, was the co-chairman of the constitutional reform commission, and a nephew of the King.
The public expected some changes when Siaosi Tupou V (later King George Tupou V) succeeded his father in 2006. On November 16, 2006, rioting broke out in the capital city of Nuku'alofa when it seemed that the parliament would adjourn for the year without having made any advances in increasing democracy in government. Pro-democracy activists burned and looted shops, offices, and government buildings. As a result, more than 60% of the downtown area was destroyed, and as many as 6 people died.
On July 29, 2008, it was announced that King George Tupou V will be relinquishing much of his absolute power and surrendered his role in day-to-day governmental affairs to the Prime Minister. The royal chamberlain said that this was being done to prepare the monarchy for 2010, when most of the first parliament will be elected, and added: "The Sovereign of the only Polynesian kingdom... is voluntarily surrendering his powers to meet the democratic aspirations of many of his people." The previous week, the government said the king had completed the sale of his ownership of state assets which had contributed to much of the royal family's wealth.
Tonga's economy is characterized by a large non monetary sector and a heavy dependence on remittances from the half of the country's population that lives abroad, chiefly in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. The monetary sector of the economy is dominated and largely owned by the royal family and nobles. This is particularly true of the telecommunications and satellite services. Much of small business, particularly retail establishments on Tongatapu, is now dominated by recent Chinese immigrants who arrived under a cash-for-passports scheme that ended in 1998.
The manufacturing sector consists of handicrafts and a few other very small scale industries, all of which contribute only about 3% of GDP. Commercial business activities also are inconspicuous and, to a large extent, are dominated by the same large trading companies found throughout the South Pacific. In September 1974, the country's first commercial trading bank, the Bank of Tonga, opened. There are no Patent Laws in Tonga.
Rural Tongans rely on plantation and subsistence agriculture. Coconuts, vanilla beans, bananas and root crops such as yams, taro and cassava, are the major cash crops. The processing of coconuts into copra and desiccated (dried) coconut was once the only significant industry but deteriorating prices on the world market has brought this once vibrant industry, as everywhere throughout the island nations of the south Pacific, to a complete standstill. Pigs and poultry are the major types of livestock. Horses are kept for draft purposes, primarily by farmers working their 'api 'uta (a plot of bushland). More cattle are being raised, and beef imports are declining. The export of squash to Japan once brought relief to a struggling economy but recently local farmers are increasingly wary of this market due to price fluctuations, not to mention the huge financial risks involved.
Tonga's development plans emphasize a growing private sector, upgrading agricultural productivity, revitalizing the squash and vanilla bean industries, developing tourism, and improving the island's communications and transportation systems. Substantial progress has been made, but much work remains to be done. A small but growing construction sector is developing in response to the inflow of aid monies and remittances from Tongans abroad. It remains to be said that the most significant contributor to Tonga's economy are remittances from Tongans living abroad. In recognition of such a crucial contribution, the present Tongan government has created a new department within the Prime Minister's Office with the sole purpose of catering for the needs of Tongans living abroad. Furthermore, the Tongan Parliament in 2007 amended citizenship laws to allow Tongans especially those living overseas to hold dual citizenship.
Efforts are being made to discover ways to diversify. One hope is seen in fisheries; tests have shown that sufficient skipjack tuna pass through Tongan waters to support a fishing industry. Another potential development activity is exploitation of forests, which cover 35% of the kingdom's land area but are decreasing as land is cleared. Coconut trees past their prime bearing years also provide a potential source of timber.
The tourist industry is relatively undeveloped; however, the government recognizes that tourism can play a major role in economic development, and efforts are being made to increase this source of revenue. Cruise ships often stop in Nukualofa and Vavau.
Vava'u in fact is well known for its whale watching, game fishing, surfing, beaches and the like and is increasingly becoming a major player in the South Pacific tourism market.
Real estate companies have also just started to spring up in Tonga; as such, they were basically unheard of less than a decade ago. These have provided a way of making income for many Tongans as nearly every male Tongan has plots of land that he has never seen and the leasing of this valuable and attractive land allows the Tongan to live in a comfort not experienced before. There are also many Tongans who work as commission agents and earn a living by finding available land parcels and bringing them to local ex-pats or computer savvy Tongans to list on-line. Some of these so-called real estate companies have done more harm than good and one would be wise to be careful when dealing with them, however for the most part acquiring real estate in Tonga is a simple, straight forward and hassle free process.
In 2005 the country became eligible to become a member of the World Trade Organization, however on 25 July 2006 it was announced that Tonga has deferred its membership of the WTO until July next year according to the Tongan Prime Minister, Dr Feleti Sevele.
The delay he said did not mean that Tonga was withdrawing its WTO membership application, but to give Tonga more time to improve its tariff system.
Almost two-thirds of the 112,422 inhabitants of the Kingdom of Tonga live on its main island, Tongatapu. Although an increasing number of Tongans have moved into the only urban and commercial centre, Nukualofa, where European and indigenous cultural and living patterns have blended, village life and kinship ties continue to be important throughout the country. Everyday life is heavily influenced by Polynesian traditions and especially by the Christian faith; for example, all commerce and entertainment activities cease from midnight Saturday until midnight Sunday, and the constitution declares the Sabbath to be sacred, forever. The great majority of Tongans are Methodists with a significant Catholic minority and a growing Mormon adherence. The official figures from the latest government census of 2006 shows that the four major church affiliations in the kingdom currently stand as follows: Free Wesleyans (38,052 or 37%); Mormons (17,109 or 17%); Catholics (15,992 or 16%); Free Church of Tonga (11,599 or 11%). By their own church statistics, Mormons claim 48 percent of the population to substantiate their claim that Tonga is the most Mormon nation in the world.
Tongans, Polynesian by ethnicity with a very small mixture of Melanesian, represent more than 98% of the inhabitants. The rest are European, mixed European, and other Pacific Islanders. There also are several hundred Chinese.
Primary education between ages 6 and 14 is compulsory and free in state schools. Mission schools provide about 8% of the primary and 90% of the secondary level of education. State schools make up for the rest. Higher education includes teacher training, nursing and medical training, a small private university, a women's business college, and a number of private agricultural schools. Most higher education is pursued overseas.
The Tongan language is the official language of the islands, along with English. Tongan is an Austronesian language which is closely related to Wallisian (Uvean), Niuean and other Polynesian languages such as Hawaiian and Samoan.
70% of Tongan women aged 15-85 are obese. Tonga and nearby Nauru have the world’s fattest populations.
Tonga has been inhabited for perhaps 3,000 years, since settlement in late Lapita times. The culture of its inhabitants has surely changed greatly over this long time period. Before the arrival of European explorers in the late 1600s and early 1700s, the Tongans were in frequent contact with their nearest Oceanic neighbors, Fiji and Samoa. In the 1800s, with the arrival of Western traders and missionaries, Tongan culture changed dramatically. Some old beliefs and habits were thrown away, and others adopted. Some accommodations made in the 1800s and early 1900s are now being challenged by changing Western civilization.
Contemporary Tongans often have strong ties to overseas lands. Many Tongans have emigrated to Australia, New Zealand, and the United States to seek employment and a higher standard of living. U.S. cities with significant Tongan American populations include Portland, Oregon; Anchorage, Alaska; San Mateo, California; East Palo Alto, California; San Bruno, California; Oakland, California; Inglewood, California; Los Angeles, California; Salt Lake City, Utah; Honolulu, Hawaii; Reno, Nevada, and Euless, Texas (in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex). Large Tongan communities can also be found in Auckland, New Zealand, and in Sydney, Australia. This Tongan diaspora is still closely tied to relatives at home, and a significant portion of Tonga's income derives from remittances to family members (often aged) who prefer to remain in Tonga.
Tongans, therefore, often have to operate in two different contexts, which they often call anga fakatonga, the traditional Tongan way, and anga fakapãlangi, the Western way. A culturally adept Tongan learns both sets of rules and when to switch between them.
Rugby union is the national sport in Tonga, and the national team ('Ikale Tahi or Sea Eagles) has performed quite well on the international stage. Although the national team has not performed as well as neighboring Samoa and Fiji, Tonga has competed at four Rugby World Cups, the first being in 1987. The 2007 Rugby World Cup was its most successful to date, with Tonga winning both of its first two matches, against the USA 25–15 and Samoa 19–15; and came very close to upsetting the eventual winners of the 2007 tournament, the South African Springboks, losing 30–25 in the end. They then lost to England 36–20 in their last pool game to end their hopes of making the knockout stages but were by no means disgraced. In fact, by picking up third place in their pool games behind South Africa and England, Tonga has since been rewarded with automatic qualification for the 2011 Rugby World Cup to be held in New Zealand.
Its best result prior to 2007 was in 1995 when they won one game beating Ivory Coast 29–11, and 1999 when they won one game beating Italy 28–25 (although with only 14 men they lost heavily to England in 1999, 10–101). Tonga performs the "Sipi Tau" (war dance) before its matches. Tonga used to compete in the Pacific Tri-Nations against Samoa and Fiji which has now been replaced by the IRB Pacific 6 Nations involving as well Japan, the second string All Blacks (Junior All Blacks) and Wallabies (Australia A) although from 2008 the Junior All Blacks would be replaced by the Maori All Blacks. At club level, there are the Datec Cup Provincial Championship and the Pacific Rugby Cup. Rugby union is governed by the Tonga Rugby Football Union, which is also a member of the Pacific Islands Rugby Alliance. Tonga contributes to the Pacific Islanders rugby union team. Jonah Lomu, Viliami (William) 'Ofahengaue and George Smith are all of Tongan descent. Rugby is popular in the nation's schools and students from schools such as Tupou College are regularly offered scholarships from New Zealand, Australia and Japan. It should be added, however, that many players of Tongan descent also make it big in the Australian National Rugby League competition. These include Willy Mason, Brent Kite, Willie Tonga, Anthony Tupou, Antonio Kaufusi, Israel Folau, to name but a few.
Tongan Boxer Paea Wolfgram won the silver medal in the Super Heavyweight division (>91kg) at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. To date, he remains the only Pacific islander to ever win a medal at the Olympics.
Tongan women are known for being skillful jugglers.