Located in the South Pacific, squarely within the Polynesian Triangle, lies the Kingdom of Tonga.
While there are many islands and several countries within that region, Tonga has a unique history among them.
The Tongans were one of the most dominant cultures in the Pacific, ruled an extensive sea-based empire, and were one of the only people in the Pacific who were never technically colonized by Europeans.
Learn more about the Kingdom of Tonga, its history, and its culture on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, as a traveler, the Pacific is my favorite region on Earth. It is a region that few people are familiar with, and fewer people actually visit.
Some of the countries might be names that they’ve heard of, like Samoa, Tonga, or Fiji, yet other places, like Tuvalu, Tokelau, or Nauru, are so obscure they might not have even known they existed.
On a map, it is very difficult to pick out most countries because they lack land borders, and oftentimes they are so small that when looking at a map of the world on a computer screen, the actual size of the country would be less than a pixel.
Because they are so remote and so little understood, people tend just to lump them all together. To be fair, some of the countries do have cultural similarities, in particular the Polynesian countries.
However, once you’ve been to the region and have experienced several of these places, you can get a better sense of how they are different.
When I first visited Tonga, I had spent several months island hopping through the Pacific, almost exclusively through other Polynesian territories such as French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Easter Island, Samoa, and American Samoa.
When I arrived in Nu’kualofa, the capital of Tonga, I sensed that something here was different. Things were similar but not quite the same as I found in other Polynesian islands.
It turned out that there was a reason for it, and that reason mostly had to do with the unique history of Tonga.
Before I get into the history of Tonga, I should briefly describe the geography of the country.
Tonga is located due south of Samoa, southeast of Fiji, and about ? of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand. The country consists of an archipelago of islands. The largest island is Tongatapu, where the capital city of Nuku?alofa is located.
The other major island groups are Ha?apai and Vava’u.
Many Pacific countries consist either of coral atolls, which sit almost at sea level, or volcanic islands. Tonga has both. There are a total of 171 islands in Tonga, of which 45 are inhabited. However, if you remember back to my episode on the 2022 Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption, new islands are being made all the time.
The first humans arrived in Tonga about 3000 years ago, and the first settlers are believed to have been the Lapita people who migrated from Asia. The story of early settlement in Tonga is very similar to other islands in the region, which saw the first humans around the same time.
Many of the early Polynesian settlers from all over the Polynesian Triangle, from New Zealand to Hawaii, may have all descended from some of the first Lapita people on Tonga.
In fact, I’ve mentioned the ancient Lapita people so many times that I figure they deserve an episode of their own at some point.
Eventually, as the islands were settled, chiefdoms sprang up, and a civilization developed.
There is a great deal we don’t know about ancient Polynesia due to the geology of the region and the lack of a written language.
However, it is believed that in Tonga, many of the chiefdoms may have been unified under a single ruler. The reason for this belief is what began to happen around the year 950.
The Tongans began to expand, conquering other islands in the region. This was the development of the Tu?i Tonga Empire, otherwise just known as the Tongan Empire. The term Tu?i Tonga comes from the name of the king of Tonga, who was known as the Tu?i Tonga. There were 49 holders of the title Tu?i Tonga, which lasted until 1865.
The Tongan Empire largely replaced the Tui Manu’a Empire, also known as the Samoan Empire, which had established hegemony in the region several centuries before.
The core of the Tongan Empire included modern-day Tonga, Samoa, American Samoa, and Fiji. However, over several hundred years, the Empire ranged as far as the Solomon Islands in the west to part of French Polynesia in the East.
For those of you studying for the language section of the SAT or a spelling bee, the name for a maritime empire is a Thalassocracy.
The Samoans eventually broke free of the Tongas sometime in the late 12th or early 13th century, but the Tongan Empire continued for several centuries, exerting influence around the Pacific.
I don’t want to gloss over this period of Tongan dominance in the region because, as we’ll see, there are echoes of this that still can be felt in Tonga today.
The first European contact with Tonga occurred in 1616 when Captain Willem Schouten of the Dutch ship Eendracht arrived looking to trade with the locals.
This was followed by a series of European ships that stopped at the islands over the next 150 years. The visits were infrequent, perhaps only one visit every decade or more.
When British Captain James Cook visited Tonga in the 1770s, he recorded seeing a wide diversity of people from various Pacific islands in Tonga, which was a testament to how much power and influence Tonga still wielded even as late as the 18th century.
The 19th century saw large changes in Tongan society.
While Europeans never took over and colonized Tonga, they did have a great deal of influence. The biggest change was the spread of Christianity. Christian missionaries came to Tonga and were quite successful. The first wave of missionaries converted people primarily to Catholic and Methodist Churches, however, other Protestant denominations soon followed.
The other big change in Tongan society was the result of a civil war which began with the assassination of one of the chiefs in 1799.
The war lasted for 50 years, and when the dust settled, the Tu?i Tonga line of kings ended. Near the end of their royal lineage, they mostly became figureheads and held no real power.
The man who unified Tonga again was King George Tupou (two-poe) I, the first king in the current Tupou dynasty, which rules Tonga today.
King Tupou ushered in a series of reforms to Tonga, including creating the first set of written laws, calling the first elected parliament, banning serfdom, limiting the power of local chiefs, and instituting freedom of the press.
At the start of the 20th century, Tonga was facing pressure from European powers, in particular, Germany, who was looking to expand its possessions in the Pacific.
There were also European migrants who began working with local chiefs to overthrow the king to establish their own monarchy, which was more friendly to various European concerns.
This led the then King of Tonga, King Tupou II, to sign a Treaty of Friendship with the United Kingdom on May 18, 1900.
Under the treaty, the UK was responsible for the defense and foreign diplomacy of Tonga, but they had no ability to veto any laws or foreign policy decisions they made.
While they managed to retain their independence, the relationship with the British was extremely rocky, especially during the first years of the treaty, with Britain threatening several times to take Tonga by force.
Due to their issues with Britain, Tonga initially declared neutrality in World War I but eventually sent a very small contingent of Tongan soldiers who fought with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in WWI, with three Tongans dying in combat.
In 1918, the Spanish Flu reached the country which killed 1800 Tongans, or 8% of the population.
In World War II, the Tongan response was very different than the first world war. Tonga, under Queen S?lote, declared war against Germany in 1939 and later against Japan on December 8, 1941, the same day as the Pearl Harbor attacks, just on the other side of the International Date Line.
While Tonga didn’t see any combat during the war, the war did fundamentally change the country.
Whereas the first world war was on the other side of the planet and didn’t really affect Tonga, Tonga was directly threatened by the Japanese, who were expanding across the Pacific.
Tonga created a national militia and, most importantly, allowed the Americans to come and establish a military presence on the island during the war.
The occupation of Tonga by the Americans dramatically changed the culture of the country. While there had been contact with the Western world for almost two centuries, most people in Tonga would have had no day-to-day interaction with foreigners, perhaps except for missionaries.
After the war, Tonga saw increased immigration from the country, primarily to places like New Zealand and Australia.
After the war, Queen S?lote negotiated an end to the British protectorate. She died in 1965 after 48 years of rule, and the agreement she negotiated came to fruition in 1970 when the protectorate ended, and Tonga achieved full independence with responsibility for their own foreign relations and defense.
Because of their previous British ties, they joined the Commonwealth of Nations, becoming one of the few countries in the Commonwealth that had their own monarchy and never had a British monarch.
Tonga joined the United Nations in 1999 and today is a member of most international organizations.
In the 21st Century, changes continued in Tonga. Even in early 2000, Tonga was still mostly dominated by the King and an aristocratic class that held most of the governmental positions. In most international indexes, Tonga was not considered to be a democracy as most of the seats in parliament were not democratically elected.
Pro-democracy riots broke out in 2006 in Nuku’alofa, which killed eight people. My first trip to Tonga was only a few months after the riots, I could still see the aftermath of the fires in the city.
2008 ushered in massive changes to the country as elections took place where all pro-democracy candidates won, and King George Tupou V announced that the monarchy would give up most powers and the country would become a constitutional monarchy with the King taking a mostly ceremonial role.
In 2010, the most democratic election in the country’s history was held, but the parliament still isn’t totally democratic. Nine of the twenty-six seats in parliament are still selected by a small group of Tongan nobles.
In 2012, King George Tupou V died and was replaced by his brother and the current King of Tonga, Tupou VI.
Today Tonga is unique among the countries of the Pacific.
For starters, they have a monarchy which no other country in the region has.
Tonga has a standing army, despite only having a population of 100,000 people. There are only about 500 soldiers on active duty, but they have served in campaigns overseas, including the first Iraq War.
Tonga is one of the Pacific powerhouses in rugby. While often dominated by much larger countries, they do punch above their weight, and there are several Tongan players who play for professional rugby clubs.
In 1996, Tonga won its only Olympic medal, a silver medal in men’s superheavyweight boxing.
One of the things that first struck me in Tonga was the use of traditional dress in everyday wear.
Men will often wear what is known as a tupenu, which is the Tongan equivalent of a kilt. This style of dress is very common in many Polynesian countries.
However, on top of that, I saw several people in Nuku’alofa wearing a woven palm frond item on top, known as a ta’ovala. A ta’ovala is sort of a very wide belt, almost a mat, which is worn by both men and women for formal attire. It is often considered the equivalent of a tie.
In fact, I saw several men wearing a western suitcoat and tie, with a tupenu on their legs and a ta’ovala around their waist. Queen Salote mandated that the ta’ovala be part of the standard uniform for all Tongan civil servants.
If you visit the island of Tongatapu, one of the top attractions is the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui. It is an 800-year-old trilithon structure made out of coral which looks very similar to the stone formations at Stonehenge. Like Stonehenge, the structure was believed to have been built for astronomical reasons.
I also have to mention that the Vava’u islands are one of the best places in the world to see humpback whales. It is one of the largest humpback whale breeding grounds in the Pacific.
Tonga isn’t the biggest country in the world in terms of area or population, and it’s pretty far away from most countries in the world. However, it has a unique history and culture unlike anywhere else, even its other Polynesian neighbors.