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Tonga - History

Of the islands in the central part of Oceania, the Tonga archipelago alone, besides Fiji and Samoa, has a noteworthy history. The word Tonga means "south" in numerous Polynesian languages. Some scholars believe the inhabitants originally came from the islands now known as Samoa. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Tonga islands have been settled since at least 500 BC, and local traditions have carefully preserved the names of the Tongan sovereigns for about 1,000 years. The power of the Tongan monarchy reached its height in the 13th century. At the time, chieftains exercised political influence as far away as Samoa.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the first people settled the islands some 3,000 years ago, probably arriving from the Samoa group or Fiji. Tongan legend, however, preserves no tale of these migrations, claiming rather a special creation of the islands and its peoples. The early settlers were members of the Lapita culture, characterized by its beautifully incised pottery. Over the centuries their pottery skills disappeared.

The origins of the Tongan nobility are shrouded in myth. The first king, called the Tu'i Tonga, was supposed to have descended from a Polynesian god of the sun or sky some time in the tenth century AD. Some 500 years later the twenty-fourth king, who feared the fate of assassination that befell many of his predecessors, had his brother take over political power, creating a new line of Tu'i Ha'atakalaua. The seventh king in this line, likewise transferred temporal responsibility to his brother, setting up the Tu'i Kanokupolu title, resulting in three distinct lines: the Tu'i Tonga with spiritual authority, which is believed to have extended over much of Polynesia; the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua; and the Tu'i Kanokupolu. The latter two had temporal authority for carrying out much of the day-to-day administration of the kingdom.

At the head of the constitution stood the Tuitonga, monarch and god at once, with absolute power over persons and property. Almost equal to him in reputation and sanctity was the Tui Ardeo, according to Meinicke the descendant of a dethroned royal family, which had still retained a special position. The Tuitonga had to show peculiar honours to the Tui Ardeo on different occasions. The king and his family composed the first class (" Hau ") of the nobility. The second (the "Eiki," or "Egi," who also bore the title Tui, or lord) furnished the highest officials in the kingdom and the district governors, and was appointed by the king, although the dignity was hereditary.

Dutch navigators in 1616 were the first Europeans to sight the Tongan archipelago. The main island of Tongatapu was first visited by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1643. Continual contact with Europeans, however, did not begin until more than 125 years later. Captain James Cook visited the islands in 1773 and 1777 and gave the archipelago the name "the Friendly Islands" because of the gentle nature of the people he encountered. He, of course, was never aware of the acrimonious debate that raged among contending nobles over who should have the honor of attacking Cook's tiny fleet and killing its sailors. In 1789, the famous mutiny on the British ship, Bounty, took place in the waters between the Ha'apai and Nomuka island groups.

Some conventional histories suggest that the transitions in leadership were natural and smooth and that responsibilities were clearly delineated among the three lines. Others have pointed out the political and military rivalry that persisted throughout this royal history. These rivalries resulted in a civil war that lasted from 1799 to 1852.

The first of the Eiki was in pre-European times the Tui Hatakalawa, the minister of the interior; in Mariner's time (1810) he came in precedence after the Tui Kanakabolo, or war minister. Since in the nineteenth century the Tuitonga was excluded from all share in the wars, the war minister easily attained to greater influence than the monarch himself; indeed, the Tui Kanakabolo has been taken by more than one traveller for the Tuitonga. Among the Eiki titles, those of the Ata, the highest commander in war, and of the Lavaka, the minister of public instruction, were also of importance.

The last class of nobility (Matabule) furnished councillors and servants of the Eiki and the Tuitonga, district governors, public teachers, and representatives of the most honourable crafts, such as shipbuilding and the making of weapons. The three classes of nobility were the sole possessors of the soil, as well as of the power of Taboo. The common people had no share in either; it only possessed its personal freedom, and supported itself merely by the cultivation of the lands of the nobles, by handicrafts, or by fishing. Among handicrafts those requiring superior skill were reserved for the higher class of the commons, the Mua, while agriculture and the profession of cooking were assigned to the lower class, or Tua.

Cook in 1773 and 1777 found the glory of the old dynasty, Fatafehi (Fatafahi), already eclipsed by the power of the Tupo nobles, who had secured all the important offices of State. According to Meinicke, the Tuitonga might apparently only take their wives from the family of Tupo. Toward the end of the eighteenth century this concentration of power had increased to the extent of driving out the Tuitonga. This roused other Eiki families to imitate the example of the Tupo. The regents of Hapai and Vavau first revolted; those of Tongatabu followed. After long struggles the victory rested with Finau, the Eiki of Hapai, although he could no longer force the whole archipelago to obey his rule.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Finau shifted the political centre of gravity to Vavau. In 1830 Taufaahau, the lord of Hapai, and Tubo, the Eiki of Tongatabu, adopted Christianity. When the Finau died out in 1833, Vavau fell to the former. In this way Taufaahau governed over the same kingdom as Finau I thirty years earlier. In 1845 Tubo, or, as he was called after his conversion, Josiah of Toiigatabu, died also. Taufaahau, as King George Tubou I, now united the whole archipelago into one kingdom. This State bore from the first the stamp of European influence.

King George Tupou I (1845-1893) founded the present royal dynasty. It was mainly due to his enlightened rule that Tonga did not become a colony of one of the European powers during the nineteenth century. This remarkable King quelled civil war in order to establish a united Tonga under the rule of law. The Constitution he enacted on 4 November 1875 guaranteed the right to life, property and equality before the law and freedom of expression in perpetuity. It also institutionalised a parliament with representatives of both the chiefs and commoners. Between 1855-1886 treaties were signed with France, Germany, Britain and the United States recognising Tonga's independence.

The Wesleyan mission had soon extended its activity to political and social matters. In 1839 George issued an edict for Hapai and Vavau, which established a court of justice of four members and a written code, and abolished the old customs, according to which each chief administered justice at his own discretion. The legislation of 1862 finally raised the existing serfs to the position of free farmers of the soil, from which they could not be ousted so long as they paid their rent. The taxes (six dollars yearly) were uniformly imposed on all male inhabitants over sixteen years of age.

After 1838 on Tonga also there were quarrels between the Catholic and Protestant missions. In December, 1841, threats of a French warship caused the ruler of Tongatabu to seek an English protectorate, which was granted him. The Catholic missionaries, however, obtained admission. Their success in the religious field was never important; but in the political field they had even in 1847 so great an influence over Tongatabu, that the chiefs of that part commenced an opposition to the rule of George I, which was only repressed in 1852 by the storming of the fortresses Houma and Bea, defended by French missionaries. Although the chiefs were reinstated in their former posts, and the missionaries received no injury to life or property, France felt herself aggrieved, and extorted in 1858 an official permission of the Catholic teaching, and put various Catholic chiefs in the place of Protestants.

King George, notwithstanding, found time to make expeditions to other countries. The Tongans had at all times, owing to their great nautical skill, undertaken campaigns against Samoa and Nuka Hiwa, and had caused panic especially in the neighbouring archipelagoes. The people of Fiji had thus a strong tinge of the Polynesian in them. A few years after Cook's second visit (1777), a Tongan condottiere played a great part in the Fijian disorders. In 1854 King George appeared with a large fleet, avowedly to support Thakombau in his difficulties. This expedition gave the Tongans subsequently a pretext for claiming large compensation, which finally drove Thakombau into the arms of England.

George Tubou I completed the internal reforms of his island kingdom by the constitution of November 4,1875. This was partly the creation of the king himself, partly that of his old and loyal councillor, the missionary Shirley Baker. Its contents kept closely to English forms; in its iiltimate shape, as settled by the chambers and printed in the English language in 1877, it provided for a legislative assembly, which met every two years. Half of its members belonged to the hereditary nobility and were nominated by the king; the rest were elected by the people. The executive power lay in the hands of a ministry of four, who, together with the governors of the four provinces and the higher law officers, composed the cabinet. The administration of justice was put on an independent footing, and comprised a supreme court, jury courts, and police courts. Education was superintended by the missionaries, who had erected well-attended schools on all the islands. An industrial school and a seminary, which was called Tubou College in honour of the king, were founded. The prohibition against the sale of land to foreigners, which was inserted in the constitution at Baker's advice (" the Tongans are not to be driven into the sea "), was important for the economic future of the Tongans; even leases of land were only allowed after notice had been given to the government.

In view of the increased interest which the European powers in "the "seventies" took in the South Sea Islands, Tonga with its favorable situation could not permanently be neglected. King George and his chancellor, Baker, were on terms of open friendship with Germany. On the outbreak of the Franco-German War they assured King William of their absolute neutrality. On November 1, 1876, this "good-feeling" took the form of a commercial treaty, establishing friendly relations with the German Empire, according to which the harbour of Taulanga on Vavau was ceded as a coaling station. The accompanying request of George Tubou for a protectorate was naturally declined by Germany. On November 29, 1879, Tonga concluded a similar treaty of amity with England. By an agreement of April 6, 1886, Germany and England decided that Tonga should remain neutral territory. On August 1, 1888, a treaty was made with the United States.

King George Tubou I, died on February 18, 1893, at his capital, Nukualofa, aged ninety-five years. He was succeeded by his great-grandson, George Tubou II, a timid youth of nineteen. Down to the time of his accession German trade and influence had outstripped English. But when the prime minister Baker had fallen a victim to English intrigues, and the service of the North German Lloyd to Tonga and Samoa, under suhsidy from the empire, had been discontinued, the English occupied the vacant position.

The reign of King George Tupou II (18931918) was marred by his inattentiveness to state affairs and by his reneging on a pledge to marry a particular nobleman's daughter. When, in March, 1899, the German warship "Falke" appeared off Tongatabu, nominally with orders to occupy the harbour of Taulanga until Tongan debtors had paid the sum due of $100,000 (according to Moritz Schanz merely with orders to induce the king to open the Tongan courts to the recovery of debts to foreigners), an English warship from the Australian station sailed in on April 10, paid George II $125,000 on the sole condition that the king made no concessions whatever of landed rights to any foreign power; in return for this, England renewed her guarantee of independence for Tonga. Since that time the group of islands has only been valuable to Germany as the object of an exchange; in the treaty of November 8, 1899, she abandoned all claims in exchange for half Samoa. Thus Tonga and the adjoining Niue (Savage Island) were placed, in spite of the protest of King George II, under a British protectorate on May 19, 1900.

In 1905 Britain obtained the power to review all official appointments and dismissals. Nonetheless, the king retained his basic autonomy.

Queen Salote Tupou III, the only child of the previous king, ruled from 1918 to 1965, ascending the throne when she was only 18 years old. Her marriage to a direct descendant of one of the competing royal lines ensured that her issue would have unquestioned legitimacy in the eyes of the nobility.

Greatly adored for her unabashed love of the Tongan people and for her devout religiousness, she was able to achieve the reunion of the Free Wesleyan church and its predecessor. Under her direction public health and education services expanded greatly, and the economy diversified. Her government made primary education mandatory in 1927, provided scholarships for overseas study beginning in 1929, and established a teachers college in 1944. During World War II Tonga established, with Australian assistance, a defense force of some 2,000 men, and some of these troops fought in the Solomon Islands.

Salote's son, King Taufa'ahua Tupou IV, was prime minister during much of her reign and ascended the throne after her death. King Tupou I' was the first Tongan to earn a college degree and established himself as a scholar of the traditional Tongan calendar and Tongar music. He continued the social development programs begun while he was premier and moved to make the country completely independent of Britain, a milestone achieved in 1970, when the protectorate was ended.

The country remained dependent on Britain and other countries, however, for economic aid. Some social problems emerged during this reign. As Tonga's population grew, more and more people migrated to Tongatapu in search of modern employment, and many emigrated or went overseas as guestworkers to improve their incomes. The government was unable to stop the breakdown of the traditional familyoriented system, the growing restlessness of its youth, alcoholism, and other concomitants of modernization. Most importantly, there were signs of growing resentment over the rights of the monarchy and the nobility, who, despite their general benevolence, retained the ownership of much land.

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Page last modified: 12-07-2017 18:57:48 ZULU