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Tonga - People

Population was 105,000 (2013 estimate); 24 per cent of people live in urban areas; growth 0.4 per cent p.a. 1990–2013; birth rate 25 per 1,000 people (37 in 1970); life expectancy 73 years (65 in 1970). The vast majority of the people are of Polynesian descent. Tonga suffers from heavy emigration, mostly to New Zealand, Australia and the USA. There are 50,478 Tongans living in New Zealand, more than half of whom were born there (2006 New Zealand census).

Tonga is one of the most densely populated countries in Oceania; nearly all of the population live on about 432 square kilometers of territory. According to estimates for 1983, about 65 percent of the people lived on Tongatapu (one-half this number in the capital), some 5 percent on nearby 'Eua, another 16 percent in the Vava'u Group, about 12 percent in the Ha'apai Group, and the rest in the Niuas.

Over 98 percent of the population, according to the 1976 census, were indigenous Polynesians who spoke a common language and had a shared cultural heritage for many centuries; the remainder included Europeans (a census category referring to all whites), part Europeans, other Pacific islanders, and Chinese minorities. About 40,000 Tongans resided overseas in the mid-1980s. Tongan culture absorbed many elements of European and American culture, but because the kingdom had been ruled by the same royal family for so long, it has preserved many traditional elements as well.

The basis of social organization remained the extended family, although the nuclear family was typically the basis for the organization of single households. Although males dominated political and economic affairs, they deferred to their sisters on most important social occasions, and social ranking was based on complex bilateral kinship relationships. The eldest sister presided at family functions; she and sometimes her children were called fahu, a term connoting special status. Children, especially sons, received favors from their maternal uncles that proved invaluable in their quest for status. Before the establishment of the current royal line, it was generally the case that the three separate royal lines would intermarry to establish intertwining fahu relationships.

Tongan society was highly stratified. At the top were the royal family and the nobility, in the middle a group of matapule (titled servants to the nobility), and at the bottom the commoners. There were 33 noble families that traced their origins to the first Tu'i Tonga or to ancient Fijian chiefs. Their relationship to the royal family was not always clear, and several of the chiefs first titled by King Tupou I were chosen for political reasons. The highest ranking male in each noble line usually held the title and managed the family's hereditary estates. Often, however, succession to the title was a matter of intricate legal debate, and lawyers who specialized in this type of case formed an elite group of commoners.

There were six titled matapule lines that also owned hereditary estates. The commoners, who under the Constitution are entitled to allotments of land and are free of the servitude to the nobles practiced in ancient Tonga, nonetheless retained their identification with individual nobles and matapule. The leader of a commoner family was usually the male having the closest kinship relationship to a noble family.

Economic modernization changed the roles of Tongan women. More and more women were becoming involved in marketing activities and even formal employment away from home. Some, however, deplored the fact that money rather than genealogical ranking determined the management and control of family affairs.

Tongans have been devout Christians almost since the conversion of King Tupou I. The Constitution declares it unlawful to work, play, or trade on Sunday, and the Sabbath has become a day of relaxed strolling, visiting friends and neighbors, and feasting. The Free Wesleyan church, of which the monarch is the official head, claimed the allegiance of about 30 percent of the population in 1983. This church, however, has been losing affiliates to the fast-growing Seventh-Day Adventist, Assembly of God, and Mormon churches.

Public spending on health was five per cent of GDP in 2012. There are public hospitals on the islands of Tongatapu, Ha’apai and Vava’u, and dispensaries throughout the islands. Some 99 per cent of the population uses an improved drinking water source and 91 per cent have access to adequate sanitation facilities (2012). Over time, the Tongan diet has moved away from traditional root crops to imported foods. Infant mortality was ten per 1,000 live births in 2013.

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Page last modified: 12-07-2017 18:57:49 ZULU