Flag of Tonga

Quick facts

Official Name: Kingdom of Tonga
Indigenous People: Tongans
Official Languages: Tongan, English
Political Status: Independent Nation, Constitutional hereditary monarchy
Capital: Nuku’alofa
Population: 106,501 (2015 est.)
Greeting: Mālō e lelei (informal); Mālō ‘etau lava (formal)

Audio bite from Tongan Greetings – Tongan Language Week

History and geography

Royal bridal party, Tonga. New Zealand Free Lance: Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-5469-055. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Royal bridal party, Tonga. New Zealand Free Lance: Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-5469-055. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Tonga is an island nation located south of Samoa and about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand. It is the South Pacific’s last Polynesian kingdom, with a constitutional, hereditary monarchy and a popularly elected parliament. Tonga has the unique distinction of being the only Pacific nation that never completely lost its indigenous governance.

Tonga is an archipelago comprised of 176 islands, with a total land area of 747 sq km (288 sq mi), spread across an area that spans about 700,000 sq km (270,000 sq mi), and is divided into four main island groups: Vava’u and Ha’apai to the north, and ‘Eua and Tongatapu to the south. The capital, Nuku’alofa, is located in Tonga’s largest island, Tongatapu, and is also where most of the population resides. Formerly called the “Friendly Islands,” Tonga was united into a Polynesian kingdom in 1846.

The islands are warm and tropical and experience occasional tropical cyclones. The western islands are volcanic in origin, forming an arc of islands, while the eastern islands are the tops of the Tonga Ridge and run parallel to the Tongan Volcanic Arc and the Tonga Trench.

The earliest settlers in Tonga were Austronesian-speaking people associated with the Lapita culture that was found throughout the South Pacific. Known for their distinctive pottery styles and seafaring abilities, these early navigators probably first started traveling to the islands around 3000 years ago. The ones that stayed eventually evolved into the unique Tongan people and culture that was recorded by the early European visitors to the islands. The ancient Tongans continued to communicate and trade with people from the neighboring islands of Fiji and Samoa.

The first Europeans to travel to Tonga were Dutch explorers Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire on the vessel Eendracht which arrived in 1616. Later, Abel Tasman arrived in 1643 and actually traded with the islanders. British captain James Cook also traveled to Tonga three different times from 1773 to 1777. Interestingly, he named the islands the Friendly Isles because of the hospitality he experienced while there. However, Cook was unaware that some of the locals intended to raid his boats and kill the crew. The plan was not carried out and Cook was oblivious about it when he left.

Missionaries from the London Missionary Society arrived in 1797 followed by Wesleyan Methodist missionaries in the early 1800s. Their influence among the natives was powerful and long-lasting, with many converts. Today, Christian values and practices are integral to Tongan everyday life.

Tongan oral historical accounts reveal that around the 12th century, a paramount chief called the Tu’i Tonga was well known across the central Pacific. There were also times of civil unrest particularly in the 15th and 17th centuries. In 1845, a warrior named Tāufa’āhau united the different islands to form the Tongan kingdom. He himself had been baptized and given the Christian name Siaosi (George) in 1831. Under his rule, Tonga became a constitutional monarchy and transitioned into a western style of law and governance.

Although the archipelago became a protectorate under the British through a Treaty of Friendship in 1900, it maintained its sovereignty and a hereditary succession of rulers. After seven decades as a British protectorate, Tonga became an independent nation from the United Kingdom in 1970. Since the early 1970s and 1980s, many Tongans have emigrated to other countries, primarily Australia, New Zealand and the United States, seeking employment, education and a higher standard of living. The diaspora maintains strong ties with relatives at home, and in fact, Tonga’s economy is largely dependent on remittances from Tongan migrants living abroad. There are also a few small scale industries including handicrafts, agriculture and tourism.

Arts and culture

Painting the ngatu in Tonga, 1987. By James Foster courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Painting the ngatu in Tonga, 1987. By James Foster courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

About 97% of the nation’s population are Tongan. Ethnically, Tongans are Polynesian, but also a mixture of Melanesian culture. The language of Tonga is also a Polynesian language, closely related to Hawaiian and Samoan.

Tongan society, like other Polynesian societies, was traditionally highly stratified with strong social norms and taboos. Within the family, women in general had high social prestige or rank, which they passed on to their children. Men, though, had social power and held chiefly positions.  Before the introduction of Christianity, land and titles were passed through the mother. This was changed so that social status, titles and land were inherited from the father’s line. The highest individuals were of royal status, including the king (tu’i), and below them were the high chiefs (hou’eiki), landowners and warlords. The fototehina were the lower chiefs and below them were the matapule or working chiefs. Ordinary people were called tu’a, and slaves or prisoners were popula. Today, the king remains and holds the highest executive power in the kingdom, but the high chiefs are limited to 33 titles and are referred to as nobles. The nobles (nopele) may carry multiple titles and are often high-ranking government workers.

Depending on the situation or occasion, Tongans use two different languages, distinguished by their use for and by high-ranking individuals versus lower-ranking ones. Hereditary orators usually will speak on behalf of commoners who may not understand the high language used for people of highest social status.

Both Tongans living in the islands and abroad distinguish traditional Tongan ways, or anga fakatonga, from those of the outside world. Tongan society is described as having four core values: Fefaka’apa’apa’aki (mutual respect), Feveitokai’aki (sharing, cooperation, reciprocity), Lototoo (humility and generosity) and Tauhi vaha’a (loyalty). Family is important and central to Tongan life. Christianity is also significant within Tongan society. In keeping with the Christian value of modesty of dress, Tongan clothing culture is quite conservative and shoulders and knees are usually covered.

Most people still live in small village communities and carry out traditional customs, including wearing ta’ovala (woven waist mats) and kiekie (waist girdles), drinking the ceremonial beverage known as kava, and cooking in earth ovens called umu. There are a variety of traditional crafts still practiced today, including bone and wood carving, basket weaving, and fine mat weaving. The most distinctive craft is the traditional bark cloth called tapa (ngatu in Tongan), made from the bark of the mulberry tree, and often painted with traditional symbols and designs. These cloths are usually presented as gifts at weddings, births and funerals. Traditionally, women engaged in weaving and bark cloth making activities, while men carved wood into bowls, headrests, war clubs, and did special inlays with ivory or pearl shell.

Tongans also have a distinctive graceful dance form, with dancers decorated with bracelets and the tekiteki or feather headpiece. Delicate and vibrant hand motions are accompanied by sung poetry. Some of these dances are called the Me’etu’upaki, ‘Otauhaka, Ma’ulu’ulu, Ula, Tau’olonga, Kailao, Soke, and Lakalaka. The Lakalaka is performed by both men and women with numerous dancers participating in synchronous movements.

Prior to Christianity, men in Tonga, except for the king, were heavily tattooed, often the patterns and designs telling stories and life journeys of the individual. The king was considered too sacred for anyone to touch him, although going to Samoa to get tattooed was sometimes done. Tattoos, however, were frowned upon and stopped by the missionaries, but was never completely suppressed.