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The known history of Tongatapu is the result of oral tradition, dating from the middle of the 10th century when the first Tu'i Tonga, the son of the god Tangaloa and a beautiful Tongan maiden, came to power.

Around the year 1200, Tu'i Tonga Tu'itatui set about building the only trilithic gate in Oceania, the Ha'amonga 'a Maui (Maui's Burden), near the village of Niutoua. Legend has it that the Tu'i Tonga constructed the gate to remind two quarrelling sons that unity was better than division. After creating a wonderful future tourist attraction for Tonga, he moved his capital to Lapaha, on the calm lagoon near present-day Mu'a.

Over the following 100 years or so, war canoes full of Tongan raiding parties regularly set off for neighbouring islands. They created an empire ranging from the Lau Group in Fiji to the west, across to Niue in the east and northward to Futuna and Samoa, all of it ruled by the Tu'i Tonga from his capital on Tongatapu.

Tongatapu's first European visitor was Dutchman Abel Tasman, who spent a few days trading with islanders, and named the island Amsterdam. The next European contact came with Captain James Cook, who devleoped a close friendship with the 30th Tu'i Tonga, Fatafehi Paulaho, and presented him with Tu'i Malila, the tortoise that was treated as a chief and given the run of the palace for nearly 200 years.