Vava'u is believed to have been settled for around 2000 years. Its first European visitor was Don Francisco Antonio Mourelle of Spain. His ship, the Princesa, ran short of supplies while sailing from the Philippines to Spanish America, and after a fruitless visit to the volcanic island Fonualei (which they named Amargura, meaning 'bitterness'), they sighted Vava'u Island on 4 March 1781. Mourelle named Neiafu's harbour Puerto de Refugio or 'Port of Refuge', though Tongans knew it as Lolo 'a Halaevalu, or 'Oil of the Princess Halaevalu', because of the smooth, natural sheen that appears on the water's surface on calm days. Mourelle claimed the new-found paradise for Spain and named it Islas de Don Martin de Mayorga after the viceroy of Mexico. The islanders welcomed the Spaniards and stocked their ship before they departed.
In 1793, Spain sent Captain Alessandro Malaspina to Vava'u to survey the new territory and inform the inhabitants of the Spanish claim - allegedly somewhere in Vava'u a decree of Spanish sovereignty is buried - but the captain didn't stay on Vava'u for long. Other than dominating diners with paella on Tapana Island, the Spanish have not pursued their claim.
William Mariner also spent a great deal of time here, during which he was involved in Finau 'Ulukalala I's conquest of Vava'u. When the English brig Favourite landed on Vava'u Island in November 1810, the then king of Vava'u and son of 'Ulukalala I, Finau 'Ulukalala II, permitted Mariner to return home with it.
But when he saw the marvels on board the ship, the Tongan king begged to be permitted to accompany Mariner. He said he was willing to forsake his princely life in the islands for even a lowly station in England. He wanted to learn to read, write and operate mechanical wonders.
Captain Fisk of the Favourite refused young Finau's entreaties, whereupon the Tongan made Mariner swear that he would some day return and carry the king back to England. Unfortunately, Mariner never returned to Tonga.
'Ulukalala II's tomb can be seen in the village of Feletoa on Vava'u Island. His son was converted to Christianity by King George Tupou I of Ha'apai. When 'Ulukalala III died, George was entrusted to look after the throne of Vava'u for the boy king 'Ulukalala IV. But George seized the opportunity to add the group to his own realm and in 1845 he formed a united Tonga.