Tonga has a rich mythological tradition, and many ancient legends relate to the islands’ creation. One tells that the Tongan islands were fished out of the sea by the mighty Polynesian god Tangaloa. Another story has Tonga plucked from the ocean by the demigod Maui, a temperamental hero well known throughout the Pacific.
The earliest date confirmed by radiocarbon testing for settlement of the Tongan group is 1100 BC. On Tongatapu, the Lapita people had their first capital at Toloa, near present-day Fua’amotu International Airport. Archaeological excavations in the village of Hihifo in Ha’apai unearthed Lapita pottery that has carbon dated settlement of this area to more than 3000 years ago. The Vava’u Group has been settled for around 2000 years.
The first king of Tonga, known as the Tu’i Tonga, was ‘Aho’eitu. He came to power some time in the middle of the 10th century AD and was the first in a line of almost 40 men to hold the title.
During the 400 years after the first Tu’i Tonga, the Tongans were aggressive colonisers, extending their empire over eastern Fiji, Niue and northward as far as the Samoas and Tokelau.
The first European arrivals in Tonga were Dutch explorers Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire, who bumped into the Niuas group in 1616.
Tongatapu’s first European visitor was Dutchman Abel Tasman, who spent a few days trading with the locals in 1643. He named the island ‘Amsterdam’ (it didn't stick). In the same year, Tasman was also the first European to visit the Ha’apai group.
The next European contact came in 1773 with James Cook, who buddied up with the 30th Tu’i Tonga, Fatafehi Paulaho.
Vava’u remained unseen by Europeans until Spaniard Don Francisco Antonio Mourelle showed up in 1781, making it one of the last South Pacific island groups to be contacted by Europeans.
House of Tupou
In 1831 missionaries baptised the ruling Tu’i Tonga, who took the Christian name George. As King George Tupou I, he united Tonga and, with the help of the first prime minister, Reverend Shirley Baker (yes, he was a man), came up with a flag, a state seal and a national anthem, then began drafting a constitution, which was passed in 1875. It included a bill of rights, a format for legislative and judicial procedures, laws for succession to the throne and a section on land tenure. It is also responsible for Tonga’s heavily Christian laws today.
The second king, George Tupou II, who took over in 1893, lacked the charisma, character and fearlessness of his predecessor. He signed a Treaty of Friendship with Britain in 1900, placing Tonga under British protection and giving Britain control over Tonga’s foreign affairs. When he died at the age of 45 in 1918, his 18-year-old daughter Salote became queen.
A popular figure, Queen Salote’s primary concerns for her country were medicine and education. With intelligence and compassion she made friends for Tonga throughout the world and was greatly loved by her subjects and foreigners alike. Her legendary attendance at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 won many hearts as she took part in the procession bareheaded in an open carriage through London, smiling resolutely at the crowds despite the pouring rain.
World’s Heaviest Monarch
King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV took over as ruler of Tonga on his mother’s death in 1965. He re-established full sovereignty for Tonga on 4 June 1970 and oversaw Tonga’s admission to the Commonwealth of Nations and to the UN. In his later years, however, he made a number of unpopular decisions, including selling Tongan passports to anyone who wanted one and appointing an American to the dual role of financial advisor and official court jester who oversaw the loss of T$50 million in funds.
An imposing figure who was renowned as the world’s heaviest monarch, the 210kg king became a health role model for Tongans when he shed more than 75kg in weight. He was 88 when he died in September 2006.
In the last years of his life, the king resisted growing calls for democracy, which peaked in a 2005 strike by public servants that lasted for months and resulted in a huge growth of pro-democracy sentiment. Two months after his death, riots in Nuku’alofa killed eight, destroyed much of the business district, shocked the world and led to Australian and New Zealand troops being sent to the supposedly peaceful Pacific paradise.
King George Tupou V
Following in the footsteps of his father, King George Tupou V was crowned in a lavish ceremony on 1 August 2008. The monocled bachelor, a graduate of Oxford and Sandhurst, came to power with the Lord Chamberlain making the following statement before his coronation: ‘The sovereign of the only Polynesian kingdom…is voluntarily surrendering his powers to meet the democratic aspirations of many of his people…the people favour a more representative, elected parliament. The king agreed with them. He planned to guide his country through a period of political and economic reform for the 21st century.’
Stop Press The King is Dead, Long Live the King
In what was a shock to all Tongans, King George Tupou V died suddenly in Hong Kong in 2012. A hundred and fifty pallbearers carried him to his grave and the country mourned. His deeply religious and staunchly conservative younger brother is the new King Tupou VI, and was officially coronated in 2015, along with his wife Queen Nanasipau'u. The former Crown Prince, the new king previously voiced his opposition to democracy for Tonga and has a chequered history in charge, including a stint as Prime Minister that ended in his resignation. Tonga’s economy plummeted during his leadership, leading to the calls for democracy his brother heeded. He was also involved in the demise of Royal Tongan Airlines, which lost the country millions. While many worry about the future under the new king, others feel that as a family man with a wife and children (his brother was a bachelor) he will be a more caring king. And if his lengthy, hyper-festive coronation is any indication, he will be much adored!
American WWII GI s: Tonga's Saviours?
Within 24 hours of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, Tonga declared war on Japan. Waves of fear swept the South Pacific: how far south would the Japanese war machine march? Between 1942 and 1945 it's estimated that 30,000 US servicemen passed through Tongatapu, either stationed here or en route to other regional bases. At the time, Tonga was a closeted nation of little more than 30,000 people itself, and was still reeling from the 1918 flu pandemic. Some suggest that the new bloodlines these thousands of GIs introduced into Tongan society were the saviour of Tonga, deepening the gene pool, bolstering immunity and building a platform for population growth.