Archaeological excavations in southern Lifuka island reveal settlement dating back more than 3000 years.
The first European to turn up was Abel Tasman in 1643. He stopped for supplies at Nomuka and called the island 'Rotterdam' (feeling homesick that day?). Later, several notable events in Tongan history took place in Ha’apai. Captain Cook narrowly avoided the cooking pot in 1777; the mutiny on the Bounty occurred just offshore from Tofua in 1789; and the Port-au-Prince, with William Mariner aboard, was ransacked in 1806.
In 1831 Ha’apai was the first island group in Tonga to be converted to Christianity, following the baptism of its ruler Taufa’ahau. He took the name of Siaosi (George) after the King of England, and adopted the surname of Tupou. His wife was baptised Salote after Queen Charlotte. As King George Tupou I he united Tonga and established the royal line that continues through to the present day. Nuku’alofa’s main street, Taufa’ahau Rd, is named after him.
Disappearing Island Fonuafo’ou
The Ha’apai group is home to Tonga’s mysterious disappearing island, Fonuafo’ou. From 1781 to 1865 there were repeated reports of a shoal 72km northwest of Tongatapu and 60km west of Nomuka in the south of the Ha’apai group. An island was confirmed by the HMS Falcon in 1865 and given the name Falcon Island. In 1885 the island was 50m high and 2km long. Amid great excitement, Tonga planted its flag and claimed it as Fonuafo’ou, meaning ‘New Land’.
Then in 1894 Fonuafo’ou went missing! Two years later it reappeared at 320m high before disappearing again. In 1927 it re-emerged and in 1930 was measured at 130m high and 2.5km long! By 1949 there was again no trace of Fonuafo’ou, which had once more been eroded by the sea. Fonuafo’ou came back again, but at last report this geographical freak had once more submerged.
The island is a submarine volcano that alternates between building itself up above sea level and being eroded down below it. At present, its summit elevation is estimated at 17m below sea level. If the ‘New Land’ does come back, your best chance of spotting it is if you are on a yacht.
In early 2015 volcanic hubbub 65km northwest of Nuku'alofa created another new black-ash island, 2km long by 1km wide. Tongan officials have decided not to name it (yet), with the expectation that, like Fonuafo’ou, the South Pacific surf will soon reclaim it. What the sea wants, the sea shall have...