The Kingdom of Tonga’s history stretches back over 3000 years, beginning with the migration of the Lapita people from the mainland and islands of Southeast Asia. Tongan culture and customs began with these earliest of Polynesians, and many ancient traditions have continued respectfully through to the present day. The arrival of European explorers and navigators from the 17th century saw the introduction of Christianity, now an integral part of the modern Kingdom of Tonga. Experiencing the beautiful harmonies filling Tongan churches every Sunday is an essential experience for all visitors to the Kingdom. Across the ensuing centuries, Tonga’s authentic culture has continued to be reverentially and robustly maintained across the pristine islands of this Polynesian archipelago.
Around 3000 years ago, the Lapita people from Southeast Asia migrated west via the Malay peninsula and the remote islands of the East Indies to settle in the scattered and pristine islands of the South Pacific. In Tonga, these original ancestors of today’s Polynesian people founded settlements at Toloa – near the present day location of Fua’amotu International Airport – and at Heketa, on the northeastern edge of Tongatapu. Three millennia later, reminders of these ancient times are dotted throughout the islands. The fascinating Ha’amonga a Maui trilithon still stands as an imposing legacy of early Tongan ingenuity. Eventually settling in the far-flung island groups of the Kingdom’s archipelago, these early ancestors also developed a distinctive culture that still underpins traditional Tongan life in more contemporary times.
First European Contact
Initial European contact with Tonga came in 1616, when the Dutch navigators Wilhelm Schouten and Jacob Le Maire discovered the Niuas, the small northern most islands of the Tongan archipelago. Contact with the local Niuas islanders was restricted to a minor altercation with a Tongan canoe. In 1643, the Dutch extended their exploration when Abel Tasman visited the Tongan Islands of ‘Ata, ‘Eua and the largest island of Tongatapu. Unlike the first Dutch contact further north in 1616, Tasman’s ships the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen stopped for water and replenishments, and Tasman also traded with the local communities.
The Arrival of Captain James Cook
In 1773, the British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook visited Tonga’s southern islands of Tongatapu and ‘Eua. He returned in 1777 and spent two months exploring and charting the Tongan archipelago, with his legendary skill as a cartographer producing accurate charts still in regular use until recent times. During this voyage, a lavish feast for Cook and his men was presented by Chief Finau in the village of Lifuka in the Ha’apai island group. Cook was so impressed by Tongan hospitality he dubbed Tonga the ‘Friendly Isles’, not realising the amiable and social nature of the locals actually concealed a plan to raid his boats and kill Cook and his crew. The conspiracy was only foiled at the eleventh hour after a dispute between Finau and other village nobles, and Cook sailed away oblivious of his intended fate. Ironically his positive and complementary name for the Kingdom of Tonga remains in common use.
The northern island group Vava’u was discovered in 1781 by Spanish navigator, Don Francisco Antonio Mourelle, commander of the ship La Princesa. Mourelle named Vava’u’s well-protected harbour Port of Refuge, and claimed the beautiful islands in the name of Spain. Over ensuring years early traders continued to visit Tonga and tensions grew between Europeans and Tongans. In 1806, this disquiet culminated in the sacking of the ship the Port-au-Prince in Lifuka in the Ha’apai island group. With the exception of a young cabin boy William Mariner, all the crew was killed. The lad was nurtured by Chief Finau in Lifuka for four years, learning the Tongan language and becoming immersed in the Kingdom’s tradition and protocol. Mariner’s book ‘An Account of the Natives of the Tongan Islands’ is now recognised as a significant insight into early Tongan life, customs and culture. Another navigator to visit Tongan waters was Captain William Bligh, and Fletcher Christian’s infamous mutiny of the HMS Bounty actually occurred near the volcanic island of Tofua in the Ha’apai group.
The Kingdom of Tonga Today
In 1845, the scattered and pristine islands of western Polynesia became united as the Kingdom of Tonga, and 30 years later officially became a constitutional monarchy and British Protectorate. The first King of this united Tonga was George Tupou I, and the modern Kingdom of Tonga is the only Pacific Island nation never to lose its indigenous governance or to be colonised. Located just west of the International Date Line, Tonga is also the first country to experience the new day each morning. Tonga joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970, jettisoning the protectorate status in 1970, but still retaining its unique position as the only monarchy in Polynesia. Tradition and culture are still very important in modern Tonga, and across the untouched islands of the Tongan archipelago, visitors can experience a truly authentic slice of Polynesia. Local art and handicrafts continue to showcase Tongan traditions, and most accommodation for visitors is in low-impact eco resorts on pristine islands and beaches, or in village guesthouses and welcoming homestays.