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History of Tonga

The first people to arrive to Tonga likely arrived between 1800-1300 BC from the west. The earliest people to arrive, commonly known as the Lapita, probably came from Southeast Asia via Fiji, Samoa, and numerous other islands. Over time other waves of people arrived and these different waves of people intermarried to form the people today, who are considered ethnic Polynesian.

These earliest settlers probably lived very simple lives as hunting, gathering, and fishing were likely the base of their economy and survival. Based on Tonga's location and the ocean currents and winds, it seems likely they had a fairly advanced knowledge of boats and navigation, although no evidence exists to support this.

Over time it appears, based on archeological evidence, the people gained a much greater knowledge of building while religion likely blossomed as did trade and political organization. Today there are remains of stone structures (a very uncommon building material for the time in the South Pacific) and there seems to be ornamental burial sites, indicating either reverence for those lost, a religious ritual of sorts, or both. This was likely a religious ceremony since the people had a belief system in higher beings and believed the islands of 'Ata and Tongatapu were the first brought to the surface by Maui, a god worshipped here as well as in Hawai'i (in the United States).

The people of Tonga created one of the most advanced civilizations in the South Pacific prior to the arrival of the Europeans with the rise of the Tu'i Tonga Empire in the 900s AD, an empire that lasted until the 1500s.

The Tu'i Tonga Empire became a power in the Pacific as its strength and power expanded over time. Although the exact region they directly ruled over is unknown, it appears the Tongans made contact with and visited areas as far as Micronesia and Hawai'i (although they never ruled over these regions). This rule was likely fairly decentralized, with islands being ruled over by their local chiefs, but the communication and transportation network established at this time was created by and ruled from Tonga.

Based on what is known about this empire and the evidence they've left behind proving their wide reach, it becomes clear the people were successful navigators, diplomats, and traders. It appears the people of neighboring islands, including Samoa, Fiji, and Niue worked with the Tongan leaders. What is not known is if they directly reported to Tonga or acted more as lesser allies. No matter the relationship, Tonga managed to rule over this huge empire and its trade for nearly 400 years. This feat is more remarkable given the fact that they had no modern ships, navigation tools, or communication methods.

The Tu'i Tonga Empire began collapsing in the 1400s and 1500s as their far influence had died. At this same time internal conflict on the islands and between the islands of Tonga itself began. This turn to wars changed the culture from one of trade and communication to one focused on local power and political arguments and struggles. It was when Tonga was in this situation that the Europeans arrived.

The first Europeans to land in Tonga were the Dutch in 1616, then the Dutch again arrived in 1643 when Abel Tasman arrived. Despite these early arrivals, they made no effort to settle the islands or colonize them. It wasn't until the 1770s when James Cook of the United Kingdom arrived that the culture and people truly began to change.

These stops by James Cook led to a vast influx of Christian missionaries and by the mid-1800s almost all of the people had converted to some form of Christianity. These missionaries gave the people new reason to live as their morals and priorities changed with the new religions. It also forced the people to abandon their past religion as their culture and lifestyle began to change dramatically.

In the political realm from the 1770s to the mid-1800s, the internal conflicts had continued as they had prior to European arrival. Since no true foreign government had taken control of the islands during this time, and the local people were divided, the only outside influence came from the missionaries who were slowly, but successfully converting the people. The end of the warring and the successful conversion of the people coincided as both essentially ended in 1845 when the local chief Taufa'ahau was baptized and proclaimed King George Tupou I.

King George Tupou I made significant changes to the country and its people as he shifted his government to reflect that of the United Kingdom, while following Christian ideologies. He essentially mandated and legalized (or illegalized) various aspects of the past that put the people's lifestyle and their culture more in alignment with that of Christian beliefs. He also created a constitutional monarchy modeled after the British government.

King George Tupou I's changes vastly altered the culture as they became more and more Christian in name, in practice, and in belief. His rule also ended the violence of civil war and established a fairly stable country allied with the United Kingdom. This was done in part through religion as the people were unified under this new religion as opposed to remaining divided based upon political or economic issues.

Despite King George Tupou I's successes, this government didn't last long and in 1900 the new king's power was in jeopardy, leading to a Treaty of Friendship between Tonga and the United Kingdom. This treaty essentially guaranteed the king's power in exchange for a loss of political and economic power to the United Kingdom. This again stabilized the country and the government, but kept power in the hands of the local kings and chiefs as the British slowly gained more influence from these chiefs or via these chiefs as they became allies.

Due to stability and, perhaps more importantly, the relationship Tonga held with the United Kingdom from the mid-1800s, the culture became fairly westernized. However, the economy has never been extraordinarily strong so purchasing power has remained weak. Despite this, the access to new technologies, advanced communication, and transportation have made Tonga, in many ways, a reflection of the west. Traditional housing and food still exists, but this time period truly westernized the country.

After years of stability, British rule ended in 1970 as Tonga became an independent country. Little changed with this political transition as the British had allowed the Tongan kings to rule the islands for years. In fact, the British never directly controlled Tonga and today this long-term voluntary relationship between the two countries continues.

Despite the smooth transition and stability over the years, Tonga has recently faced economic hardships. Depending on current farming and trade, the country's economy is heavily susceptible to changes in demand as well as the local weather. This inconsistency has led to a slight alteration in the power structure of Tonga. In 2008 the king, King George Tupou V, called for a more democratic process and handed many parts of the government, in particular the day to day details, to the elected government. This move has stabilized the government, although the economy is still inconsistent.

This page was last updated: February, 2013