Almost two-thirds of the population of the Kingdom of Tonga live on its main island, Tongatapu. Although an increasing number of Tongans have moved into the only urban and commercial center, Nuku'alofa, where European and indigenous cultural and living patterns have blended, village life and kinship ties continue to be important throughout the country. Everyday life is heavily influenced by Polynesian traditions and especially by the Christian faith; for example, all commerce and entertainment activities cease from midnight Saturday until midnight Sunday, and the constitution declares the Sabbath to be sacred, forever.
Tongans, a Polynesian group with a very small mixture of Melanesian, represent more than 98% of the inhabitants. The rest are European, mixed European, and other Pacific Islanders. There also are several hundred Chinese.
Primary education between ages 6 and 14 is compulsory and free in state schools. Mission schools provide about 83% of the primary and 90% of the secondary level education. Higher education includes teacher training, nursing and medical training, a small private university, a women's business college, and a number of private agricultural schools. Most higher education is pursued overseas.
Archaeological evidence shows that the first settlers in Tonga sailed from the Santa Cruz Islands, as part of the original Austronesian-speakers' (Lapita) migration which originated out of S.E. Asia some 6000 years before present. Archaeological dating places Tonga as the oldest known site in Polynesia for the distinctive Lapita ceramic ware, at 2800-2750 years before present. The "Lapita" people lived and sailed, traded, warred, and intermarried in the islands now known as Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji for 1000 years, before more explorers set off to the east to discover the Marquesas, Tahiti, and eventually the rest of the Pacific Ocean islands. For this reason, Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji are described by anthropologists as the cradle of Polynesian culture and civilization.
By the 12th century, Tongans, and the Tongan paramount chief, the Tu'i Tonga, were known across the Pacific, from Niue to Tikopia, sparking some historians to refer to a 'Tongan Empire'. A network of interacting navigators, chiefs, and adventurers might be a better term although the empire did have its own dynasties. It could be compared to the Scandinavian kingdoms and the Vikings. In the 15th century and again in the 17th, civil war erupted. It was in this context that the first Europeans arrived, beginning with Dutch explorers Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire in 1616, who called on the northern island of Niuatoputapu, and Abel Tasman, who visited Tongatapu and Ha'apai in 1643. Later noteworthy European visits were by Captain Cook in 1773, 1774, and 1777, the first London missionaries in 1797, and the Wesleyan Methodist Walter Lawry Buller in 1822.
Tonga was united into a Polynesian kingdom in 1845 by the ambitious young warrior, strategist, and orator Taufa'ahau. He held the chiefly title of Tu'i Kanokupolu, but was baptised with the name King George. In 1875, with the help of missionary Shirley Baker, he declared Tonga a constitutional monarchy, at which time he emancipated the 'serfs', enshrined a code of law, land tenure, and freedom of the press, and limited the power of the chiefs. Tonga became a British protected state under a Treaty of Friendship on 18 May 1900, when European settlers and rival Tongan chiefs tried to oust the second king. The Treaty of Friendship and protected state status ended in 1970 under arrangements established prior to her death by the third monarch, Queen Salote. Tonga joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970, and the United Nations in 1999. While exposed to colonial forces, Tonga has never lost indigenous governance, a fact that makes Tonga unique in the Pacific and gives Tongans much pride, as well as confidence in the monarchal system. The British High Commission in Tonga is scheduled to close in 2005.
Tonga is a monarchy. The reverence for the kingship is likened to that held in prior centuries for the sacred paramount chief, the Tu'i Tonga. Criticism of the monarch is held to be antithetical to Tongan culture and etiquette. A direct descendant of the first monarch, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, his family, some powerful nobles, and a growing non-royal caste of elites live in much wealth, with the rest of the country living in relative poverty. The effects of this disparity are mitigated by three factors: education, medicine, and land tenure.
Tonga's education system is free and mandatory for all children up to age twelve, with very nominal fees for secondary education, and foreign-funded scholarships for post-secondary education. Tongans are well-educated, with a 98% literacy rate, and higher education up to and including medical and graduate degrees. Tongans also have universal access to a socialized medicine system. Tongan land is constitutionally protected and cannot be sold to foreigners (although it may be leased). While there is a land shortage on the urbanized main island of Tongatapu (where 60% of the population resides), there is farm land available in the rural islands. The majority of the population engages in some form of subsistence production of food, with approximately half producing almost all of their basic food needs through farming, sea harvesting, and animal husbandry. Women and men have equal access to education and health care, and are fairly equal in employment, but women are discriminated against in land holding, electoral politics, and government ministries.
There is a pro-democracy movement in Tonga, which emphasises reforms including better representation in the Parliament for the majority commoners, and better accountability in matters of state. An overthrow of the monarchy itself is not part of the movement and the institution of monarchy continues to hold popular support, even while reforms are advocated. Until recently, the governance issue was generally ignored by the leaders of other countries, but major aid donors and neighbours New Zealand and Australia are now expressing concerns about some Tongan government actions.
Following the precedents of Queen Salote, and with numerous international advisors, the government of Tonga under King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV has monetized the economy, internationalized the medical and education system, and enabled access by commoners to increasing forms of material wealth (houses, cars, and other commodities), education, and overseas travel. The government has supported Olympic and other international sports competition, and contributed Peacekeepers to the United Nations (notably to Bougainville). The Tongan government also supported the American 'coalition of the willing' action in Iraq, and a small number of Tongan soldiers were deployed, as part of an American force, to Iraq in late 2004. However, the contingent of 40+ troops returned home on December 17, 2004.
King Taufa'ahau and his government have made some problematic economic decisions, and are accused of millions of dollars in incompetent spending. The problems have mostly been related to trying to increase national revenues through odd-ball schemes. This has included searching for oil (despite geological reports indicating no possible oil), considering making Tonga a nuclear waste disposal site (an idea floated in the mid-90s by the current crown prince), selling Tongan Protected Persons Passports (which eventually forced Tonga to nationalize the purchasers, sparking ethnicity based concerns within Tonga), registering foreign ships (which proved to be engaged in illegal activities), claiming geo-orbital satellite slots (the revenue from which seems to belong to the Princess Royale, not the state), holding a long-term charter on an unusable Boeing 757 (that was sidelined in Auckland Airport), building an airport hotel and potential casino with an Interpol-accused criminal, and approving a factory for exporting cigarettes to China (against the advice of Tongan medical officials, and decades of health promotion messaging). The King has proved vulnerable to speculators with big promises, and lost several million (reportedly $US26) on a financial advisor who called himself the King's Court Jester. The police have imprisoned pro-democracy leaders, and the government repeatedly confiscated the newspaper The Tongan Times (which was printed in New Zealand and sold in Tonga) because the editor had been vocally critical of the King's mistakes. Notably, the Kele'a, produced specifically to critique the government and printed in Tonga by pro-democracy leader 'Akilisi Pohiva, was not banned during that time. Pohiva however, had been subjected to harassment in the form of frequent lawsuits.
Royal palace of TongaIn mid-2003, the government passed a radical constitutional amendment to "Tonganize" the press, by licensing and limiting freedom of the press, so as to protect the image of the monarchy. The amendment was defended by government and royalists on the basis of traditional cultural values. Licensure criteria include 80% ownership by Tongans living in the country. As of February 2004, those papers denied licenses under the new act included the Taimi 'o Tonga (Tongan Times), the Kele'a and the Matangi Tonga, while those which were permitted licenses were uniformly church based or pro-government.
The bill was opposed, in the form of a several-thousand-strong protest march in the capital, a call by the Tu'i Pelehake (a prince, nephew of the King and elected member of parliament) for Australia and other nations to pressure the Tongan government to democratize the electoral system, and a legal writ calling for a judicial investigation of the bill. The latter was supported by some 160 signatories, including seven of the nine elected "People's Representatives".
The strong-arm tactics and gaffes have overshadowed the good the now aged king has done in his lifetime, as well as the many beneficial reforms of his popular son and Prime Minister, 'Ulukalala Lavaka 'Ata. The Crown Prince, Tupouto'a, and Pilolevu, the Princess Royale, remained generally silent on the issue.
In total, the changes threatened to destabilize the polity, fraction support for the status quo, and place further pressure on the monarchy.