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Tonga Overview

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The Kingdom of Tonga, Pule'anga Tonga, is a welcoming land of abiding tradition. The islanders maintain a record of the names of their kings for the last thousand years. In this Christian land, ancestral ways are still remembered. To Tongans, family is paramount. Elders are respected for their wisdom and experience, while each child is considered the joyful responsibility of the entire family. Distant cousins are considered close relatives. Named The Friendly Islands by Captain Cook for its hospitality, with its exotic wildlife, rainforests, volcanoes, ancient ruins, and coral caves, Tonga is also a land of adventure.

The Polynesian Kingdom

Archaeologists believe that the islands were inhabited by 500 B.C. Visitors will be impressed by the terraced tombs of centuries of royalty and the mysterious stone trilithon, the Na' Amonga a Maui nearby. This construction is often called the Stonehenge of the Pacific. The kingdom reached its height of power in the 1200's, when it ruled many other island groups, including parts of Samoa and Fiji.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to visit. Englishman James Cook visited in 1773 and again in 1777. These are also the waters where the mutiny on the Bounty too place.

The monarchs have been Christian since 1822. The islands were a British protectorate starting in 1900, but always retained self-rule. They sent 2,000 soldiers to fight alongside New Zealand's men in the Solomon Islands and elsewhere during World War II.

The Modern Land

Today Tonga is a constitutional monarchy. It is a member of the British Commonwealth, though the protectorate ended in 1970. There are still nobles as well as royalty, as in Britain. Commoners use a special dialect when they speak to royalty. Tongans are proud that they were never a colony, and of their king and queen. Visitors to the pretty capital Nuku'alofa can see the royal palace, overlooking the lagoon.

Island Ways

Sundays are spent in worship, and all non-essential forms of commerce are illegal on that day. Women have much freedom and status in Tonga, but are not generally involved in politics.

Traditional mats woven of pandanus leaves celebrate all of life's occasions, most holding designs of ceremonial significance. Both men and women wear these mats wrapped around themselves like skirts.

Tapa cloth is made from beaten mulberry stalks, and stenciled with traditional vegetable dyes. Wood carving was a traditional handicraft, but with the decline of Tonga's forests it has nearly disappeared.

Coral Islands born of Fire

Tonga consists of 169 coral and volcanic islands, 36 of them inhabited, set in a sea so clear that sailors can often see 40 meters down. Four main island chains form the nation. Tongatapu holds the capital and the largest population. Ha'apai is a group of coral islands formed around volcanic remnants. Vava'u is considered the best island chain for sailing and whale watching, and the isolated Niuas, three volcanic islands in the north, are the home of the most traditional folkways.

All these islands are part of the ring of fire, the volcanic region of the Pacific Ocean. They sit at the edge of the deep Tonga Trench, where one tectonic plate slides beneath another. For Tonga, the result is island groups built by active volcanoes. As the volcanoes spent their fire and the islands sank, tiny coral polyps slowly built up reefs that form the lovely islands of today. The eastern islands of Tonga
are mostly coral now, while western island groups hold more rugged terrain. There are still active volcanic features on some of the islands, for adventurous visitors to enjoy.

Travelers on an expedition cruise can dive or snorkel in the pure waters and explore the many coral caves, or just loll on the pristine beaches. The island national park, Eua, is home to a stunning variety of tropical and marine birds, and offshore are undersea wonderlands.

Caring for the Environment

Deforestation is a problem in Tonga. Forests have been cleared for agriculture and settlement. Coral damage from excessive shell or coral harvesting could damage the very foundations of the land. Imprudent hunting of sea turtles may lead to their decline. Rising sea-levels could make trouble for all of Oceania.

Tonga is a signatory to the Kyoto Agreement, and to other international agreements helping preserve the natural world. The kingdom takes care of its natural heritage, preserving it in Eua, and in proposed parks on the islands of Maninita and Taula that will be dedicated to ecotourism and conservation.

Wildlife of Tonga

Visitors to Eua Park will find paths through virgin rain forest and along limestone cliffs, and see and hear a delightful variety of vivid bird life. There are lorikeets in abundance, and red-breasted Musk Parrots. Pacific pigeons flock here, and White-collared Kingfishers, as well as an abundance of tropic sea birds. This park is a ten minute flight from Nuku'alofa, or can be reached in two hours by ferry.

On the volcanic northern island of Nuiafo'ou lives the Tongan Megapode. This bird does not incubate its eggs by sitting on them, but by covering them with warm volcanic sand. The range of these fascinating birds is now being expanded.

Humpback Whales frolic among the islands of Tonga. They inhabit the islands from May to October, and are frequently seen by travelers cruising the surrounding waters, playing with their young.

Tongan Feasts

The feasts of the islands include pig roasted underground, often served with fish and taro. Gifts of tapa or mats are exchanged on these occasions. They are an important part of Tongan culture, commemorating all of life's transitions with traditional food, dance, and ceremony. Especially noted are the remarkable solo dances each woman performs at her wedding feast. One reason Captain Cook found the islands so hospitable is that he arrived during a holiday when the islanders celebrated with their king, and visitors still enjoy sharing the island celebrations.


The climate of the Kingdom is tropical, moderated by gentle trade winds. There are two seasons, warm and cool. The warm season is from December to May, when the temperature sometimes goes above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. In the cool season, from May to December, the daytime temperature stays around 80 degrees. There may be cyclones between October and April.

Tonga: Island Politics

Tonga is the last Polynesian kingdom, as well as a constitutional monarchy. The government has three branches. The executive branch consists of a prime minister and his cabinet, chosen by the king. The legislative branch is a body consisting of 9 nobles, elected by 33 nobles; 9 people's representatives, elected by everyone; and the cabinet of 12 to 14 selected by the king. The governors of Ha'apai and Vava'u are also appointed. The Judiciary consists of many levels of courts, all appointed. Local officials, who manage towns and districts, have been elected since 1965. Everyone over 21 has the right to vote, and generally does. The laws of Tonga follow the Common Law of England.

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