History of Tonga

From Academic Kids

The history of Tonga stretches back to around roughly 4000B.C. when the Polynesians arrived. Tonga became known as the "Tongan Empire" through extensive trading. The Europeans arraived in the 17th century which was followed after a couple hundred years a single unified Tongan kingdom.


Earliest Times

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. This was part of the Austronesian expansionthat spread people from southeastern Asia across the Pacific to the east and across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar and eastern Africa in the west.

These Polynesian people brought with them on their boats dogs, pigs, chickens, pottery and agriculture (especially root crops). They rapidly spread throughout the Tongan Islands, and in modern times (but before the arrival of Western navies and missionaries in force) had achieved population densities of 210 to 250 people per square mile (80 to 100/km²). By the Eighteenth Century, Tonga had unified under tribal leaders and had forged a maritime empire that included conquered parts of Fiji. By this time the Tongan Empire had a population of about 40,000. The Tongans dominated their inter-archipelagic realm with war canoes that carried up to 150 fighters each.

Early Culture

Centuries before Westerners arrived, Tongans created large monumental stoneworks, most notably, the Ha'amonga (or Trilithon) and the Langi (or Terraced Tombs). The Ha'amonga is 5 meters high and made of three coral-lime stones that weigh more than 40 tons each. The Langi are low, very flat, two or three tier pyramids that mark the graves of former kings.

Tongan Empire

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.


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. [1]

Civil War and European Arrival

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 (when they shot a Tongan off a swift sailing vessel near Niuatoputapu). On January 21, 1643 Abel Tasman was the first European to discover the islands. The most significant was Captain Cook visits in 1773, 1774, and 1777, the first London missionaries in 1797, and the Wesleyan Methodist Walter Lawrey in 1822.

After contact with Westerners in the late Eighteenth Century, most Tongans converted to the Wesleyan (Methodist) and Catholic faiths. The "Friendly Islands" was united into a Polynesian kingdom in 1845. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate on May 18, 1900. Tonga acquired its independence in 1970 and became a member of the Commonwealth. It remains the only monarchy in the Pacific, and its current king, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, traces his line directly back through four generations of monarchs. The king, born on July 4, 1919, continues to have ultimate control of the government, despite recent health concerns, financial blunders, and a call for democracy.

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