A Brief History of Tonga(c) Tonga Ministry of Tourism
A Brief History of Tonga

A Brief History of Tonga

(c) Tonga Ministry of Tourism

A Quick History of Tonga

Tonga has a colourful history of being the birthplace of Polynesian cultures, as well as Pacific colonisation, European arrivals, missionary influence and the establishment of the only monarchy in the South Pacific. In this brief history of Tonga, we look at the snapshots of history that make Tonga the islands they are today.

While you’re here, you might also be interested in Who are the People of Tonga? and Tonga Etiquette: Respecting the Local Customs.

A Brief Timeline of Tonga’s History

901 BC-1000 BC – The first king (tu’i) of Tonga was established and Tonga went through around 400 years of colonisation missions across the South Pacific
888 BC – The earliest known settlement in Tongatapu
1616 – William Scouten and Jacob Le Maire were the first Europeans to document visiting Tonga
1643 – Abel Tasman traded with islanders on Tongatapu
1773 – James Cook first landed in Tongatapu
1781 – Don Franciso Antonia Mourelle landed in Vava’u
1820s – Missionaries arrive from Britain
1831 – Missionaries baptise the Tu’i Tonga Taufa’ahau
1875 – The constitutional monarchy in Tonga begins
1918 – Queen Salote Tupou II becomes queen
1953 – Queen Saltote visits Britain for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth
1965 – King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV becomes king following his mother’s death
1970 – Tonga becomes fully independent of Britain
1992 – The Pro-Democracy Movement founded
2005 – A strike by public servants takes place for democracy
2006 – Nuku’alofa riots break out for democracy
2008 – King George Tupou V surrenders sovereignty for a democratic parliament
2012 – King George Tupou V dies and his younger brother/former prime minister becomes King George Tupou VI
2015 – ‘Akalisi Phiva becomes Tonga’s first non-noble prime minister after elections
2022 – Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai erupts causing a devastating tsunami.

A Brief History of Tonga(c) tongapocketguide.com

Early History: Who First Settled Tonga?

The earliest date of settlement in Tonga has been found in today’s village of Nukuleka on Tongatapu, with the uranium-thorium dating of an abrader found in Nukuleka dating back to 888 BC. It is believed that Nukuleka is where Melanesian settlers developed a new culture and social structure that would become the Polynesian culture giving Nukuleka its name “Cradle of Polynesia”. The island group of Ha’apai is been believed to have been first settled 3,000 years ago, while Vava’u is believed to be settled around 2,000 years ago.

Tonga has a history of an ancient religion revolving around gods, deities and their different planes of existence known as Pulotu.

Tonga developed a hierarchy system with kings sometime in the middle of the 10th Century, with the first King of Tonga (or Tu’i Tonga) orally documented to be ‘Aho’eitu.

About 400 years after the first king, Tonga set out to expand their empire with back-and-forth colonisation over parts of Fiji, Niue, the Samoas and Tokelau.

A Brief History of Tonga(c) tongapocketguide.com

The Arrival of the Europeans

Like with many islands in the South Pacific, things started to change in Tonga with the arrival of the Europeans, or at least, documenting history became of more importance.

The first European arrivals were as follows:

  • William Scouten and Jacob Le Maire (Dutch) discovered The Niuas in 1616
  • Abel Tasman (Dutch) traded with islanders on Tongatapu in 1643
  • James Cook (British) first visited the islands in 1773 and would make later voyages
  • Don Franciso Antonia Mourelle (Spain) was the first European to officially discover Vava’u in 1781.
A Brief History of Tonga(c) tongapocketguide.com

Establishing The Kingdom of Tonga

Along with the Europeans, protestant missionaries set up outposts in the South Pacific trying to convert islanders to Christianity. As part of their mission, they baptised Tu’i Tonga Taufa’ahau in 1831. He took the Christian name, George Tupou and established a constitutional monarchy, much like the monarchies seen in Europe. King George Tupou I and the first prime minister of Tonga, Reverend Shirley Baker, came up with a flag, state seal, national anthem and a constitution which passed in 1875.

King George Tupou II signed the Treaty of Friendship with Britain, giving Britain control over Tonga’s foreign affairs. However, Tonga was never fully colonised by Britain. When King Tupou II died, his 18-year-old daughter became queen.

Queen Salote Tupou III was responsible for putting Tonga on the world stage, with a legendary attendance at the British Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953.

King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV re-established full sovereignty for Tonga in June 1970 and saw Tonga’s admission to the Commonwealth and the United Nations. King Taufa’ahau was also famous for being the heaviest monarch reaching a weight of 210 kg (463 lb). In the later years of his reign, he resisted growing demands for democracy, resulting in the 2005 strike by public servants and a 2006 riot in Nuku’alofa.

King George Tupou V was coronated surrendering his powers to meet the democratic goals of many of the Tongan people. A more representative elected parliament was formed.

After the death of King George Tupou V in 2012, King ‘Aho’eitu Tupou VI, who has taken the name King George Tupou VI, is the current king of Tonga.

A Brief History of Tonga© worldview.earthdata.nasa.gov

Natural Disasters and Recovery

Some of the more noteworthy aspects of recent history have been the natural disasters that have impacted Tonga.

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai Eruption

One of the biggest events in recent history was the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption which started in December 2021. The eruption of the submarine volcano reached its powerful climax on 15 January 2022; the largest recorded since the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. Ashfall and the resulting tsunami caused widespread destruction across the outer islands and west coast of Tongatapu, the east coast of ‘Eua and the southern islands in the Ha’apai island group.

Despite the significant infrastructure damage the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption caused, there were only four fatalities in Tonga which was a testament to the preparedness of Tonga for such natural disasters. More on the subject can be found in our guide to Earthquakes & Tsunamis in Tonga.

COVID-19 Pandemic

Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in strict border restrictions and closures between March 2020 and August 2022, also had a serious impact on the tourism economy of Tonga. Nevertheless, Tonga has since welcomed visitors back to the country with open arms.

More About the People and History of Tonga

That’s it for our brief guide to the history of Tonga. For more about Tonga, check out more of our insightful guides:

Finally, start planning your own tropical getaway with The Complete Travel Guide to Tonga and the 30 Tips for Travelling in Tonga.


Robin (Lopini) C.

This article was reviewed and published by Robin, the co-founder of Tonga Pocket Guide. He has lived, worked and travelled across 16 different countries before settling in the South Pacific, so he knows a thing or two about planning the perfect trip in this corner of the world. Robin works and consults regularly with the Ministry of Tourism of Tonga. Robin is also the co-founder of several other South Pacific travel guides and is a regular host of webinars with the South Pacific Tourism Organisation.

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