A History of Tonga in Brief
Tonga has a colourful history of being the birthplace of Polynesian cultures, 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.
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 – 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
Early Tongan History
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 structures that would become the Polynesian culture giving Nukuleka its name “Cradle of Polynesia”. Ha’apai has been believed to have been first settled 3,000 years ago, while Vava’u was believed to be settled around 2,000 years ago.
Tonga has a history of an ancient religion revolving around gods, deities and their different plane of existence known as Pulotu.
Tonga developed a hierarchy system with kings some time in the middle of the 10th Century, with the first King of Tonga (or Tu’i Tonga) being ‘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.
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 more of an 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.
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 the Tu’i Tonga, Taufa’ahau, in 1831. He took the Christian name, George Tupou and establishes 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. When he 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 of 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 210kg (463lb). In the later years of his reign, he resisted growing demands for democracy, resulting in 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.