Known as ‘The Friendly Islands’, it comprises 172 islands (36 inhabited;
some coral and some volcanic, four with active volcanoes) and straddles
the international date line.
Tongans enjoy life expectancy of some 73 years.
Joined Commonwealth: 1970
Population: 105,000 (2013)
GDP: 1.6% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: World ranking 100
Official language: Tongan, English
Timezone: GMT plus 13hr
Currency: pa’anga or Tongan dollar (TOP; T$)
Area: 748 sq km; Tongatapu 256 sq km.
Capital city: Nuku’alofa
Population density (per sq. km): 140
The Kingdom of Tonga, known as ‘The Friendly Islands’, lies in the
central south-west Pacific, surrounded (clockwise from the west) by
Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Samoa, Cook Islands and, to the south, New
Zealand. The islands, which straddle the international date line, lie to
the east of the Tonga Trench, containing some of the deepest waters of
the South Pacific. The main island sub-groups are Tongatapu, Vava’u and
Ha’apai. The largest island is Tongatapu.
Nuku’alofa (capital, pop. 24,229 in 2011), Mu’a (5,200), Tofoa–Koloua
(3,526), Haveloloto (3,465) and Vaini (3,235) on Tongatapu; Neiafu
(4,051) on Vava’u; Pangai (2,055) on Lifuka in the Ha’apai group of
islands; and Ohonua (1,528) on Eua.
There are 680 km of roads, 27 per cent paved and the rest surfaced with
compacted coral. The two main ports are at Nuku’alofa and Neiafu, and
have shipping connections with Australia and Europe. Ferries run between
Tonga is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States,
Pacific Community, Pacific Islands Forum, United Nations and World Trade
Of the 172 islands, only 36 are permanently inhabited. The islands to
the east are of coral formation, the Lifuka and Nomuka groups with many
small coral islands and reefs. The islands to the west are volcanic.
There are active volcanoes on four of the islands, including Tofua
Island whose crater is filled with hot water. Falcon, an active volcano
under the sea, sends up lava and ash from time to time.
Hot and humid from January to March; cooler from April to December.
Cyclones may occur November to April.
The most significant environmental issues are deforestation, damage to
coral reefs by excessive coral and shell harvesting, and depletion of
sea turtle populations by hunters.
Tongatapu island is flat and covered in small agricultural plantations
with coconut trees and other crops. Eua island is hilly and partly
forested. The Vava’u Islands are densely wooded. Coconut palms grow
along the coastline and cover some of the coral islands. Forest covers
13 per cent of the total land area and there was no significant loss of
forest cover during 1990–2012.
Tonga was the first South Pacific country to initiate a conservation
programme, with a series of marine and forest reserves. The only land
mammal indigenous to Tonga is the ‘flying fox’, actually a large fruit
bat with a wingspan of up to one metre. It occurs in a large colony near
the village of Kolovai on Tongatapu. Birds include the red-breasted musk
parrot and the blue-crowned lory, said to be the most beautiful bird of
Tonga was inhabited 3,000 years ago. The country is a very old
Polynesian monarchy – its royal family goes back more than 1,000 years –
with an old and well-developed social and political system. Occasional
Europeans visited it from early in the 1600s: it was sighted by the
Dutch navigator Abel Tasman in 1643 and later visited by the British
explorer Captain James Cook. The first larger-scale arrival was in 1826,
when Wesleyan missionaries landed and began a highly successful
conversion campaign. Civil wars raged between Christian and
non-Christian factions until Taufa’ahau Tupou, ruler of the island of
Ha’apai and a Christian convert, gained control of and united the
islands, becoming, in 1845, King George Tupou I (1845–93) and adopting
the country’s first constitution.
Tonga was never a British colony. In 1900, the King agreed a treaty of
friendship with Britain, which gave Britain control of foreign affairs,
and kept Tonga free from other predatory powers. The treaty was
frequently revised until May 1970, when Tonga became fully independent.
King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV succeeded his mother, Queen Salote Tupou III,
on her death in 1965.
From 1990 a pro-democracy movement gathered strength, challenging
Tonga’s political system which endeavoured to combine its 1,000 year-old
feudal system with democracy. Elections did not result in any changes in
the executive and only a small number of members of the Legislative
Assembly were elected. The country did not, in consequence, have a
developed party political system.
Tonga’s first-ever political party, the People’s Party, was formed in
1994 out of the pro-democracy movement. In the 1996 elections four of
the nine people’s seats were won by pro-democracy candidates and leading
democracy campaigner ’Akilisi Pohiva had a convincing majority in his
In January 1999 the People’s Party held a four-day convention on
constitutional change and, with the new name of Human Rights and
Democracy Movement (HRDM), it went into the elections of March 1999 with
the hope of raising its numbers in the assembly from the six seats they
then controlled. In the event they won only five of the nine people’s
In April 1999 former Prime Minister (1965–91) and brother of King
Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, Prince Fatafehi Tu’ipelehake, died. In January
2000, the King appointed his younger son, Prince ’Ulukalala Lavaka-Ata,
to replace Baron Vaea as Prime Minister.
In October 2001, the country was rocked by financial scandal resulting
in the resignation of two ministers, including the Deputy Prime
Minister. More than US$20 million – the proceeds of the sale of Tongan
citizenship in the 1980s – had been placed in June 1999 with a company
in the USA that had apparently disappeared.
HAKA HE LANGI KUO TAU
This programme chronicles the celebrations surrounding the 85th birthday
of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of the Kingdom of Tonga. The traditional
forms of song and dance (lakalaka & ma'ulu'ulu) were on display from all
corners of the kingdom in elaborate performances never seen before by
western scholars and media. Enjoy the ceremony and the pomp of a
remarkable Polynesian kingdom as they celebrate what was to be the last
grand celebration for the monarch. I produced this film in conjunction
with Dr. Eric B. Shumway and Dr. Vernice Wineera from the Pacific
Institute at BYU-Hawaii.
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