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The Commonwealth



Did you know:

Tonga is a monarchy.

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.

Key facts

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.
Coastline: 419km
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.

Main towns:

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 the islands.

International relations:

Tonga is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, Pacific Community, Pacific Islands Forum, United Nations and World Trade Organization.


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 the Pacific.


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 constituency.

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 seats.

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.

Tongan History

Tuku Fonua

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.

Learn more about Tonga on The Commonwealth site Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

Tonga and the Friendly Islands
With a sketch of their mission history. Written for young people by Farmer, Sarah Stock (1855) (pdf)

The Kingdom of Tonga
by Defense Technical Information Center (1988) (pdf)

Moulton of Tonga
by Moulton, James Egan (1921) (pdf)

Savage Island: An account of a sojourn in Niué & Tonga
by Thomson, Basil C (1902) (pdf)

An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific Ocean
by William Mariner, John Martin (1817) (pdf)

Kingdom of Tonga Vavau Island Group South Pacific Travel Destination

Taste of Tonga

Ha'apai islands, Tonga - Holiday Travel Video Guide

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

Return to our Commonwealth Page


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