The word Tonga means "south" in numerous Polynesian languages. Some scholars believe the inhabitants originally came from the islands now known as Samoa. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Tonga islands have been settled since at least 500 B.C., and local traditions have carefully preserved the names of the Tongan sovereign for about 1,000 years. The power of the Tongan monarchy
reached its height in the 13th century. At the time, chieftains exercised political influence as far away as Samoa.
During the 14th century, the King of Tonga delegated much of his temporal power to a brother while retaining the spiritual authority. Sometime later, this process was repeated by the second royal line, thus resulting in three distinct lines: the Tu'i Tonga with spiritual authority, which is believed to have extended over much of Polynesia; the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua; and the Tu'i Kanokupolu. The
latter two had temporal authority for carrying out much of the day-to-day administration of the kingdom.
Dutch navigators in 1616 were the first Europeans to sight the Tongan archipelago. The main island of Tongatapu was first visited by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1643. Continual contact with Europeans, however, did not begin until more than 125 years later. Captain James Cook visited the islands in 1773 and 1777 and gave the archipelago the name "the Friendly Islands" because of the
gentle nature of the people he encountered. He, of course, was never aware of the acrimonious debate that raged among contending nobles over who should have the honor of attacking Cook's tiny fleet and killing its sailors. In 1789, the famous mutiny on the British ship, Bounty, took place in the waters between the Ha'apai and Nomuka island groups.
Shortly after Captain Cook's last visit, warfare broke out in the islands as the three lines of kings contended for dominance. At about the same time, young Tongan nobles serving as mercenaries took Tongan culture to Fiji's most eastern island group, the Laus. The first missionaries, attached to the London Missionary Society, arrived in Tonga in 1747. A second missionary group followed in
1822, led by Walter Lawry of the Wesleyan Missionary Society. They converted Taufa'ahau, one of the claimants to the Tu'i Kanokupolu line, and Christianity began to spread throughout the islands.
At the time of his conversion, Taufa'ahau took the name of Siaosi (George) and his consort assumed the name Salote (Charlotte) in honor of King George III and Queen Charlotte of England. In the following years, he united all of the Tongan islands for the first time in recorded history. In 1845, he was formally proclaimed King George Tupou I, and the present dynasty was founded. He established
a constitution and a parliamentary government based, in some respects, on the British model. In 1862, he abolished the existing system of semi-serfdom and established an entirely alien system of land tenure. Under this system every male Tongan, upon reaching the age of 16, was entitled to rent--for life and at a nominal fee--a plot of bushland (api) of 8.25 acres, plus a village allotment of
about three-eights of an acre for his home.
Tonga concluded a treaty of friendship and protection with the United Kingdom in 1900 and came under British protection. It retained its independence and autonomy, while the United Kingdom agreed to handle its foreign affairs and protect it from external attack.
During World War II, in close collaboration with New Zealand, Tonga formed a local defense force of about 2,000 troops that saw action in the Solomon Islands. In addition, New Zealand and U.S. troops were stationed on Tongatapu, which became a staging point for shipping.
A new treaty of friendship and protection with the United Kingdom, signed in 1958 and ratified in May 1959, provided for a British Commissioner and consul in Tonga who were responsible to the Governor of Fiji in his capacity as British Chief Commissioner for Tonga. In mid-1965 the British Commissioner and consul became directly responsible to the U.K. Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs.
Tonga became fully independent on June 4, 1970, an event officially designated by the King as Tonga's "reentry into the community of nations."
In 1972, Tonga laid claim to the tide-washed, isolated Minerva Reefs, some 480 kilometers southwest of Nuku'olofa, to forestall efforts by a private Anglo-American group, Ocean Life Research Foundation, to establish an independent Republic of Minerva on the reefs.
In 1998, Tonga recognized China and broke relations with Taiwan and the United Kingdom.
In March 2002 election, seven of nine popularly elected representatives were chosen under the pro-democratic banner with the remaining two representing "traditionalist" values. The nine nobles and all the cabinet ministers that sit in the Legislative Assembly generally support the government. Tonga is not a democracy; the people do not have the right to change their government through
elections, although they can elect a minority of members of the Legislative Assembly
In 2003, a newspaper published in New Zealand in the Tongan language that has been critical of the government was prohibited from distribution in Tonga due to government objections to its political content. After the newspaper obtained two court orders, it has been distributed freely. A Media Operators Bill and constitutional amendment, which would restrict media freedom in Tonga, has been
hotly debated in 2003. The legislation will allow the government to exert control over coverage of "cultural" and "moral" issues, ban publications it deems offensive, and ban foreign ownership of the media. In October 2003, thousands of Tongans marched peacefully through the streets of the capital city Nuku'alofa in an unprecedented demonstration against the government's plans to limit media
freedom. Despite the protests, the Media Operators Bill and constitutional amendment passed the Legislature.