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Tonga Was Never Colonised, So Why Does It Feel So Colonised?

And what the conflict between traditional monarchists and reformers means for kingdom’s future.
Tonga Royal Palace
The Royal Place, Nuku'alofa, Tonga. All images via Shutterstock

When Captain Cook first visited Tonga, he dubbed the country ‘the friendly islands’ on account of the warm reception he thought he had received. What he didn’t know, was that a plan to attack and kill him and his crew only didn’t go ahead because the chiefs couldn’t agree on whether to attack during the day or under the cover of darkness.

Tonga, with its long history of an indigenous hereditary monarchy, was the only Pacific nation that was never colonised—it was never annexed by that other island monarchy, the British Crown, that many of its Pacific island cousins did. Why then, does contemporary Tongan society, with its Royal Palaces and aloof Kings and Queens, its multitude of churches, feel so much like a western-style monarchy in miniature?



The 19th Tu’i Kanokupolu Tāufa’āhau—head of a Tongan dynasty—converted to Christianity in 1831 under the influence of Methodist missionaries. In 1845 he ascended to the Kingship, and is commonly referred to as King George Tupou I. King George Tupou I’s dynasty was an off-shoot of the Tu’i Tonga, historically the main monarchy in Tonga. The Tu’i Tonga confronted the new king, and lost, and King George Tupou I consolidated his position.

Under King George, the missionaries founded schools, leading to the introduction of written language to the people of Tonga. Business, previously signed with a verbal contract, began to move towards contracts and receipts. A western-style middle class formed.

George II succeeded his great-grandfather, and Tonga became a British protectorate. Under the treaty with Great Britain, Tonga agreed to conduct all foreign affairs through a British consul; through this relationship the Westminster model of Government was observed, and Tongan parliament followed this model. The power of the chiefs was reduced, but the monarch remained sovereign, the highest political power in the country, like the British monarchy had been before the English Civil War.

Queen Salote Tupou III took the throne after her father George II died, ruling the Kingdom from 1918 to 1965, shortly after completing her education at Auckland’s Diocesan School for Girls—one of New Zealand’s highest achieving schools. She was a sophisticated monarch who championed education, co-founding Queen Salote College, a private all-girls high school.


Downtown Nuku'alofa, the scene of 2006's riots.

Tonga’s current monarch is King Tupou VI, and he has been on the throne since 2012.
“Almost without fail,” Radio New Zealand Pacific’s news editor, Koro Vaka’uta, told me, “the royal family are held in great reverence and are a source of pride for many.”

In 2006, Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital city, was the scene of huge riots, through which pro-democracy activists demanded a larger voice. Vaka’uta, has been to Tonga over half a dozen times to report the growing influence of the Pro-Democracy Movement, the recent dissolution of Parliament and controversial changes at the state broadcaster, Tonga Broadcasting Commission.

“Over the years,” he says, “the monarchy has modified its approach to government and democracy, initially seemingly unwilling to tolerate change and indulge the call for more public power and representation to being perturbed and unsettled by some of the rhetoric expressed by the Democratic Movement, and then more recently realising political reform could be workable within the cultural and societal structures that existed and have it looked for ways to partner in those changes.”

The question is: how much of a move away from the historical and cultural power structure will the monarchy allow? And how does a modern democracy work within a society based on generations of traditional hierarchy?

Intentionally or unintentionally, the introduction of western-style education created friction, a conflict between new values and those pre-existing. Dr Melenaite Lolohea Taumoefolau, senior lecturer of Pacific Studies at The University of Auckland, told me that the impact of Tonga’s history on today’s society is a division between those who blend Western and Tongan ideas and those who mostly follow ideas and traditions that have been passed down from generations before them.


A church in central Nuku'alofa.

Of the former group are vocal advocates, known in Tonga as the ‘pro-democracy group’, who expect to be actively involved in Government and want change. Dr Taumoefolau said the former still respect the monarchy as Tongans, but they would like to change things so that they can participate more fully in the government. They are aware of what it means to be held accountable, transparency, human rights, having a voice, gender equality.

Of the latter group, some seek traditional explanations to contemporary problems. “The majority of people back home do not understand the details of the democratic government. They continue to live quite traditional lives, respecting and supporting the monarchy and traditions, but not actively participating in politics. In some ways, this group of people are still living in the ‘oral’ way of life.”

For some, the idea of embracing ideas different to the traditional ways is interpreted as challenging or rejecting their merit, but this is not the case, according to Dr Taumoefolau. “Without understanding the change to democracy, this group of people get angry that the pro-democracy movement has appeared, assuming it is to lessen the power of the King or even displace him, when in actual fact, the movement is about equality across the board, from the commoners to the chiefs.”