Tonga - A Short Pre-History

Although Tonga’s written history is relatively recent, a rich oral history and artefacts here and there have allowed historians to build pictures/interpretations of life prior to white contact.

 The colonisation of the Tonga Islands occurred about 3,500 years ago. The origins of these settlers is unknown. Botanical records, food production, language, and material artefacts imply immigration from the west and some believe that pre-European colonisers of the islands of Tonga, Samoa and some migrants to Fiji were from the same seafaring people. It is uncertain, and widely debated on the islands, whether these immigrants originated from Micronesia, or whether they have more exotic origins.

Arriving on large dual-hull vessels, the new settlers sustained themselves through fishing (probably on smaller outriggers). Initial existence was primarily dependent on the sea and tools were made from shell and stones. Nets were made and cast, the stars were studied on reviewed for their navigational properties along with their mystical powers. In time, the imported plants bore fruition in the form of the coconut, taro, breadfruit, yam, banana, and meat such as rat, pig, dog and fowl. While the men tended to life from the sea, it was up to the women to break, and tame the land for the garden.

Some think the history of Tonga starts at the above event, or something similar.

Why I grow Kava

Kava is an important part of Tonga’s culture, and it’s “history” and integral part of understanding our ‘culture.’

There was no refrigeration, so what the seafarer caught in abundance was readily shared with neighbours, and what the farm hand reaped was readily shared with the neighbour.

The settlers over time lost contact with their origins and their compatriots in Samoa and Fiji. Traditional handi-crafts that thrived in the new environment were continued (such as fishing) while others were substituted with more relevant crafts. Clay pottery was replaced with more expedient, production effective wood work. New skills, such as farming seem to have been developed to complement the takings from the sea.

When the settlers again urged to rediscover lost lands, contact was resumed with the descendants of those who migrated to the Samoas.

Social Structure

In a society with bio-degradable lodgings, tools, and produce, it is difficult to determine an accurate representation of early Tonga’s social structure. Without a formal governing structure, the people made their lodgings as close to the food supply as was available. The seafarer, fishermen, built their homes around the cost and the farmers moved further inland finding the easy, bearing soil. Villages and townships did not exist as the land and its fruits were plentiful.

There were relatively few specialists (eg navigators, house builders) and the population seems to have been satisfied with its existence. Excess food could not be horded so there were few inhibitions to sharing of basic necessities.

Currency was irrelevant and the bureaucracies to support a currency based economy did not exist. If a grower’s production was low they gladly accepted the neighbours surplus. Likewise a growers surplus was readily shared with neighbours or submitted to the aristocrat as tribute.

It seems strange that in such a self-sufficient (?) society that there would be a need for governance. It seems that the social interactions between groups (which included the many internal wars as the population grew) and the possible gathering together against the gods and nature required some observance of a governance system.

An elite class (hou’eiki) ruled over districts which were subdivided to a middle management group (chiefs/mu’a) who subletted these land holdings to the common folk/slaves (tu’a/hopoate.) It is not certain that all Tongans accepted this mechanical directioning of life.

Tongans developed a complex family ranking system whereby the eldest female (and her descendants) held higher rank within the family than the brothers. This seemingly unique maternal structure intertwines with the paternal inheritance system (eldest son receiving rights to all property and titles) to develop a system whereby no two individuals can hold the same rank within society. For example, individual "A" with higher paternal/social rank than individual "B", but is inferior to "B" if "B"s mother is the eldest female on the family of "A"s father.

Religious Life

Religion in pre-European culture could often be very violent and vindictive. Few god’s had universal acceptance throughout the Kingdom, and a great emphasis was placed on the local spirits and ghosts who had direct effect on daily life.

The above notes are not scholarly works but a short, evolving notes on long ago Tonga. For scholarly works on Tonga’s history on the Internet, please reference the Tonga History Association’s web pages

[ref: Ian Campbell, Island Kingdom, Tonga Ancient & Modern, Canterbury University Press.]