Where time begins

How Tonga became ‘The Land Where Time Begins’

By Don Mundell
N.Z. representative, Tonga Visitors Bureau

Prior to the late 19th century, the world had no standard time zones. But as railroads and shipping lines expanded, the need for some semblance of order to assist with timetables and scheduling became apparent.

As a result, bringing order out of chaos through instituting a system of standard time was discussed by the principal commercial nations during the 1870s. This climaxed in the Washington Meridian Conference of 1884, which divided the Earth into 24 standard meridians 15 degrees apart in longitude counted west from the Royal Obsevatory at Greenwich, England.

The parallel of 180 (12 hours in advance of Greenwich) became the basis for the line at which countries immediately to the west would become one day ahead of those to the east. However, in determining the actual international dateline, conference participants agreed to deviations to the 180th parallel to avoid dividing days within such entities as New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Siberia, and Alaska.

In the southern hemisphere, the international dateline was established to extend due north from the South Pole to 51’S before deviating northeastwards from New Zealand to 172'330’W at 40’S and then extending due north to include the Chatham Islands, Raoul Island, the Kingdom of Tonga, and Fiji’s Lau Islands in the same day as the North and South Islands of New Zealand.

At 15’S there is another deviation angling the line north across the 180th meridian, thus avoiding bisecting some islands of Western Samoa into different days. Similar deviations in establishing the line were agreed to in the northern hemisphere to avoid confusion in eastern Siberia and in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

In theory, the standard time in no nation should be more than 12 hours ahead or behind of Greenwich Mean time. But the deviation allowed by the 1884 conference puts Tonga 13 hours ahead. New Zealand and Fiji are both 12 hours ahead and Western Samoa 11 hours behind.

But until 1941 Tonga maintained a standard time 50 minutes ahead of New Zealand standard time or 12 hours and 20 minutes ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. When New Zealand adjusted its standard time in 1940s, Tonga had the choice of subtracting from its local time to come on the same standard time as New Zealand or of advancing its time to maintain the differential of 13 degrees (approximately 50 minutes ahead of New Zealand time). Because His Majesty King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, then Crown Prince Tungi, preferred to ensure Tonga’s title as the land where time begins, the Legislative Assembly approved the latter change. But some of the older, more conservative members from the outer islands objected. "If at midnight on Dec. 31, we move ahead 40 minutes, as your Royal Highness wishes, what becomes of th 40 minutes we have lost?" The Crown Prince, presented an unanswerable argument: "Remember that on the World Day of Prayer, you would be the first people on Earth to say your prayers in the morning." Since 1974, when New Zealand introduced daylight savings time during the four summer months, the country is also 13 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. But Tonga remains the first country in the world to greet each new day every day of every week of every month of every year.

Printed in the "Tonga Chronicle", February 20, 1997.