Nukuʻalofa Commonwealth Walkway

Tonga / The Pacific

TONGA Tonga is a Polynesian country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, consisting of 169 islands, of which 36 are inhabited, scattered across some 700,000 square kilometres.  It is south of Sãmoa, south-east of Fiji, and north-east of New Zealand.  Named by Captain Cook as ‘the Friendly Islands’, these islands are divided into three main island groups: Tongatapu (south), Haʿapai (centre) and Vavaʿu (north).  The majority of the islands in the western chain are classified as high islands as they are raised above sea level by repeated volcanic activity.  Four of them are still active.  In contrast, the low islands of the eastern chain have been capped by coral formations.  The continuing growth of coral encloses most of the island.   Tonga’s population is nearly entirely of Polynesian ancestry.  Tongans are closely related to Samoans and other Polynesians in culture and language as well as in genetic heritage.  There is also a small amount of Melanesian influence through contact with Fiji.  The Tongan language is taught in primary schools and is the official language, in addition to English, which is studied as a second language.  Religion is an important aspect of Tongan society and most Tongan families are deeply conservative and are members of a Christian church, largely Wesleyan, as is indicated by the great number of churches of different denominations in Nuku’alofa.  Tonga was inhabited by an Austronesian group around 1500-1000 BC.  Europeans first arrived in 1616, a Dutch vessel captained by Willem Schouten (ca 1567-1625), first appearing there on a trading mission.  Abel Tasman and Captain James Cook followed and in their wake came Spanish explorers and missionaries.  In 1845, following the battles at Velata, Pea and Ngele’ia, King George Tāufa’āhau Tupou I (1797-1893) united Tonga into a kingdom.  He also accepted Christianity, introduced to the islands by the missionaries.  He was a keen educationalist and in 1853 he visited New South Wales to see how people in civilized countries managed their affairs.  The King granted emancipation in 1862 and in 1875 he introduced the first constitution into Tonga and while the King remained sacred, there was a bill of rights and the formation of a legislative assembly.  Germany became involved in the Pacific in the 1880s at which point Britain became determined that Tonga should not be annexed by a foreign power.  Yet Britain was reluctant to annex Tonga due to the financial burden of such an action.  King Tupou, I died in 1893, greatly mourned as a remarkable leader (the funeral and mourning at a cost that almost bankrupted Tonga), and was succeeded by his 19-year-old great-grandson, King George Tupou II (1874-1918) and though he was athletic and intelligent, he was strong-willed and inexperienced.  Due to internal dissension and threats from foreign powers and despite the reluctance of the young King, Britain turned Tonga into a protected state under a Treaty of Friendship on 18 May 1900.   Tonga remained the only Pacific nation with its own monarchy.  The death of the King in 1918, changed Tonga’s relations with Britain into one of mutual trust and respect due to the commanding presence and endearing personality of the daughter who succeeded him – Queen Sãlote Tupou III (1900-65).   She stood six feet three inches tall. Queen Sãlote was the most famous Tongan monarch and became well known throughout the world, after making a particular impression on the British public at the Queen’s Coronation in London in 1953, wearing the mantle of a GBE, and refused to put the hood of her carriage up despite the pouring rain.  Thus she and the Sultan of Kelantan opposite her were roundly soaked and won the hearts of the crowds.  When she left, one photograph was captioned:  ‘The Smile goes home’ and it was said that if Captain Cook put Tonga on the map in 1773, Queen Sãlote did the same with her personality in 1953.  During her reign, she handled all problems that arose with patience, care and understanding. Since her death, there have been three Tongan Kings, Tāufa’āhau Tupou IV (1918-2006), in whom all the three royal dynasties were united, George Tupou V (1948-2012) and the present King, his brother, ‘Aho’eitu Tupou VI (born 1959). Tonga has had many royal visitors.  The most spectacular visit was that of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to Queen Salote in December 1953.  The Queen inspected Tu’i Malila (1777-1966), the tortoise, believed to have been a present from Captain Cook about 170 years before.  1,000 guests joined the Queen for a sumptuous picnic including 4,000 sucking-pigs, 2,600 fowls, along with lobsters and clams, for which the party sat cross-legged.  Queen Sãlote told her people: ‘Open our doors and open our hearts to our guests and those who come with them.’   The Queen stayed overnight, before leaving for New Zealand. The Duke of Gloucester has represented the Queen at several Coronations and royal funerals.  Despite never having been formally colonized, Tonga gained full independence on 4 June 1970, with the late Prince William of Gloucester representing the Queen.  At that point, Tonga joined the Commonwealth.  In 1999 Tonga joined the United Nations, and in 2008 a constitutional and electoral commission was created. Capital Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa is on the island of Tongatapu.  Nuku’alofa is home to Tonga’s government and also houses the Royal Family.  While it may not be a perfect Pacific paradise, Tonga’s capital has a hidden charm.  The busy main street leads to the broad waterfront, from where there are impressive views across the bay to coral islands.  The market here is a mainline into Tongan life, there are a few good places to eat and drink, and you can see pigs and chickens careening around the back streets. Fun Facts
  • Tonga has the world’s only disappearing Island.  Fonuafo’ou means ‘New Island’ in Tongan and is the apt name for a submarine volcano that has come and gone across history.
  • Queen Sãlote (1900-65) was one of the most popular figures at the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, riding through the streets of London in an open carriage in the rain.  
  • The late King Tãufa ‘ãhau Tupou IV (1918-2006) fought a rearguard action against having traffic lights in Nuku’alofa.
  • Humpback Whales Travel 3,000 miles to breed and give birth in Tonga
  • It is illegal to conduct business, play a sport or even do chores on a Sunday.
  • The custom is that the grander the person is, the softer they speak.  So it is hard for senior diplomats and royal visitors to hear the king.
  • The International dateline makes a small deviation to keep Tonga on the same day as New Zealand.  
  • Tonga was the smallest kingdom but had the world’s oldest dynasty and the tallest Queen.

3.1 miles / 5 kilometres

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