The eruption of the undersea volcano, off the twin islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai within the Tongan system, drew the world’s attention, if only for a few days, to the island kingdom of Tonga. The death toll so far has been low, and so, for the global viewing audience, more spectacle than tragedy. The satellite images of Nuku’alofa, the capital, covered with grey ash, looked somber and spooky. But such volcanic fall-out is part of Polynesia, isn’t it? Won’t it surely wash away in the tropical rain?
One heard little discussion, at least among the talking heads on cable news, of what volcanic ashfall does to a vulnerable ecosystem involving fresh water wells, fishponds, and crops such as coconuts. Coconut palms like volcanic soil, of lava and lava ash, beneath them; they do not, however, like the ash raining down on top of them, defoliating them, breaking their branches. This is especially important as Tonga’s main exports have long been copra and coconut oil. Ash is not good either for the vanilla plants, either, which produce their (sometimes) lucrative beans for the world marketplace.
The only undersea fiberoptic communications cable connecting Tonga to the world was cut by the eruption and will takes weeks to repair. The international airport had to be cleared by hand of ash. Nuku’alofa, on the main island of Tongatapu, was flooded by the tsunami accompanying the blast. We know about this because it is the capital, with 25,000 people, a few of whom were able to maintain outside contact. What of Tonga’s seventh largest town, Pangai (pop. 2000), in the Ha’apai group?
The kingdom of Tonga consists of about 170 islands and atolls, 36 inhabited. It covers an oceanic expanse of over 400,000 square miles. The Ha’apai group is just one cluster of 36 islands, 17 inhabited. The islands are far-flung; Pangai, on the island of Hunga Ha’apai, is 100 miles north of Tongatapu. We may not know the death toll for weeks.
Hunga-Tonga was itself born in 2014 when an undersea volcano became a new island. So people in Pangai are perhaps used to this. But how does this affect the kingdom’s future? Let us look at Tonga as a kind of prism through which to view the general state of the Pacific if not the whole world.
A Kingdom Never Colonized
One should observe first of all that Tonga is one of the few kingdoms left on the planet. Tonga has preserved a monarchical line since the adoption of the kingly title, in 1845, by a high chief whose father had been the reigning chief over Ha’apai and its many isles. Taufa’ahau (George) Tupou I, born in 1797, ruled from 1845 to his death in 1893. Everywhere else in the Pacific chiefs signed over sovereignty, or had it wrenched from them by the British, French, Germans and Americans. But the Tongan king played off the western powers against one another, rather like the Siamese kings had done, and was thus able to stave of colonization. (His successor Tupou II in 1900 signed a treaty with Britain accepting Tonga’s status as a “protectorate” and allowing London to handle the kingdom’s foreign affairs. But this was not, Tongans insist, full colonization.)
One should note how unusual it is for a non-western country never to have fallen under western colonization, or semi-colonization (as in China); I can think only of Ethiopia (except for the “Italian Ethiopia” period, 1936-1941), Persia, Siam, Japan and Tonga. And as a monarchy, Tonga is unique in the Pacific. The British terminated the Kingdom of Fiji in 1874. The French ended the line of Pomare kings in Tahiti in 1880. Another seven monarchies were abolished in what is now French Polynesia between 1881 and 1901: Mangareva (1881), Rapa Iti (1881), Raitea (1888), Bora Bora (1895), Huahine (1895), Rurutu (1900), and Taiohae (Nuku Hiva) (1901). U.S. Marines unceremoniously toppled Hawai’i’s Queen Lili’uokalani in 1893.
Samoa was divided between Germany and the U.S. before its chiefs had established a unified monarchy. In 1900 chiefs on Rarotonga ceded the Cook Islands (named after the explorer) to Great Britain. One could argue that Tonga was exceedingly lucky to be the only island nation in the Pacific to retain its sovereignty, if not its royal line. But that line is, of course, as arbitrarily rooted as any, anywhere. In this case, a chiefly family on Hapa’ai happened to gain hegemony over rivals in the early 1800s.
But (as in Britain, among some people), the Tongan monarchy is widely, strongly associated with native “tradition” and nationalism. One finds deference to chiefs (matai) in Samoa described as merely part of “the Samoan way” (fa’asamoa) In Tonga, the respect accorded to chiefs carries over into the reverence for the monarchy as national symbol. This is part of anga fakatonga (“the Tongan Way”), part of instilled national identity. The firm alignment between church and state encourages it, as it does social conservatism in general. One can ask, though, whether the reverence for the king (as the national symbol) discourages critical thinking about the complicity of the royals themselves in the process of constructing an economy so vulnerable and distorted by the underlying power relationships.
The Modern Monarchy
The present king, ʻAhoʻeitu ʻUnuakiʻotonga Tukuʻaho, Tupou VI, a Cambridge-educated brother of Tupou V, took the throne on the latter’s death in 2015 having earlier served as prime minister. The former reign (2006-2015) had been eventful: in 2006 months after the new king’s ascension, the capital of Nuku’alofa was partly destroyed by rioting, largely directed against shopowners in the Chinese community. It was followed by a generous offer of reconstruction aid from Beijing, which brought in legions of Chinese construction workers. Meanwhile the future King Tupou VI resigned as prime minister in the face of a budding pro-democracy movement.
In 2010 Tupou V presided over the first Tongan parliament as the national press hailed “the end of centuries of feudalism.” Tupou VI inherited this parliamentary democracy, just as a prime minister of “non-noble” status assumed his post. Akalisi Pohina, as leader of the “pro-democracy” camp, invited the king’s ire, such that in 2016 he dissolved parliament for the first time. But Pohina rebounded and the prime minister (an unrelated Pohina) is still a commoner.
The Legislative Assembly of Tonga, which dates back to 1875, has always reserved a disproportionate number of seats for members elected by the 33 hereditary nobles in the kingdom. It was once half and half, now it is 8 out of 25 seats in the legislature. These nobles head families of the purist sort, who avoid interbreeding with commoners to sustain their mana, which in the traditional scheme (somehow surviving Christian indoctrination) is ultimately derivative from the gods. No new blood can join the nobility and there is no way for a commoner to join this class, connected by kinship to the king.
All of Tongan society has been impacted by Methodist missions since the mid-nineteenth century. (Mormons and Catholics came later.) Christian morality with all its terrors was imposed here as in Samoa, Tahiti, the Cook Islands and Hawai’i. Thus, for example, despite the indigenous fakaleiti tradition (a variation of which appears throughout Polynesia), homosexuality is illegal and punishable by 10 years in prison. A conservative social platform is put forward by the churches with the nobles, as has been the case for a century and a half. By law all the land in Tonga ultimately belongs to the king, so he is more than a figurehead monarch.
The Role of China
In 1998 Tonga recognized the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile Chinese settlers, many of them from Hong Kong and Taiwan, arrived in unprecedented numbers. Local merchants complained of the competition; in 2000 the noble and future prime minister, Lord Tu’ivakano, banned all Chinese stores from the district of Nukunuku on Tongatapu. After about a hundred assaults on Chinese in Nuku’alofa, the government declined to renew the work permits for over 600 Chinese storekeepers to curb “widespread anger.” Tensions peaked with the riots in 2006 and mass flight, for a time, of the Chinese community.
But as Tongan officials condemned the violence as “racist,” berating the Tongans involved. Beijing responded to the (partly) anti-Chinese uprising with a loan of $118 million at 2% interest, mostly to be used for construction, and other aid. In 2008, the PRC supplied the kingdom with about $400,000 in military supplies. Meantime the king reiterated Tonga’s “One China” policy and cooperated with Beijing in expelling a couple Falung Gong missionaries from the islands. In 2013, the Tongan national airline was gifted a 60-seat Xian MA-60 airliner from China. About 100 Tongans are studying in Chinese universities, and Beijing paid the expenses of Tongan athletes training for the 2020 Olympics in China.
By 2023 Tonga will be obliged to commit about 15% of its revenue to the Export-Import Bank of China. Tonga has asked Beijing for a restructuring of the debt, which will no doubt be negotiated, and no doubt involve more dependency. Tonga could certainly do worse in its bill-collectors, you’ll say; PRC foreign policy rests on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. Surely the China that built the Tanzam Railroad in the 1970s, providing an interest-free 30-year loan of $400 million to cover the project, is more interested in internationalism and the cause of resistance to imperialism? Let us not count on it.
Each new disaster requires more assistance. In 2018 Cyclone Gita, the most intense cyclone on record, hit Nuku’alofa destroying around 100 homes. It leveled the century old Parliament building (since rebuilt by Chinese). On the island of Eua the winds destroyed all the crops, including the vital vanilla crop. While the country recovered, in January 2021, Cyclone Harold flooded Nuku’alofa. The IMF Executive Board (headed by a Chinese) approved a $10 million disbursement to Tonga to help it meet its urgent balance of payments and fiscal needs. USAID provided over a million dollars for reconstruction and COVID-19 measures.
China provides 10% of Tonga’s imports (the same figure as the U.S.), and receives under 5% of its exports. But I suspect there is much growth potential in the Chinese vanilla market, and that some political decisions by Beijing increase that latter figure. Vanilla planters in Tahiti and New Caledonia once imported Chinese indentured workers to grow vanilla; now perhaps the plantation owners and cargo shippers will be Chinese colonizing Polynesians. Or at least Beijing knows it could offer to slice off half that debt for control over the vanilla market.
Beijing could also increase Tongan dependency by making an offer the king can’t refuse. In New Guinea, the PRC is developing the Daru fishery, industrial zone and tourist resort at a cost of $40 billion. Or it could offer the traditional Pacific colonial deal: give us a harbor, like Pearl Harbor, or Pago-Pago, or Pape’ete, and we’ll do you some favors. In 2017 China acquired a 99-year lease on Sri Lanka’s Magampura port at Hambantota for $1.1 billion. This considerably reduced Colombo’s foreign debt and made a certain kind of sense in this imperialist world. Tonga has several ports aside from the main one at Nuku’alofa. Pangai is on Hunga Ha’apai, no doubt absolutely in need of reconstruction right now. Could probably be done free, with improvements, for $1.1 billion, on the sole condition it be managed by Chinese for a century.
Pa’angas and Dependency
The undersea fiber-optical cable linking Tonga to Fiji (and thence the world), financed by the World Bank Group and Asian Development Bank, operative since 2013, was broken by the Ha’apai Hunga eruption. Service has not been restored and may take weeks. Who will pay for this?
Tonga is dependent now on aid and remittances from Tongans living abroad (mainly in New Zealand). But it was not always so. The Tongans were fiercely independent when the 16-year-old English cabin boy, William Mariner, was captured by retainers of the high chief of Ha’apai, Finau, on the island of Lifuka, in 1805. Finau took a liking to the boy, having slaughtered his shipmates, and took him under wing. Spending five years in the kingdom, Mariner later published An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands (1818), a very useful account. (We know it was read by Karl Marx because he references it in his Ethnological Notebooks, finding of particular interest the fact that inheritance and noble descent traced through the female line in Tonga.)
In his book, Mariner notes the Tongans’ thorough indifference to money. He records that while Finau’s men had captured 12,000 silver coins from the ship on which he’d served, they were clueless about their value. They thought they were gaming pieces of some sort (which is actually quite true, and their insight quite prescient). They resembled the round reddish-brown pa’angas bean, used in the disc-throwing game, lafo, (like the ulu-maika game in Hawai’i). So the Tongans did the practical thing and used the looted coins in the lafo game, in lieu of the traditional pieces made from the bean. Hence the word for the modern Tongan currency is pa’anga. (Do others see the humor in this?)
Mariner quotes Finau (“King Finow”) as follows to illustrate the Tongans’ concept of money:
If money were made of iron and could be converted into knives, axes and chisels there would be some sense in placing a value on it; but as it is, I see none. If a man has more yams than he wants, let him exchange some of them away for pork. Certainly money is much handier and more convenient but then, as it will not spoil by being kept, people will store it up instead of sharing it out as a chief ought to do, and thus become selfish… I understand now very well what it is that makes the papalangi [white men] so selfish – it is this money!
This King Finow was Fīnau Fangupō (ʻUlukālala II). His power never extended to Tongatapu; he was one of three rulers in the Tongan islands by tradition. But his son was to bring all the islands under his control by 1820. He ceded Vavau island (far to the north) to his son-in-law, a powerful chief in his own right who soon established a new line. This was George Tupou I, often seen as the “first king of modern Samoa” and direct ancestor of the current king. At some point the royals, like the papalangi, became selfish about money.
Missionaries and Mammon
A key figure here was the British missionary Shirley Baker, who worked as a Methodist clergyman in Tonga from 1860 to 1878, firmly grounding the faith before quitting, mid-career, following an investigation of charges of indecency. He operated a sugar plantation. He ingratiated himself to King George Tupou I and helped guide the nation, being awarded the title of prime minister (a post he held from 1881 to 1890). He helped design the legal system and government institutions. He developed a close relationship with the German Godeffroy firm, which came to dominate copra production in the islands; indeed he contracted to supply the firm with coconuts contributed by believers as religious offerings to the church. He brokered the kingdom’s relations with Germany, resulting in German recognition of Tongan independence in return for a coaling base on Vavau in 1876.
(Perspective: eleven years later the Hawaiian king granted “the Government of the US the exclusive right to enter the harbor of Pearl River, in the Island of Oahu, and to establish and maintain there a coaling and repair station for the use of vessels of the US and to that end the US may improve the entrance to said harbor and do all things useful to the purpose aforesaid.” Marines from Pearl Harbor as you know overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.)
Baker stoked the king’s lust for pa’angas. He had developed a much different view of money from that of Finau seven decades earlier. He wanted traders to frequent the port of Nuku’alofa, from 1845 the national capital, and was pleased to supply them with land to raise cash crops for the world market. German settlers came to dominate life in Vava’u, around Neiafu Harbour.
Tonga: an Ancient Empire
Tupou I was not, in this respect, particularly “modern.” Past Tongan rulers were keenly interested in the outside world accessible to them, possessing, as they did, the world’s most advanced maritime tools for centuries. A Tongan vessel could carry 50 people quite easily to Fiji, Samoa, even Tahiti, for trade or other purposes. Thus Tonga, despite its size, and in contrast to all other Polynesian island chiefdoms and kingdoms, was for centuries the center of a tribute-empire encompassing the Samoan islands, Niue and Fiji, reaching its peak during the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries but still evident to Capt. Cook in 1778.
The explorer witnessed a tribute (inisi) ceremony involving tribute delegations of “darker skinned” people (a likely reference to Melanesians incusing Fijians) paying tribute to the Tongan king. The presence of basalt adzes and building stones traceable to far flung islands indicates there was much trade (if no money, banks, capitalists or national debt) in precolonial Pasifika. Tonga was by no means deficient before Baker’s time, such that the missionaries, planters and traders were needed to improve the environment, or the quality of people’s lives.
Tongan society is a very ancient one; the first voyagers reached the islands some 2800 years ago, over 2000 years before the first substantial settlement of Polynesians in Hawai’i. By 1000 BCE the Lapita culture, centering on the production of pottery (which dies out in most of Polynesia or never takes root) spread through the islands.
Ha’amonga a Maui, a trilithon megalith overhyped to tourists as the “Stonehenge of the Pacific,” was constructed in the thirteenth century. The Langi Lahi and Paepaeotelea royal tomb complexes date to the 15th-16th centuries. Unfortunately the once numerous temples of the native faith have been destroyed by zealous Christians, mostly in Baker’s time, as he applauded their efforts. The Fale Me’e (last of these houses of worship) survives only as a ruin. The “pre-contact” history of the region is unwritten but the chants preserve valuable information.
The Tongan Empire acquired a reputation in the South Pacific for its fierce warriors and its conquests; some islands in Fiji, a Melanesian nation, remain ethnically Tongan. A key figure in nineteenth-century Fijian history is Ma’afu, a prince of Tonga and king-making chief in Fiji as well. In 1643 the first Europeans to “discover” Tonga were Dutchmen aboard a vessel of the Dutch East India Co. They visited Tongatapu and Ha’apai but apparently made little impression on the islanders; western contact was only really established from the 1760s. Thereafter the whaling ships arrived, seeking provisions and R&R, then the missionaries, then the planters, all playing their role in remolding Tonga and reshaping the Tongan people to their own ends.
The U.S. Occupation of Tonga and the Great Cigarette Raid
I must mention another player: the U.S. military. Tonga had a small national army when war broke out in Europe in 1939. The Kingdom of Tonga, still a British protectorate, fervently embraced the Allied cause, and Queen Salote donated 160 acres to for the construction of an airfield. In 1942 a secret U.S. plan (“BLEACHER”) for the occupation of the islands was implemented and for the next three years Tonga was at the service of U.S troops. The U.S. Navy population came to exceed the Tongan. The occupation is referred to in Tonga simply as Taimi o’e kau Amelika (the Time of the Americans). But, as one scholar of the period, Charles J. Weeks, observes: “…as the troops involved in BLEACHER sailed into the remote Pacific they had no idea what to expect. Neither did the Tongans whom no one seems to have consulted about the occupation of their country.”
During the Occupation, for the first time, such western vices as beer and cigarettes became widely available in Tonga. The Seabees sometimes brewed their own product and taught Tongans how to make it themselves. But these efforts by the Occupation, to win good will through such delights, simply encouraged Tongans, who did not share the occupiers’ concept of private property, to pilfer them on a large scale. When the Navy’s main warehouse storing them was raided, the Navy’s response was swift.
The episode called the “Great Cigarette Raid” occurred in August 1944. In it, U.S. sailors under their officers’ command terrorized Tongatapu, making mass arrests, torturing suspects, breaking into the prime minister’s home and humiliating him and his family. All to track down the missing loot! The resident British consul was unable to restrain the U.S. forces. But he later credited himself for curbing the U.S. commander’s plans to declare martial law, thus curbing a “violent effort to declare war on the Government of Tonga.” (Such undignified inter-imperialist contention, in a semi-colony occupied by both, in the midst of an anti-fascist war!)
Tobacco addiction was a lingering impact of the occupation; after the war, the kingdom vastly increased its annual import of cigarettes and beer from Australia and New Zealand. Aside from stoking islanders’ interest in tobacco smoking and beer consumption, the sailors brought venereal diseases. Prostitution arrived with the U.S. forces, probably for the first time since the whalers had frequented Tongan ports. According to a 1939 census, there were 441 “half-caste” (part-European) persons in the country, out of a total of 34,130, with only 400 resident (full-blood) Europeans. Many more were born during the U.S. occupation, when 4000 to 9000 U.S. sailors and thousands of New Zealand troops were stationed in the islands, and thousands more passed through as transients. Nuku’alofa became renowned for its “rest and recreation” offerings, its sex industry regulated by the Americans, who did not hesitate to violate Tongan law in their occasional roundups of “women with loose character” for diagnosis and treatment of venereal disease.
The economic boom of the war years was followed by a contraction and return to prewar normalcy. High copra prices sustained the kingdom as it attempted to diversify, becoming at times one of the top ten vanilla producers and establishing a tourist industry. There had been no hotels permitted in the Tongan Kingdom during the reign of Queen Salote (1918-1965). But her son Taufa’ahau Tupou IV (r. 1965-2006) ordered the construction of the International Dateline Hotel to accommodate visitors to his coronation on Nuku’alofa waterfront on July 4, 1967. At the same time he had Fua’amotu Airport on Tongatapu (built by U.S. Seabees during the war) upgraded to handle jet aircraft. All to attain a higher profile in the world for the Tongan monarchy!
The hotel was torched and seriously damaged in riots in 2006. So was the Royal Pacific (Pacific Royale) Hotel, owned by the Shoreline Group of Companies, in which the king was deeply invested. Afterwards the king was obliged to sell off all his business interests.
The Game is Unfair
China is the ascendant economic power in the South Pacific, challenging the primacy of the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, vying with Japan and South Korea. It is not an historically imperialist power, and some think its model of “market socialism” doesn’t qualify as real capitalism, or that Lenin’s theory of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism doesn’t pertain to China. Beijing’s record in the Pacific compares well with those of the western powers, beginning as it does so late. But one can say its aid comes with strings attached, and is designed to provide leverage, and serve what bourgeois scholars (who don’t understand or recognize class division) call “national interests.” One can say the same of British or U.S. aid, can we not?
In the 19th century, the Great Powers vied for hegemony over Tonga by backing different warrior chiefs as surrogates. Now the Great Powers vie for hegemony over Tonga by dangling and distributing pa’angas. He ancient game evolves; the beans that became coins now become bonds, loans, shares and futures. The point of the game is to get your opponent to fork over all of value they possess. This may have always been the case but today the game is not a beach pastime involving some friends but a gambling game determining a nation’s fate.
The rules of the game are not fair, as they once were, because the players are unfairly matched: the investors brought capital, and generated more from their plantations, while the emergent Tongan state had no capital. Politically independent or not (Tonga achieved “full independence” from the U.K. in 1970), the islands have become a classic neocolony, utterly dependent on the traditional crops, with their mercurial markets, and fishing; utterly dependent on loans and the labor-power Tongans forced to flee to employers overseas. With no clear end in sight.
The globe is warming. As the Tongan representative to the UN climate talks last November warned: “beyond the 1.5 C threshold would spell absolute catastrophe for Tonga” which would be submerged into the sea. But it is, in fact, likely the 1.5 C threshold will be exceeded in 2024! You wonder what consortium of global capitalists will step in to help.
The rules of the game are again unfair. Tonga, having been rudely jolted from communal agriculture to the regimen of wage-labor; having been obliged to accept British “protection” from 1900 to 1970); having been transformed into a monocrop economy at the mercy of the global marketplace and banks; having suffered four years of U.S. occupation (to help them defeat the Japanese); having been occupied spiritually by the missionaries’ doctrines—may ultimately fall victim to the rising waters caused by the emission of greenhouse gasses by corporations like China Coal and ExxonMobil. Then the capitalist-imperialist conquest of Tonga will come to an end.
And then maybe Palau, Kiribati, even Fiji, warped by capitalist imperialism then drowned by it.
In the Tongan creation myth, closely related to those of other Polynesian peoples, the demigod Maui is a Tongan, whose special fishhook raises the island of Aotearoa (New Zealand) out of the water. Something like the reverse is happening; Maui himself has gotten hooked and is being pulled down. But that could be said of many peoples on many islands, pending their urgently needed revolutions.