In search of the Tongan Empire
On my first day in Tonga I hire a girl's bike from a sleepy teenager and cruise down Vuna Rd, which seems, with its harbour views, promenading couples, and processions of souped-up cars, to be Nuku'alofa's answer to Auckland's Mission Bay Drive.
Groups of teenage boys run across the road, between the traffic, and leap over a seawall's coral brickwork into the pale blue water between a shoal of local fishing boats and a Samoan-flagged container ship. With their long shorts and dark, long-sleeved shirts, the teens look like they are diving in wetsuits. Tongan law forbids any male over the age of sixteen from going topless, and the display of naked knees is frowned upon, if not proscribed. (One of Nuku'alofa's more risque clubs apparently holds an occasional 'Naughty Knees Night', where a few daring men and women parade their knobbly bits on stage while other punters whistle and applaud.)
When one of the modestly-dressed teens steps in front of me, I discover that the machine I have just hired lacks brakes. I jam my heels into Vuna Rd and come to a stuttering, undignified halt. A Tongan family slides by in an enormous SUV, giggling through the windows at the silly palangi on a purple bike built for someone half his size.
Past Touliki Naval Base, where muscled young men sit around laughing in front of a pair of gunboats that look suspiciously like converted fishing trawlers, Tongan families are picnicking on a strip of grass beside the seawall. The Tongan language has no simple equivalents for our words for uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, and cousin. In Tonga, if one of a set of siblings has a child, then all of the siblings become the child's parents. Cousins are considered siblings, just as uncles and aunts are considered parents. For most Tongans, family life consists of a vast network of obligations and entitlements that those of us raised in Western nuclear families must struggle to imagine.
A few small kids have defected from the intricate clusters formed by their kin on the grass and wandered onto the reef which rises like a set of rotten teeth out of a low tide. In the distance a series of islands with leprous-yellow beaches are set on their own reefs; they are remnants of the volcanoes that coughed tonnes of ash onto Tongatapu millions of years ago, ensuring that the island would be covered in super-fertile soils by the time the Lapita ancestors of the Tongans landed here around three thousand years ago. The occasional reef is adorned with a wreck so rusted that it looks less like a trawler or a pleasure boat than a huge gnarled lump of coral.
The Americans and Kiwis who occupied Tonga during World War Two wanted to site guns on the little reef islands to counter any Japanese attack on Nuku'alofa, but they ended up fortifying the shoreline of Tongatapu instead. Across the road from the picnickers I find a roofless observation post painted in the pre-faded grey that still excites the sensibilities of military bureaucrats today. Woolly nightshade has forced a side door of the post, and taken the communications room. A bulging cow sits tethered to a banyan tree on the other side of the building.
The thirty thousand American troops who passed through Tongatapu between 1942 and 1945 had the nervous hubris of a conquering army. Although they were ostensibly guests of Queen Salote, Tonga's long-serving head of state, the Americans ran their own legal system, appropriated large areas of land for their bases, and treated the Tongans as their subjects. In her study of Tonga's war experience Elizabeth Wood-Ellen reveals that the commanders of the American force hailed from the deep South, and thought nothing of enlivening an evening's drinking by driving into the countryside outside Nuku'alofa, firing rifles into the air, and beating up any locals who crossed the path of their Land Rovers and jeeps. Black troops were carefully segregated from the rest of the Americans at Kolonga, a remote village on the northeast coast of Tongatapu. When they left Tongatapu, the Americans demolished the hundreds of buildings they erected, and drove tractors and trucks off the edge of the wharf they had built beside Vuna Road.
I turn my bike around and ease off Vuna Road, into the signless network of coral-rock and dirt lanes that separates Nuku'alofa's seafront from the northern arm of Fanga'uta, the lagoon that looks on maps like a great bite taken out of Tongatapu. Fales remain the dominant type of housing in Samoa, but in Tonga, which is considerably cooler and a little wealthier, Western-style dwellings are the norm. Between the open coast and the lagoon, rows of old cottages patched up with corrugated iron and flattened kerosene tins give way brusquely to swampy vacant lots, or half-acre plantations of coconuts and bananas. I pass one of the hundreds of Wesleyan churches in Tonga, then a cottage which doubles as the 'Baby Blue Beauty Saloon', then stop to watch an unskinned pig being turned over a front yard fire on a hand-held spit at least eight feet long.
As a flat, intensely cultivated, and in some places overpopulated island, Tongatapu lacks some of the appeal of Samoa, with its forested mountains and tumbling streams, or Niue, with its tiny population and tracts of virgin jungle. For me, though, the island's huge role in Pacific history and the continuing vitality of its culture more than compensate for the rubbish heaps beside the lagoon and the rush-hour traffic jams in Nuku'alofa. If Samoa is Western Polynesia's Scotland, a romantic, mountainously beautiful site of resistance to invaders and colonisers, then Tongatapu is England, the heartland of an old power whose palaces and monuments bear witness to its traditional importance. Helped by the soil of Tongatapu and by tireless northerly winds, the Tongans built a maritime chiefdom - some scholars venture to call it an empire - that included Tongatapu, the Ha'apai, Va'vau, and Niua archipelagos that are also components of modern Tonga, and a series of more distant territories like U'vea, Fiji's Lau group, and Samoa. Tongan raiding parties were feared as far away as the Solomon Islands.
The Tongans created an intricately hierarchical society, in which no two people were of the same rank, and in which power was divided between a divine T'ui Tonga, who interceded with the gods over harvests and the trajectories of storms, and a worldly hau, who despatched governors to remote islands.
Today Tonga remains perhaps the most hierarchical of Polynesian societies. Pedalling through the village-suburbs of Nuku'alofa, I notice the absence of the malae, or collectively owned central spaces, which I saw in every Samoan village I visited. In the large fale on their malae, Samoans have traditionally met in fono - village councils - to decide upon the proper allocation of plantations and other collectively-owned land.
Although Samoan fono have traditionally been dominated by chiefs, these chiefs have always been related to the people they rule by bloodlines. In traditional Tongan society, by contrast, chiefs were related to their subjects only by the fact that these subjects lived on their land. The 'commoners' who made up the vast majority of the Tongan population were tenant farmers who owed tribute to their chiefs, and who could be moved off the soil they occupied at the whim of the same chiefs. When Tongan chiefs died, they became divine; commoners, by contrast, did not even possess souls.
The centralising tendencies of traditional Tongan society may have helped it escape the subjugation suffered by its neighbours in modern times. Like most other Polynesian societies, Tonga was destabilised by the arrival of modern weapons and technology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In Island Kingdom, his classic survey of Tongan history, Ian Campbell explains that a 'long civil war' analogous to the Musket Wars of Aotearoa and the fatricidal conflicts of early modern Samoa began in Tonga after chiefs based in the northern Ha'api and Va'vau groups acquired guns from passing European ships, and began to raid Tongatapu.
In Samoa and in Aotearoa, settlers and European imperialist powers were able to play warring local factions off against each other, and by doing so make the imposition and consolidation of colonial power possible. In Tonga, though, the wars of the nineteenth century were ended by a local leader, Tauafa'ahau, who is better-known as Tupou the first, the creator of the modern Tongan state.
Tauafa'ahau was a brutally effective soldier and strategist, and the campaign he launched to unify his country had the character of a holy war. One day in 1831 Tauafa'ahau had picked up the trunk of a banana tree, bashed it against the statue of a traditional Tongan goddess, and found that he was not struck down by divine punishment. The young chief decided that the old gods were dead, and that the new God imported by Wesleyan missionaries required his allegiance. As he conquered island after island, Tauafa'ahau burned the carved godhouses of the old religion, and demanded the conversion of the local population. The pagan chiefs who had held out longest against Tauafa'ahau belatedly converted to Catholicism, and tried to get Papist France to intervene to support them, but in 1852 Tauafa'ahau raised an army of six thousand, besieged their strongholds on Tongatapu, and starved them into submission.
Working closely with the randy anti-imperialist missionary Shirley Baker, who was eventually forced out of the clergy because of his commitment to Tongan nationalism, Tupou the first converted Tonga's old royal titles into a new, Western-style Kingship, gave the country a set of written laws, abolished the arbitrary powers of chiefs over commoners, designed a flag and composed a national anthem, and warned foreign governments against intervention in Tongan affairs. In the 1870s Tongan independence was reluctantly accepted by Britain and Germany, the two strongest imperial powers in the Western Polynesian region.
Tonga would eventually be forced to cede some of its sovereignty to Britain, but its people never had to put up with the discriminatory laws and ferociously bigoted governors that were the fate of Samoa and Niue for the first half of the twentieth century. Tonga's history of centralising institutions and its very hierarchical culture probably made the consolidation of power by Tupou the first easier. Unlike King Tawhiao in Aotearoa, or the leaders of the various nationalist governments that struggled to win wide support in late nineteenth century Samoa, Tupou was able to draw on concepts of nationalism and institutions of central power that predated contact with Europe.
When the alternatives to the state he founded are considered, it is not hard to see why many Tongans still reverence Tupou the first today. Turning on to Tulu'ifavou Road, the main drag of Nuku'alofa, I pass a park where large statues of Tupou and his successors stand over their graves. Since Tupou the first died in 1893, every male heir to the Tongan throne has taken his name. A large billboard at the top of Tulu'ifavou Road congratulates the new King on his recent coronation. It is hard to see a connection between Tupou the fifth, with his puffed-up chest full of unearned medals, his dandyish smirk, and his quivering double chin, and the ferocious visionary who created modern Tonga.
A stone's throw from the grave of Tupou the first, a billboard in front of a building site announces that the Chinese government is helping finance the reconstruction of Nuku'alofa's central business district, in the wake of the riot which broke out at the end of a pro-democracy demonstration in November 2006 and left scores of buildings looted and gutted. The billboard's boast seems rather ill-advised, given the fact that one of the main targets of the arsonists and looters were Chinese-owned businesses.
In his new book In Search of the Friendly Islands, long-time Tongan dissident journalist Kalafi Moala says that on 'Black Thursday' the country's pro-democracy movement 'went from the being oppressed to being the oppressor', and claims that the riot was carefully planned by criminal elements, and tacitly endorsed by populist politicians. Not everyone seems to agree with Moala. I notice one piece of graffiti mourning some of the rioters who died on Black Thursday, and another which demands that the Tongan government FREE THE POLITICAL PRISONERS jailed for their part in the disorder.
When Skyler meets me in downtown Nuku'alofa she giggles at my bike, and gasps at the sunburn I have acquired on my ride through the suburbs. Embarrassed, I try to explain that sunburn is a great palangi tradition, a sort of moko accompanied by solemn rituals like lying on the beach or wandering lost through strange cities, a momento of an encounter between the tropics and pasty bodies, but she waves her hand mockingly, and guides me towards an enormous vehicle she has just hired from a man who called himself Big John. I am secretly rather pleased to see the SUV, because I didn't fancy taking my little purple bike onto the roads outside Nuku'alofa. Tongatapu is not a large island, but I am not a very fit person.
To drive into Tongatapu's countryside is to experience the depth of Tongan history. Nuku'alofa has been the country's capital since the 1860s, when Tupou built the famous Royal Palace out of specially-ordered Kiwi kauri, but before that decade the place was a mere village with a fort attached. After a night's rest, Skyler and I head into the ancient district of Hahake - the word means east - beside Fanga’uta Lagoon, keeping carefully to a forty kilometre speed limit that seems designed to protect the pigs, roosters, and dogs that continually cross the potholed road.
After twenty kilometres we reach Mu'a, the capital of the Tongan Empire during its late medieval heyday. Mu'a is divided into two villages - Tatakamotonga, which housed the servants of the Tu'i Tonga, and Lapaha, which was the home of the sacred king. The lagoon beside the capital was often filled with vaka carrying the proceeds of trade, or plunder - archaeologists are not always able to differentiate the two activities - and the mana of the old empire is expressed in the twenty-eight giant langi, or burial monuments, which stand amidst the cottages and plantations of modern-day Lapaha.
The sepulchral monuments rise in tiers made from earth and from dressed and fitted stone blocks, some of which are adorned with enigmatic, angular petroglyphs. Because Tongatapu lacks a good supply of building materials, vaka had to carry beachrock from the islands north of Nukualofa across the sea, down the lagoon, and up a specially-dug canal. Some of the langi stones may have come from far afield - legends speak of journeys to seize material from Tikopia, a Polynesian outlier in the southern Solomon Islands, and one tradition insists that the stones were moved by magic from U'vea, many hundreds of kilometres northwest of Tonga.
Mu'a and Nuku'alofa were rivals in the nineteenth century, and Mu'a was a centre of resistance to Tupou in the early decades of his reign. The last Tu'i Tonga, Laufiltonga, was Tupou's most serious rival for power, and supported the doomed Catholic revolt against the new king. When Laufiltonga died in 1865, he was buried on a langi topped by a cross. The title he bore died with him, but members of Lapaha's Catholic community are still buried on the lower tiers of his langi.
Tonga's fledgling tourist industry has made no effort to help visitors find Lapaha’s langi, which are mostly located down narrow side roads. Some of the monuments are overgrown with grass, and topped with frangipani trees; others are partially obscured by modern graves and markers.
When Skyler and I try to navigate Big John's SUV down a lane we almost run into one of the home-made power lines hung by locals 'borrowing' electricity from Tonga's central grid. I abandon the vehicle, follow the swaying wires a few hundred metres, and discover and climb a langi, but when I descend a couple of dogs chase me into the dry moat that surrounds the tomb.
I decide on a different tactic, and head back into the centre of Lapaha to ask locals for some directions. I approach a group of teenage boys sitting on the cracked concrete veranda of a boarded-up beauty salon, and attempt a couple of Tongan greetings. 'Kia ora bro', one of the boys shoots back. 'New Zealand's the best place, eh'. He and his mates live down the road from me in West Auckland; they are spending their summer holidays 'with the rellies' in Lapaha. Armed with some detailed directions, Skyler and I locate Paepae o Telei, the most famous of the ancient langi, down a dirt lane which runs all the way to still green lagoon water.
Paepae o Telei is made from slabs of coral limestone eight feet wide, fitted together so as to form two giant Ls. The tomb was never filled in ancient times, but in 2006 two royals killed in a car crash in the United States were laid to rest here.
Like the Tongan-built Pulemelei Mound in Samoa, which I visited last August, the langi of Lapaha would have required the labour of thousands of men to erect. The langi are comparable to famous ancient monuments like Stonehenge or the moai of Rapa Nui, and yet they are little-known outside Tonga. It is possible that the Tongan monuments are neglected by Westerners because they are not mysterious remnants or a society which has vanished or been transformed, but rather pieces of a continuous and robust culture. For the Westerner attracted by wistfully patronising images of 'lost civilisations', Tonga lacks the stillness and pathos of the Mayan forests or the bare hills of Rapa Nui.
East of Lapaha, the lake-like waters of Fanga’uta Lagoon are replaced by the open ocean. At Heketa, the site of Tonga's capital before the T'ui Tonga's shift to Mu'a in the thirteenth century, the sound of waves slamming patiently on cliff walls carries through coconut trees and scrub to the Ha'amonga a Maui Reserve, where a couple of families sell souvenirs - tapa cloths adorned with the royal coat of arms, and necklaces made with local pearls - in the shadow of Tonga's best-loved ancient monument.
'The burden of Maui' is represented on banknotes and on the label of the local Maka Mata beer, but as a trilithon - a structure made of one horizontal and two vertical stones - it is unusual in the canon of ancient Tongan stonework. Explanations for the monument, which was erected near the end of Heketa's spell as capital, vary considerably: some traditions suggest it was an entrance to a now-vanished palace, others claim it was a memorial to a Tu'i Tonga, and in 1967 Tupou the fourth suggested, rather implausibly, that the structure was raised to help Tongans trace the changing of the seasons.
If the purpose of Ha'amonga a Maui is obscure, the reason for the abandoment of Heketa seems obvious. With the burgeoning of their empire, the Tongans would have needed safe anchorage for vaka creaking with tribute, loot, and trade goods, and the rough water of Heketa must have seemed inferior to the calm surface of the lagoon to the southwest.
Tonga may have had a capital even older than Heketa. The village of Nukuleka, on the eastern edge of Fanga’uta Lagoon, has been popular with archaeologists since the sixties, when examples of the distinctive pottery of the Lapita ancestors of the Polynesians were uncovered there. In 2008 David Burley, the leading palangi expert on Tongan prehistory, caused controversy amongst archaeologists and headlines in the Pacific media by claiming that Nukuleka was the first place in Polynesia that the Lapita people settled. Burley's excavations had convinced him that it was at Nukuleka that Lapita culture evolved into Polynesian culture, as pottery was slowly abandoned and agriculture and woodworking became increasingly sophisticated. Burley's claims were well-received in Tonga, but caused unhappiness in Samoa, which has for decades liked to advertise itself as the cradle of Polynesia.
When Skyler and I drive into Nukuleka, on a dusty coral and dirt road that follows the edge of Fanga'uta lagoon, we discover that the open ground in the middle of the village has been given over to a netball game between two teams of schoolgirls. Most of the village seems to be watching the girls leap and swoop over the rough turf between two rusted portable hoops, and we roll by unnoticed. Nukuleka lacks the monuments of Mu'a or Heketa, but its herds of pigs, its coconut plantations, and its boys fishing in outrigger canoes might be considered living monuments to the Polynesian way of life which has existed here for so long.
As Skyler and I drive back from the little village at the end of the narrow road, we have to brake for half a dozen pigs that wander out of a plantation, through the coral dust we have stirred up, and into the water. The area around Nukuleka is known throughout Tongatapu for its 'swimming pigs', which supplement the offerings of the village trough with shellfish and crabs they find on the bottom of the lagoon. The boy beaching his outrigger smiles indulgently at me, as I lean out the window of the SUV to take a photo of one of Nukuleka's strange pigs.