Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Size isn't everything: or, why we should study Tongan history

The New Zealand media rightly gave extensive coverage to Samoa's recent celebration of fifty years of political independence.

Kiwi journalists often talked, though, about Samoa being 'granted' independence on June the 1st, 1962, as if freedom were some gift generously bestowed on the islanders by their white-skinned betters. In reality, of course, the Samoans only managed to reestablish control over their own affairs after a sixty-six year struggle against first German then New Zealand colonialists. In the course of this struggle protesters were gunned down on Apia streets, whole villages were burned, and roads were blockaded for years on end. Samoan freedom was won, not given.

Our media made another egregious error when it referred, again and again, to Samoa becoming 'the first independent Pacific nation' fifty years ago.

Last week, while parties were raging in Samoa, Tonga was quietly marking the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Edict created by the visionary King Tupou I.

After reunifying Tonga, which had suffered decades of war in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Tupou had in the 1850s set about giving his ancient nation modern institutions and laws. A convert to Methodism, Tupou had come to abhor his country's feudal lords, who clung to the pagan belief that the serfs who worked their land had no souls and no rights, and could thus be beaten or slain with impunity. After visiting Sydney and being shocked by the sight of homeless workers sleeping in parks, though, Tupou decided that capitalism was just as undesirable as feudalism.
In the Emancipation Edict and a series of other laws that culminated in the 1875 Constitution, Tupou gave a raft of freedoms to ordinary Tongans, set limits on the powers of the country's old feudal class, and created a hybrid mode of production that was neither feudal nor capitalist. Serfdom was abolished, and every adult male Tongan was guaranteed a small parcel of land to work. The old feudal lords were turned into state-funded administrators of the land distribution system. Freedom of the press and of religion were guaranteed.

Tupou I's reforms won him strong support from a majority of his people, and helped to keep the country united during a time when imperialist powers like Britain, Germany, and America were trying to provoke Tongans into the sort of civil wars which were used to justify the advent of colonial rule in Fiji and Samoa.

It makes no sense for our journalists to refer to Samoa as the Pacific's first independent nation, when Tonga never lost its independence to colonialists. Sadly, though, both Kiwi journalists and Kiwis in general have a longstanding habit of either ignoring or ridiculing Tonga's record of uninterrupted autonomy.

Many Tongans see their country's royal family as a symbol of  independence; for palangi Kiwis, though, it is a target for mockery. We salivate over the weddings and jubilee bashes of the Windsor and Grimaldi families, but turn into ardent Republicans as soon as we see a crown sitting on a Tongan head.

We are just as hypocritical when we mock Tonga's dependence on the money its sons and daughters send home from abroad. Remittances are certainly crucial to the Tongan economy, but it is hard to see the cash which flows home from the cities of New Zealand, Australia, and America as some sort of implicit critique of Tongan society.

In recent years New Zealand's politicians and social commentators have become increasingly agitated by the numbers of young Kiwis who leave the country to avoid paying back their student loans. These refugees from debt are pilloried as 'disloyal', told that they are breaking New Zealand law, and threatened from afar with all manner of punitive measures. Is it not remarkable that we have to pass legislation and crack knuckles to compel our young emigrants to wire some money home, when young Tongans routinely send cash back to their birthplace without any compulsion from the state? Surely the role of remittances in the Tongan economy is a positive reflection on that country, not a cause for ridicule?
Tonga is also regularly dismissed by palangi Kiwis because of its size. It cannot be denied that Tonga is a very small nation. Its several hundred islands together cover an area not much larger than Lake Taupo, and it has fewer people than Tauranga. Samoa is nearly than four times larger than Tonga, and has nearly twice the population. Fiji has twenty-two times as much land, and seven times as many people.

As the Bee Gees pointed out, though, Size Isn't Everything. Tonga may be a very small nation, but it is also a non-white Pacific nation which avoided colonisation in the nineteenth century. That gives it a significance out of all proportion to its size.

Amongst nineteenth century Pakeha, the superiority of European civilisation over its darker-skinned rivals was regarded as self-evident, and the victory of the coloniser over the colonised was seen as inevitable.

Many of us might reject overt racism today, but the notion that the subordination of the Pacific to European and American rule was historically inevitable is much harder to jettison. As the British historian EP Thompson liked to point out, once a conflict has concluded in a certain way it is very tempting to believe that such a conclusion was inevitable. History is easily made into destiny.

Thompson liked to study peoples and events which showed, through their very existence, that history was not a uniform and inevitable process. He wrote about outfits like The Levellers, who tried to build a communist utopia in seventeenth century England, and events like the Swing Riots, which saw rural labourers briefly stop the Industrial Revolution in its tracks in 1830s England, because he believed they were windows through which we might see an alternative history.

Although it is a small society, Tonga offers us a window through which we can see an alternative history of the Pacific. Tupou I was, after all, only one of a clutch of leaders who tried to defeat the designs of European and American imperialists by building a strong modern society on Polynesia foundations. In Aotearoa, King Tawhiao created a thriving nation in the central regions of Te Ika a Maui, but was unable to unify Maoridom, which lacked Tonga's history of political unity, and was defeated in the Waikato War of 1863-65. Hawaii's King Kalakaua not only unified his own people but began building a sort of anti-imperialist empire in the Pacific, presenting himself as a defender of local interests against white colonialists, before eventually succumbing to American pressure. To examine Tonga's real history over the past century and a half is to get a better sense of how the histories of the Waikato and Hawa'ii may have turned out, had the dice fallen a different way.

But Tonga's history of independence is important for our understanding of the present, as well the past. If we assume that the Pacific and other peripheral parts of the world were destined to be dominated by the imperialist powers of Europe and North America in the nineteenth century, then it is all too easy to assume that the same domination is inevitable today.

Samoa may have long since won its political independence, but in recent years it has faced demands for neo-liberal 'economic reform' from American and Australasian governments and from organisations like the International Monetary Fund. Like the colonial administrators of old, the Western suits of the twenty-first century are demanding that the Samoans allow the foreign buy-up of their land and resources. Other Pacific governments have faced similar demands. The Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund have called on Tonga to 'reform' the land distribution system Tupou I set up, so that Tongan farmers no longer have security of tenure over soil allotted to them by the state. A massive report delivered last week by a Royal Land Commission contains somewhat similar suggestions.

The politicians and technocrats who advocate the breaking up of collectively-owned lands and the sale of resources to overseas investors typically couch their arguments in terms of historically inevitability. Like all neo-liberal ideologues, they insist that 'there is no alternative' to their policy prescriptions. But as EP Thompson and Tupou I showed in their different ways, history always contains alternatives. Tonga's successful resistance to colonisation in the nineteenth century should inspire those who want to resist neo-colonialism in the twenty-first century Pacific.

[Footnote/admission: I've been trying to design a sort of comparative course in Tongan-New Zealand history and culture lately, so this post is a sort of self-justification. I'll print an outline of the course, which is mostly an exercise in wish-fulfilment, later this week...]

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

what exactly is this 'hybrid mode of production'?

how did it evolve and become historically viable?

i thought there were only five modes of production: primitive communist, slave, feudal, capitalist, socialist.


7:28 am  
Blogger merc said...

Good piece, thought provoking as ever. It is also interesting to consider how those communities have shaped our own.

7:49 am  
Anonymous anarchist view of tonga said...

this anarchist analysis sharply disagrees with your picture of tongan social relations...calls the country feudal, purely...


11:39 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

y r white always baddies?

12:03 pm  
Blogger Will Robe said...

re course outline, yes please - would appreciate a reading list, thanks.

12:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting piece. As a Samoan, we often argue, tongue and cheek, that although Tonga was never colonised by Europeans, the Tongan royal family did the colonising for them, by mimicking European royal families.

1:05 pm  
Anonymous nbc said...

q for persons more informed...

what were the historical circumstances which led to the samoan national liberation struggle taking a non-violent course? like, why didn't they wage an armed struggle, ala the viet cong, and smash nz imperialism that way? was it isolation, shortage of arms, etc?

6:29 pm  
Anonymous nbc said...

also: the slogan of trotskyists has traditionally been


so what is wrong with federation as a long-term goal?

6:30 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

'y r white[s] always baddies?'

They're not! Palangis and part-palangis like Olaf Nelson played a vital role in Samoa's freedom struggle; Tupou I's most important advisor was a Wesleyan missionary turned anti-imperialist named Shirley Baker. But the deeper point is that no people is inherently good or evil, and that the sort of moralistic views of history which try to divide humanity into angels and demons are incompatible with the good old historial materialist approach to the subject which I favour:

1:18 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

'i thought there were only five modes of production'

You thought wrong, comrade! Stalin tried to crack down on modes of production, insisting there could be only a handful and suggesting that they followed each other sequentially in any given society, but in the '60s and '70s the damned things began to proliferate again in Marxist texts.

I see Tupou I's Tonga as a social formation within which several different and partly contradictory modes of production contended.

The feudal mode of production which undoubtedly existed before Tupou I persisted on the estates some of the more important nobles were allowed by Tupou to keep. In these places commoners spent part of their time working for free for the nobles, and also offered their overlords tribute on certain occasions.

But the emancipated serfs who were given security of tenure on small plots of land allotted to them by the state were not obliged to toil for free for nobles, or to offer tribute. These small farmers were generally part of a subsistence mode of production, at least until the cash economy came to Tonga in the middle decades of the twentieth century. They did sometimes work collectively with others in their extended family and village, though, on important projects. Thus we can perhaps talk about something like a village mode of production.

1:23 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Tongan state sometimes sponsored economic projects which used the village mode of production and large plots of publically-owned land to earn foreign currency.

The classic example of this sort of activity was the harvesting and of copra, which often saw whole villages descending on an area rich in coconut palms and exploiting it. Once the copra was ready for export, the state often took care of its transport and sale. Some of the cash from the sale was ploughed into development projects by the government, and some was given to the villagers, who were able to spend it on goods whose import the Tongan government had okayed.

For Tupou I and, especially, Queen Salote, who ruled Tonga for decades in the twentieth century, this sort of activity, which mixed the collective labour of the village mode of production with the economies of scale of the state and the cash of foreign nations, represented a positive alternative to the individualism and instability of capitalism.

As Ian Campbell makes clear in Island Kingdom, the standard English-language history of Tonga, Salote was determined to minimise the influence of capitalism over her nation in the early decades of her rule. During the 1930s she used the Great Depression as an opportunity to reduce Tonga's contact with international capitalism, so that the numbers of of foreign goods imported into the country actually decreased.

When I talked about a hybrid mode of production I was referring to the mixture of the village mode and the capitalist mode which Salote and Tupou seemed to favour for some large-scale economic endeavours.

A more dramatic example of a hybrid is the 'Polnesian mode of production' which sociologists like John McRae and Dave Bedggood identified in places like Tawhiao's Waikato Kingdom and Te Whiti's Parihaka, where collectively owned land and collective labour were deployed to meet the demands of Pakeha capitalist importers.

I don't want to present the Tonga of Tupou I and Salote as some sort of paradise, but I would argue that it was neither a capitalist nor a straightforwardly feudalist society. I talk about all this stuff in a perhaps more coherent way here:

1:23 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

And thanks for the thanks Merc!

1:25 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nbc: "why didn't they wage an armed struggle, ala the viet cong, and smash nz imperialism that way?"

From my understanding, Samoans were heavily influenced by Christianity by the time of colonisation, as evident by many of the elequent speeched by Mau leaders. Passive resistence and matyrdom are strong themes of the New Testament.

Furthermore, Samoans had exeperienced many civil wars immediately before colonisation by Germany and NZ (often one side propped up by the imperialists). Samoans had seen war wasn't getting them anywhere, and up against the might of foreign powers, peaceful resistance was the option persued.

Even in the formal construction of the modern state of Samoa, the wisdom of the nation's forefathers were to give up the traditional avenues to power over Samoa - to a democratic process. (That however did not in no way mean traditional authority would be undermined at the district or village level.)

9:28 am  
Anonymous nbc said...

an armed struggle could have used the ruggedness of samoan terrain. nz imperialism could have been run ragged. the cong showed how to do it.

12:23 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

This is the kind of bold history we need. I haven't yet managed to wade through all of that colossal Royal Land Commission document yet. Are there any significant examples of concessions to the IMF that you noticed in it?

12:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nbc - the Mau movement did evade NZ forces by hiding in the rugged terrain. The Samoans just chose not to fight back.

3:28 pm  
Anonymous nbc said...

'The Samoans just chose not to fight back.'

but they could have manufactured weaponry in the bush as the cong did in nam? eg bush rifles, molotovs, makeshift flameflowers...and made the nz imperialist pay the blood price?

3:40 pm  
Anonymous nbc said...

anyway what was the position of the samoan trotskyists on the question of armed struggle?

3:41 pm  
Anonymous vomitingdiamonds said...

"anarchist view of tonga said...

this anarchist analysis sharply disagrees with your picture of tongan social relations...calls the country feudal, purely...

Was alerted to this comment - it is a misrepresentation - vomitingdiamonds blog is not an anarchist blog, it's (anti-party) Marxist. Plus I explicitly said Tonga is a mixed feudal and capitalist society.

Anyway, this is interesting stuff, and it definitely makes me want to understand more about Tongan history. My article about the riot in Nuku'alofa is pretty crude and clumsy and misinformed in many respects, and I need to learn a lot more. I think Scott's description of a complex hybrid mode of production seems about right.

But forgive my ignorance but is it true that "the emancipated serfs who were given security of tenure on small plots of land allotted to them by the state were not obliged to toil for free for nobles, or to offer tribute." From memory, I thought there was a very strong obligation to provide tribute to the Tongan ruling class.

Anyway, where does class exploitation and resistance fits in to all this? It seems to me it's a bit in the background in all this somewhat abstract discussion of modes of production.

9:13 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i watched a video and it said the airforce landed in a secret country that nobody kwows about.'
is that true?

10:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Satan and Eve were doing more than eating apples in the garden of Eden and the result was twins. Cain was fathered by Satan and Abel by Adam (this is scientifically possible!)
Did not Yeshua say do not throw your pearls before swine? Yet, that is what we have done and now they wish to destroy us! Why? Because they are natural, savage beasts who do not understand the spiritual things any more than an ant understands calculus! Yes, the time has come for the divine calling.

4:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


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Anonymous Al DeFilippo said...

Thank you for the post. For more on early Methodism in England, I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury, the young protégé of John Wesley and George Whitefield, opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this three-book series details the amazing movement of Wesley and Whitefield in England and Ireland as well as its life-changing effect on a Great Britain sadly in need of transformation. Black Country also details the Wesleyan movement's effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is www.francisasburytriptych.com. Please enjoy the numerous articles on the website. Again, thank you, for the post.

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