SOMETHING wonderful about Tonga is the malau, a dullbrown bird that lives on the distant northern island of Niuafo’ou, and nowhere else in the world. It buries its eggs in a deep hole in the volcanic sands to incubate unattended. When they hatch, the chicks must dig their way out; as they pop up out of the ground it is an extraordinary sight.

Tonga is remarkable amongst Pacific islands in other ways. Settled for some 3,000 years, its people are unusually homogeneous culturally, religiously and linguistically. Never fully colonized, they have forged a proud, independent and stable oasis in a sometimes unstable region.

In the 19th century, a powerful chief from the central island group of Ha’apai saw which way the colonial winds were blowing. Converting to Christianity and securing himself some key British supporters, Taufa’ahau Tupou managed through bloody conquest to unite the 170 islands of the Polynesian archipelago under his rule. He established a parliamentary monarchy and renamed himself George I after the British King.

Monarchical power in Tonga is almost absolute, with the Tupou dynasty at the helm for the last 150 years. Most famous was the loved and revered Queen Salote (1918-65). Her son, Tupou IV, now aged 85, has ruled for 38 years. As King, he initiates and vetoes legislation, and appoints the Premier and all the ministers with nepotistic flair. Nobles dominate the modest, weatherboard parliament building, while only a third of MPs are democratically elected.

A small but determined prodemocracy and human rights movement has had some success at the polls. Stopping short of advocating abolition of the monarchy, it makes bold calls for political reform in the face of corruption and growing assaults on human rights.

Within a hybrid system of feudal capitalism, Tongans pay burdensome ‘tributes’ to their noble landlord, while most Tongans are poor and rely on the support of relatives abroad. The size of the diaspora, concentrated mainly in New Zealand/Aotearoa, Australia and the US, now equals if not exceeds the domestic population of some 106,000.

After remittances, tourism is Tonga’s second-biggest source of hard-currency earnings. Humpback whales are a holiday highlight, yet the Government has opposed the creation of a whale sanctuary in the Pacific. Tonga denounced nuclear testing in the region, but sought to join the ‘coalition of the willing’ which littered Iraq with depleted uranium. This tiny nation currently has troops stationed in the Solomon Islands, and Australia is paying for the expansion of the Tonga Defence Force.

As Tupou IV clings to life and the throne (defying regular rumours to the contrary), his three surviving children, each wealthy and powerful, enter middle age. Most observers predict political and economic change will come to the islands when the supercilious Crown Prince Tupouto’a assumes the throne, though opinion is divided as to whether it will be for the better or worse.

Questions about the future of Tonga may be overtaken by rising sea levels. Salination of the soil by this means threatens to make this largely subsistence and cash-crop-dependent society unsustainable long before the lower atolls are actually inundated. This is just one issue vital to the life of the nation that never gets an adequate airing. While local media are bought or gagged, debate must be concealed behind pandanus fans and confined to late-night circles drinking kava.

Fact file

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled December 1991

At a glance

Country profile: Star rating: 

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)