new internationalist
issue 226 - December 1991

Country profile: Tonga

photo: JOHN HEDGECOE / CAMERA PRESS TONGA is literally the place where time begins - as the first country west of the International Dateline in the Pacific. But an increasing proportion of its 100,000 people see it also as a place where time stands still.

The country is an archipelago with a scatter of some 170 volcanic and coral islands. About 70 per cent of the population lives on the main island of Tongatapu; that is, 70 per cent of the Tongans who still live on the islands. Another 40,000 or more are overseas and their remittances form the bulk of Tonga's foreign exchange earnings.

The islands were settled by Polynesians arriving from south-east Asia about 2,500 years ago. They have never - technically at least - been colonized. Tonga survives as the last remaining Polynesian kingdom, where once its fortunes were measured against the comparative power and influence of the other great sea-going military Polynesian kingdoms - in Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti and New Zealand.

Tonga's first contact with the West came through Dutch navigators Schouten and Lemaire in 1616. Captain Cook - whose name for Tonga was the Friendly Isles - visited in 1773 and then came the Wesleyan Missionaries. After this, the pace of change quickened.

In 1862 King George Tupou I abolished slavery and in 1875 a constitution was drawn up. To avoid German colonization Tonga became a British Protectorate in 1900, the status it held until full independence in 1970.

All land in the country remains under the control of the royal family and the 33 noble families, who also dominate the Parliament. But change is on the way - spearheaded by a handful of well-educated younger Tongan commoners who have returned after their foreign education.

The leading commoner MP, Akilisi Pohiva, has broken with tradition by accusing nobles and a member of the royal family of corruption. This related to the sale of Tongan passports to foreigners - mainly from Hong Kong - and to a deal under discussion with an American company to dump waste in the country.

King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, aged 73, is a conservative, gentle and pious ruler who has retained many of the trappings of the British royalty acquired during the 200 years of contact between the nations. He appoints the Cabinet.

His son Crown Prince Tupouto'a, a graduate of Oxford and Sandhurst, is the country's highly articulate anglophile Foreign Minister, who tends to give the impression that his home islands are unable to contain his broader world view. It is likely that when he ascends the throne, the pace of change will accelerate and the likes of Pohiva will be given their chance to sample some real power and responsibility - just as democratic change is also sweeping the neighbouring Polynesian nation of Western Samoa.

Rowan Callick



LEADER: King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV

ECONOMY: GNP per capita: US $830 (US $19,840)
Monetary unit: Pa'anga Tonga has recently established its own Reserve Bank - symbolic of its intention to become more self-reliant; the pa'anga now floats against a basket of world currencies; it was previously fixed at par with the Australian dollar. Remittances and aid form about 28 per cent of GNP; attempts made to diversify into industry, tourism and new export crops like squash and vanilla. Subsistence crops are yams and bread-fruit.

PEOPLE: 100,000 (52 per cent below 20 years old).

HEALTH: 26 per 1,000 live births (US 12 per 1,000)

CULTURE: Polynesian. The high level of literacy, the great pressure for land due to population growth, and increased overseas travel and communications, are leading to a gradual erosion of respect for the hierarchical structures. But criticism has focused on nobles, not on the royal family itself, which still walks tall in a charming but anachronistic manner in this race of tall and dignified people.
Religion: Christian

Sources: The State of the Worlds Children 1991 and information supplied by author.



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Nobles' control of land limits opportunities.

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Excellent -93 %

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Attempts are now bearing some fruit.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Commoners are only now finding their voice.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Sound education clashes with traditional subordination.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Good, at 66 years (US 76 years).



Politics now

Parliament of Ministers,
Nobles and Commoners.


NI star rating

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