Tonga Department of State Background

U.S. Department of State Background Note



Tonga is an archipelago directly south of Western Samoa. Its 171 islands, 48 of them inhabited, are divided into three main groups--Vava'u, Ha'apai, and Tongatapu--and cover an 800-kilometer (500 mi.)-long north-south line. The largest island, Tongatapu, on which the capital city of Nuku'alofa is located, covers 257 square kilometers (99 sq. mi.). Geologically the Tongan islands are of two types: most have a limestone base formed from uplifted coral formations; others consist of limestone overlaying a volcanic base.

The climate is basically subtropical with a distinct warm period (December-April), during which the temperatures rise above 32oC (90oF), and a cooler period (May-November), with temperatures rarely rising above 27oC (80oF). The temperature increases from 23oC to 27oC (74oF to 80oF), and the annual rainfall is from 170 to 297 centimeters (67-117 in.) as one moves from Tongatapu in the south to the more northerly islands closer to the Equator. The mean daily humidity is 80%.


Tongans, a Polynesian group with a very small mixture of Melanesian, represent more than 98% of the inhabitants. The rest are European, mixed European, and other Pacific Islanders. There also are about 500 Chinese.

More than two-thirds of the population of the Kingdom of Tonga live on its main island, Tongatapu. An increasing number of Tongans have moved into Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital and only urban and commercial center, where increasingly Western and indigenous Polynesian cultural and living patterns have blended. For instance, the extended family lifestyle is declining, with young couples choosing to live on their own. Nonetheless, village life and kinship ties continue to be important throughout the country. The Christian faith that has dominated Tongan life for almost two centuries is still influential. All commerce and entertainment activities cease on Sunday from midnight, and the constitution declares the Sabbath to be sacred, forever. However, within the past five years, an unsuccessful attempt was made in parliament to amend the Sunday law.

Primary education between ages 6 and 14 is compulsory and free in state schools. The state owns and operates 99% of the primary schools and 44% of secondary schools. Higher education includes teacher training, nursing and medical training, a small private university, a women's business college, and a number of private agricultural schools. Most higher education is pursued overseas.


The word Tonga means "south" in numerous Polynesian languages. Some scholars believe the inhabitants originally came from the islands now known as Samoa. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Tonga islands have been settled since at least 500 B.C., and local traditions have carefully preserved the names of the Tongan sovereigns for about 1,000 years. The power of the Tongan monarchy reached its height in the 13th century. At the time, chieftains exercised political influence as far away as Samoa.

During the 14th century, the King of Tonga delegated much of his temporal power to a brother while retaining the spiritual authority. Sometime later, this process was repeated by the second royal line, thus resulting in three distinct lines: the Tu'i Tonga with spiritual authority, which is believed to have extended over much of Polynesia; the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua; and the Tu'i Kanokupolu. The latter two had temporal authority for carrying out much of the day-to-day administration of the kingdom.

Dutch navigators in 1616 were the first Europeans to sight the Tongan archipelago. The main island of Tongatapu was first visited by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1643. Continual contact with Europeans, however, did not begin until more than 125 years later. Captain James Cook visited the islands in 1773 and 1777 and gave the archipelago the name "the Friendly Islands" because of the gentle nature of the people he encountered. He, of course, was never aware of the acrimonious debate that raged among contending nobles over who should have the honor of attacking Cook's tiny fleet and killing its sailors. In 1789, the famous mutiny on the British ship, Bounty, took place in the waters between the Ha'apai and Nomuka island groups.

Shortly after Captain Cook's last visit, warfare broke out in the islands as the three lines of kings contended for dominance. At about the same time, young Tongan nobles serving as mercenaries took Tongan culture to Fiji's most eastern island group, the Laus. The first missionaries, attached to the London Missionary Society, arrived in Tonga in 1747. A second missionary group followed in 1822, led by Walter Lawry of the Wesleyan Missionary Society. They converted Taufa'ahau, one of the claimants to the Tu'i Kanokupolu line, and Christianity began to spread throughout the islands.

At the time of his conversion, Taufa'ahau took the name of Siaosi (George) and his consort assumed the name Salote (Charlotte) in honor of King George III and Queen Charlotte of England. In the following years, he united all of the Tongan islands for the first time in recorded history. In 1845, he was formally proclaimed King George Tupou I, and the present dynasty was founded. He established a constitution and a parliamentary government based, in some respects, on the British model. In 1862, he abolished the existing system of semi-serfdom and established an entirely alien system of land tenure. Under this system every male Tongan, upon reaching the age of 16, was entitled to rent--for life and at a nominal fee--a plot of bushland (called "api tukuhau") of 8.25 acres, plus a village allotment of about three-eights of an acre for his home (‘api kolo).

Tonga concluded a treaty of friendship and protection with the United Kingdom in 1900 and came under British protection. It retained its independence and autonomy, while the United Kingdom agreed to handle its foreign affairs and protect it from external attack.

During World War II, in close collaboration with New Zealand, Tonga formed a local defense force of about 2,000 troops that saw action in the Solomon Islands. In addition, New Zealand and U.S. troops were stationed on Tongatapu, which became a staging point for shipping.

A new treaty of friendship and protection with the United Kingdom, signed in 1958 and ratified in May 1959, provided for a British Commissioner and consul in Tonga who were responsible to the Governor of Fiji in his capacity as British Chief Commissioner for Tonga. In mid-1965 the British Commissioner and consul became directly responsible to the U.K. Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs. Tonga became fully independent on June 4, 1970, an event officially designated by the King as Tonga's "reentry into the community of nations."

King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV died in September 2006 and was succeeded by King Siaosi Tupou V.


Tonga is the South Pacific's last Polynesian kingdom. Its executive branch includes the prime minister and the cabinet, which becomes the Privy Council when presided over by the monarch. In intervals between legislative sessions, the Privy Council makes ordinances, which become law if confirmed by the legislature. The unicameral Legislative Assembly is controlled by the royal family and nobles. It consists of nine nobles who are elected by the 33 hereditary nobles of Tonga and nine people's representatives elected by universal adult suffrage for 3-year terms. The cabinet includes 12 ministers, appointed by the monarch, currently including two from the nine selected nobles' representatives and two from the nine elected people's representatives. The governors of Ha'apai and Vava'u are appointed to their offices and serve as ex officio members of the cabinet. The Legislative Assembly sits for 4 or 5 months a year.

Tonga's court system consists of the Court of Appeal (Privy Council), the Supreme Court, the Magistrates' Court, and the Land Court. Judges are appointed by the monarch.

The only form of local government is through town and district officials who have been popularly elected since 1965. The town official represents the central government in the villages; the district official has authority over a group of villages.

Principal Government Officials
Monarch--King Siaosi Tupou V
Prime Minister--Feleti Vaka'uta Sevele
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Sonatane 'Tu'akinamolahi Taumoepeau-Tupou
Ambassador to the United States--Fekitamoeloa ‘Utoikamanu

Tonga maintains an embassy at 250 East 51st Street, New York, New York 10022 (tel: 917-369-1136; fax: 917-369-1024). In addition, Tonga has a Consulate General in San Francisco.


For most of the 20th century Tonga was quiet, inward-looking, and somewhat isolated from developments elsewhere in the world. The Tongans, as a whole, continue to cling to many of their old traditions, including a respect for the nobility. However, an increasingly popular pro-democracy movement is articulating a rising demand for more rights for the common people and curbs to the influence of the nobility. Tonga's complex social structure is essentially broken into three tiers: the king, the nobles, and the commoners. Between the king, nobles, and commoners are matapule, sometimes called "talking chiefs," who are allied with the king or a noble, and who may also hold estates. Obligations and responsibilities among the groups are reciprocal, and although the nobility are able to extract favors from people living on their estates, they likewise must extend favors to their people. Status and rank play a powerful role in personal relationships, even within families.

Tongans are beginning to confront the problem of how to preserve their cultural identity and traditions in the wake of the increasing impact of Western technology and culture. Migration and the gradual monetization of the economy have led to the breakdown of the traditional extended family. Some of the poor, traditionally cared for by the extended family, are now being left without visible means of support. The rapidly increasing population is already too great to provide the constitutionally mandated 8.25-acre plot of land or api tukuhau due each male at age 16. Population density reached 132 persons per square kilometer in 2002, fueling the growing population shift from farm and village to urban centers, where traditional societal and political structures are undergoing steady change. Increasing educational opportunities, expanded media penetration and foreign influences via the country's extensive diaspora have raised the political awareness of Tonga's commoners and stimulated dissent against the current system of government. In the past two decades, calls for political reform have gained wide-ranging support and momentum.

Historically, political reform has been slow in the kingdom. In a departure from this, the late King of Tonga announced in late 2004 that he would henceforth include people's representatives in the 12-member appointed cabinet. Following elections in March 2005, the king appointed two of nine recently elected people's representatives and two nobles' representatives as cabinet ministers. In April 2005, Tonga's first official political party, the People's Democratic Party, was formed, and its candidate was elected to parliament in special May by-elections held to fill the two people's representational seats vacated by the king's cabinet appointments. The by-election also resulted in the election of the first woman to sit in the Tongan parliament in 24 years. Out of the nine current people's representatives, seven are members of Tongan democratic movements and two are independent. When the princely prime minister resigned from office in early 2006, People's Representative Feleti Sevele was appointed as the first commoner prime minister in modern times.

In late 2005, in the wake of a nationwide strike by civil servants and a large pro-democracy demonstration, the Legislative Assembly established a National Committee for Political Reform to consult with Tongans at home and abroad on their ideas about political reforms. The report of the committee, presented to the Legislative Assembly on October 3, 2006, recommended political reforms that would have the public elect the majority in parliament, with the king choosing the prime minister and cabinet from parliament's ranks. Following this, the government proposed its own roadmap for political reform, in response to which the pro-democracy People's Committee for Political Reform, an amalgamation of public servant unions and associations, business people, and political movements including pro-democracy and human rights organizations in Tonga, submitted another proposal. The People's Committee called for immediate reforms and organized rallies to back this call during the Assembly's debate of the issues. On November 16, 2006, a People's Committee rally deteriorated into rioting during which hundreds of people rampaged through the central business sector of Nuku'alofa, smashing windows, looting and then burning shops and businesses. The central business district of Nuku'alofa was left in ruins, and the government declared a state of emergency to restore law and order to the capital. The state of emergency was repeatedly extended, and was still in place in late April 2007.


Tonga's economy is characterized by a large non-monetary sector and a heavy dependence on remittances from the more than half of the country's population that lives abroad, chiefly in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Much of the monetary sector of the economy is dominated, if not owned, by the royal family and nobles. This is particularly true of telecommunications and electricity generation and supply. Many small businesses, particularly in the retail sector on Tongatapu, are owned by recent Chinese immigrants who arrived under a cash-for-passports scheme ended in 1998. Royal-owned and Chinese businesses were among those targeted in the November 2006 rioting.

The manufacturing sector consists of handicrafts and a few other very small-scale industries, which together contribute only about 3% of GDP. Commercial business activities are to a large extent dominated by large trading companies found throughout the South Pacific. In September 1974, the country's first commercial trading bank, the Bank of Tonga, opened. Following the destruction of the capital's commercial center in the November 2006 riots, government, business, and international donors have combined forces to support the reconstruction of Nuku'alofa.

Rural Tongans rely on plantation and subsistence agriculture. Squash pumpkins, vanilla beans, and root crops such as cassava and yams, coffee, and noni are the major cash crops. Pigs and poultry are the major types of livestock. Horses are kept for draft purposes, primarily by farmers working their api. More cattle are being raised, and beef imports are declining. Fisheries are also a growing export sector, with tuna, beche de mer, and seaweed being the major marine export products.

Tonga's development plans emphasize a growing private sector, upgrading agricultural productivity, revitalizing the squash and vanilla bean industries, developing tourism, and improving the island's communications and transportation systems. Substantial progress has been made, but much work remains to be done. A small but growing construction sector is developing in response to the inflow of aid monies and remittances from Tongans abroad. Government, international development agencies, and major donor nations have together identified a number of promising means to diversity the Tongan economy. One hope is seen in fisheries; tests have shown that sufficient skipjack tuna pass through Tongan waters to support a fishing industry. Another potential development activity is exploitation of forests, which cover 35% of the kingdom's land area. Plantation coconut trees past their prime bearing years also provide a potential source of lumber.

The tourist industry is relatively undeveloped; however, the government recognizes that tourism can play a major role in economic development, and efforts are being made to increase this source of revenue. In February 2007, an international hotel chain signed an initial agreement to develop a major resort on Vava'u. An increasing number of international cruise ships are now visiting Vava'u and Nuku'alofa.


The Tonga Defense Service (TDS) is a 450-person force. The force is comprised of a headquarters platoon and a light infantry company. A coastal naval unit of four small patrol boats and amphibious landing craft operates as a component of the TDS. The force's mission is to assist in maintenance of public order, to patrol coastal waters and fishing zones, and to engage in civic action and national development projects. The main base of operations is the capital, Nuku'alofa.

The TDS is partially supported by defense cooperation agreements with both Australia and New Zealand, which support the TDS with small in-country detachments of military technicians. The United States military provides training to the TDS and conducts humanitarian civic action projects in Tonga. In 2002, TDS soldiers were deployed as part of a multi-national regional peacekeeping force in the Solomon Islands. In June 2004, the TDS sent 45 troops to Iraq as peacekeepers. In November 2006, after Nuku'alofa's central business district was destroyed in riots, the TDS was given emergency powers to maintain law and order, and to assist the police in their investigations.


The United States and Tonga enjoy close cooperation on a range of international issues. Officers of the American Embassy in Suva, Fiji, are concurrently accredited to Tonga and make periodic visits since the United States has no permanent consular or diplomatic offices in Tonga. Peace Corps Volunteers teach and provide technical assistance to Tongans. Tonga has no embassy in Washington, DC, but has a permanent representative to the United Nations in New York who also is accredited as ambassador to the United States. A large number of Tongans reside in the United States, particularly in Utah, California, and Hawaii.

Trade between the U.S. and Tonga is relatively low, but it has seen a steady increase in recent years. In 2001 U.S. exports to Tonga totaled $4.8 million, and by 2005 they had increased to $10.78 million. In 2005, the U.S. imports from Tonga totaled $6.45 million.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador-- Larry M. Dinger
Deputy Chief of Mission--Ted Mann
Political/Economic/Commercial Affairs--Brian J. Siler
Consul--Debra J. Towry
Management Officer--Ila Jurisson

The U.S. Embassy in Suva, Fiji is located at 31 Loftus Street (P.O. Box 218), Suva (tel. (679) 331-4466, fax (679) 330-2267).

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Revised: Oct. 2007

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