For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.
Kingdom of Tonga
Area: 747 sq. km. (288 sq. mi.).
Cities: Capital--Nuku'alofa (pop. 34,000).
Terrain: 171 islands, mainly raised coral but some volcanic.
Climate: Tropical, modified by trade winds. Warm season (December to May), cool season (May to December).
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Tongan(s).
Population (2002 est.): 110,237.
Age structure: 37.1% below 14; 4.2% over 65.
Annual growth rate (2002 est.): 1.94%.
Ethnic groups: Tongan 98%, other Polynesian, European.
Religions: Wesleyan Methodist, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, Mormon.
Languages: Tongan, English.
Education: Literacy (2001 est.)--98.5%.
Health: Infant mortality rate (2002 est.)--12.62/1,000. Life expectancy at birth--68.56 yrs.: female--72.14 years; male--67.05 years.
Work force (1997 est.) 33,908: Agriculture--65%.
Unemployment (1996 est.): 13.3%.
Type: Constitutional hereditary monarchy.
Constitution: 1875 (revised 1970).
Independence: June 4, 1970.
Branches: Executive--Monarch, Prime Minister and Cabinet. Legislative--unicameral Legislative Assembly. Judicial--Court of Appeals (Privy Council), Supreme Court, Land Court, Magistrates' Court.
Administrative subdivisions: Three main island groups--Ha'apai, Tongatapu, Vava'u.
Political parties: People's Democratic Party.
Suffrage: Universal at age 21.
Central government budget (2003 est.): $75.2 million.
Economy (all figures in U.S. dollars)
GDP (2004 est.): $131 million.
Per capita GDP (2004 est.): $1,287.
GDP real growth rate (2000 est.): -0.5%.
Natural resources: Fish.
Agriculture (30% of GDP): Products--Squash, coconuts, copra (dried coconut meat); bananas, vanilla beans, cocoa, coffee, ginger, black pepper, fish.
Industry: 10% of GNP.
Services: 60% of GDP.
Trade (2003 est.): Exports--$18.2 million; squash, fish, vanilla beans, root crops. Major export markets--Japan, U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Fiji. Imports--$104.2 million; food, machinery and transport equipment, fuels, chemicals. Major importers--New Zealand, Japan, Australia, U.S., Fiji.
Fiscal year: July 1 to June 30.
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%.
Almost two-thirds of the population of the Kingdom of Tonga live on its main island, Tongatapu. Although an increasing number of Tongans have moved into the only urban and commercial center, Nuku'alofa, where European and indigenous cultural and living patterns have blended, village life and kinship ties continue to be important throughout the country. Everyday life is heavily influenced by Polynesian traditions and especially by the Christian faith; for example, all commerce and entertainment activities cease from midnight Saturday until midnight Sunday, and the constitution declares the Sabbath to be sacred, forever.
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 several hundred Chinese.
Primary education between ages 6 and 14 is compulsory and free in state schools. Mission schools provide about 83% of the primary and 90% of the secondary level education. 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 sovereign 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") of 8.25 acres, plus a village allotment of about three-eights of an acre for his home.
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."
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 noble families. 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, including two from the nine selected nobles' representatives and two from the nine elected people's representatives. The governor 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 Taufa'ahau Tupou IV
Prime Minister--Prince Ulukalala Lavaka Ata
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Sonatane Tu'akinamalohi 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. 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 associated with the king or a noble and who may or may not hold estates. Obligations and responsibilities 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, supported by the extended family, are now being left without visible means of support.
Educational opportunities for young commoners have advanced, and their increasing political awareness has stimulated some dissent against the nobility system. In addition, the rapidly increasing population is already too great to provide the constitutionally mandated 8.25-acre api for each male at age 16. In mid-1982, population density was 134 persons per square kilometer. Because of these factors, there is considerable pressure to move to the kingdom's only urban center of migration.
The King of Tonga announced in late 2004 that he would henceforth include people's representatives in the 12-member appointed cabinet. Following the election in March 2005, the Prime Minister 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 official candidate was elected to Parliament in special May by-elections, held to fill the two people's representational seats vacated by the Cabinet Minister 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.
Tonga's economy is characterized by a large non-monetary sector and a heavy dependence on remittances from the 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 the telecommunications and satellite services. Much of small business, particularly retailing on Tongatapu, is now dominated by recent Chinese immigrants who arrived under a cash-for-passports scheme ended in 1998.
The manufacturing sector consists of handicrafts and a few other very small-scale industries, all of which contribute only about 3% of GDP. Commercial business activities also are inconspicuous and, to a large extent, are dominated by the same large trading companies found throughout the South Pacific. In September 1974, the country's first commercial trading bank, the Bank of Tonga, opened.
Rural Tongans rely on plantation and subsistence agriculture. Coconuts, vanilla beans, and bananas are the major cash crops. The processing of coconuts into copra and desiccated coconut is the only significant industry. 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.
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. The copra industry is plagued by world prices that have been depressed for years.
Efforts are being made to discover ways to diversify. 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 but are decreasing as land is cleared. 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. Cruise ships often stop in Nuku'alofa and Vava'u.
Tonga, by a further modification of its treaty of friendship with the United Kingdom in July 1970, is responsible for its own external affairs. It maintains cordial relations with most countries and has close relations with its Pacific neighbors. In 1998, it recognized China and broke relations with Taiwan.
In 1972, Tonga laid claim to the tide-washed, isolated Minerva Reefs, some 480 kilometers southwest of Nuku'alofa, to forestall efforts by a private Anglo-American group, Ocean Life Research Foundation, to establish an independent Republic of Minerva on the reefs.
The Tonga Defense Service (TDS) is a 400-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 operate 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, Tonga sent a unit of 45 troops to Iraq as peacekeepers.
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.
There is little trade between the United States and Tonga. In 2001 U.S. exports to Tonga totaled $4.8 million while U.S. imports from Tonga totaled $7.7 million.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Larry M. Dinger
Deputy Chief of Mission--Ted Mann
Political/Economic/Commercial Affairs--Brian J. Siler
Management Officer--Jeffrey Robertson
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).