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Tonga Essay Research Paper Tongan ChiefdomsThe Tongan

Tonga Essay, Research Paper

Tongan Chiefdoms

The Tongan archipelago, located in Polynesia, extends to about 300 kilometers and includes from 150 to 200 islands. The largest islands within the group are Tongatapu, ?Eua, and Vava’u. Only three other islands are inhabited; Eva, Niuafo’ou, and Niuatoputapu (Goldman 1970: 281).Tonga is on the western side of the international date line. Radioactive carbon dating of a Tongan specimen gave us a date going back to about the 5th century B.C. This date is the oldest of all of Polynesia (Lieb 1972: 79).

Among the Polynesian chiefdoms, Tonga is unique because of its level of political development and extensive travel and exchange (Kirch 1984: 217). The entire archipelago was controlled by a pair of sacred and secular paramount chiefs. The placing of the islands in a south- west to north-east position made traveling easy. During the trade-wind season traveling up and down the chain of islands was easy (Kirch 1984: 219).

Despite the lost coral islets and atolls, the islands have extremely fertile soil. However, certain conditions do affect development. The islands are small with fixed boundaries and are occupied by tens of thousands of people. Irrigation is not possible, limiting their agricultural capabilities to dryland field systems. Being in the middle of the ocean leaves them susceptible to natural disasters such as cyclones and droughts (Kirch 1984: 221).

The rainfall is about 1500 mm to 1800 mm a year which made the islands flourish. Animal husbandry was well developed as was agriculture. The Tongans used swidden agriculture raise yams, aroids, and bananas. Although the land was not allowed to lay fallow for very long, it was kept fertile through mulching. There was also an emphasis on land division. The intensity of Tongan agriculture is well documented by European explorers as being a fertile flourishing land (Kirch 1984: 221).

Socio-Political Structure

Tonga is the most stratified form of the western Polynesian status system (Goldman 280). It is also one of the oldest. The archeological evidence for political hierarchy first appeared in AD 1000. In pre-contact Tonga people were ranked personally and collectively. Everyone was ranked separately and no person had the same status (Gailey 1987: 49). Despite the different ranks, all people had mana which was given to them by the gods. Of course, the higher in rank you were, the more mana you had ( Goldman 289). The higher ranks were therefor able to control the labor and products of the lower class (Gailey 1987: 49). Tongan people were ranked according to their closeness to a common ancestor. Through mythical tales, Tongans saw themselves as descended from the gods (Goldman 1970: 282).

Status in Tonga was not static. Marriages did occur across ranks but the highest ranks were not allowed to marry the commoners. (Gailey 1987: 57). When a child was born, it took the rank of the mother. Power could also change if a lineage was conquered, reducing chiefs to commoners (Goldman 1970: 305).

There were three levels of status in Tongan society. These levels are represented in Figure 1. The highest of course was the chiefs and their immediate relatives. There were three paramount chiefs of Tonga: Tui Tonga, Tui Haa Takalaua, and the Tui Kanokupolu. The second level was chiefs attendants called matapule and the lowest and most common in society were the tua (Sahlins 1958: 22).Genealogy was important through out Polynesia but seemed to be particularly important in Tonga because it was needed to make claims to chiefly titles (Kirch 1984: 223). The Tui Tonga which means “Lord of Tonga” went back 39 generations (Goldman 1970: 293). The first 22 generations were mythical however (Kirch 1984: 224).

The Tongans highest level were the Tu’i Tong and the hau. They were at the top of the hierarchial pyramid and were in charge of the decision making. Since both the Tu’i Tong and the hau ruled, the power was split. The Tu’i Tong served mostly as a mediator with the deities. Through the Tu’i Tong’s mediation, he would ensure the fertility of the land (Kirch 1984: 230). The Tu’i Tong wasn’t priest or god. He was the highest male chief and therefor the most sacred male in the country (Goldman 1970: 294). The Tu’i Tonga also presided over the first-fruits ceremony which served to bind outside islands to the core. The hau is the secular paramount chief held by the Tu’i Kanokupolu. The hau held the ultimate authority (Kirch 1984: 230).

The next level was the falefa which was known as the “four houses”. They were joined with the Tui Tonga as ministers (Goldman 1970: 299). Sahlins refers to them as “executive aids who were also chiefs” (22). The Tu’i Kanokupolu also had his own Falefa. They served as the middle ground between the Tui Tonga and the matapule. They were often of foreign descent and there is not much information as to their purpose (Goldman 1970: 299). The four houses were split into two groups. One group had the tasks such as sounding trumpets, singing funeral dirges, and managing the funeral and dances at the death of Tui Tonga. The other group were foreigners and were in charge of distributing food and assigning jobs in the royal funeral (Goldman 1970: 300).

The next rank below the falefa were the matapules. They were not chiefs but had contact with them (Gailey 1987:, 86). The matapule were of foreign origin, usually coming from Fiji, Samoa, Rotuma, or Tokelau. They were predominantly ceremonial attendants but they also served as warriors, craft specialists, navigators, and low level administrators (Gailey 1987: 86). They were managers of ceremonies and were often defined certain duties such as drum beating or dancing (Goldman 1970: 298). They were also seen as the mediator between the upper and lower ranks.

Figure 1. Political Hierarchy of the Tongan Chiefdoms

Another rank mentioned by some is the mu’as. The mu’as are a controversial rank. Mariner mentions mu’a as an intermediate between eike and matapule. However, overtime mu’as could merge into the rank of tu’a. Tu’as are the commoners and they are at the very bottom of the social scale. According to Sahlins, “The commoners status was created through the normal process or primogeniture and the progressive lowering in status of descendants of younger brothers” (159). At the time of European contact, the division between chiefs and commoners were great (Kirch 1984: 232).


One of the most fascinating ranks in Tonga society is that of fahu. The term fahu can be translated “above the law” or “beyond custom”(Gailey 1987: 60). The first-born son took the title, social position, and the leadership in the family. It was a general rule that the higher you were in authority, the more important the primogeniture became. As important as primogeniture was, the sex of a child could also determine rank. The sister out-ranks her brother in formal honor (Goldman 1970: 288). Although non chiefly men and women had no power, a chiefly woman was able to exercise social authority. Not only did a sister outrank her brother but so did her children. Brothers and sisters would tend to separate from each other but their children would interact with each other and even marry.

Chiefly women could control production over lower ranking women, just as men controlled production of lower ranking men. Women also held power over her maternal uncle’s children and material (Gailey 1987: 60). They also had the power over her brother’s children and could prevent them from marrying. She could also command labor over her brother’s spouse and adopt her children’s brothers (Gailey 1987: 60).


Early accounts of Tonga addressed Chief’s brutal control. Gifford did not find much evidence of unnecessary power exercised by chiefs but according to some missionaries, chiefs seemed to have arbitrary power over the rights and life of inferiors. One example of this is a tale of a Chief murdering a commoner to see how well his gun worked. Despite this fact, people still respected their chiefs with obedience and submission. In warfare, chiefs were very powerful. They were the ones who initiated action and the lesser chiefs and attendants transmitted the orders to the commoners. Warfare was important in order for chiefs to keep their chiefly status. Mariner recorded an event in which a chief used his council to have other chiefs killed because they had been acting out against him (Sahlins 1958: 27).

Early European observers suggest that warfare in Tonga did not take place until after contact. Observers recognize early wars with outsiders such as Samoans, Fijians, Futunans, and Uveans. It is said that it was from Fiji that the Tongans acquired its military technology and megalithic tradition ( Goldman 1970: 280). Cook, an early observer of Tongan society, found that they were peaceful but shortly after he left Tongans spend two years fighting in the Fijian islands. In the late eighteenth century, domestic civil wars were all over the Tongan islands. Goldman 1970: states that:

Fortifications sprang up everywhere, naval fleets were constructed, arms were obtained from Europeans, military alliances were sealed and broken, able warriors were sought out and promised rewards. War had become a deadly interest and the organization of land and naval powers a task of vital urgency.” (300)

Early observers tell of amazing tactics, skills, and daring of commanders. Commanders were not chosen by ranks but by skill and prowess. Combat units were led by different chiefs, some by an ordinary chiefs and others by district. A greater chief was in charge of the entire battle.

An advantage to fighting in war was increase in status. Commoners were able to make themselves known through battle. He was often rewarded with a title, land grant, or the momentary right to drink from a chief’s kava cup. Although warfare could be good for the commoner, ultimately it was the chief that benefitted the most (Goldman 1970: 301).


The archeology of the Tongan islands has shown through radioactive carbon dating that they are the oldest inhabited islands within Polynesia. Their first monument sites appeared in AD 1000. The mounds of Tonga are the most conspicuous archeological feature of Tonga (Goldman 1970: 285). There were mounds up to 100 feet in diameter and 7 feet above the ground (Lieb 1972: 92). McKern identified five types of mounds. The Esi mounds were raise circular mounds on which chiefs and families went to relax. Not only did they symbolize the chief’s separation from the people but they were high enough to catch an ocean breeze. Pigeon mounds like the name implies were used for chiefs to snare pigeons. Commoners had to snare them from the ground which gave the chiefs more of an advantage. Tanuanga were small burial mounds for commoners. Faitoka were large mounds shaped like cones which chiefs were buried in. The bodies were placed in stone vaults. These mounds were quite large with the largest having a diameter or 110 feet at the base and 40 feet at the top which a height of 15 feet. The fifth mound was called Langi. Langi were burial mounds for the highest ranking paramounts and their immediate relatives (Goldman 1970: 286). There are also native forts on the islands. The forts are normally circular with walls and moats to aid in defense. The forts are representative of Tongans war skills (Lieb 1972: 92).

In order to honor the first born sons, Tongans erected a wall across an isthmus on Vavau. When the first-born son was born a stone was put into the wall. The wall was to honors all the senior scions of the district (Goldman 1970: 287).

Tongan’s megalithic tradition picked up from Fiji led to their own unique structures. The Trilithon was knows to Tongans as “The burden of Maui carried on a stick” It is an archway composed of three huge slabs of stone. It was built by Tuitatui as a message to his sons not to quarrel (Goldman 1970: 286).


Like many aspects of Tonga, their approach to trading is unique. Their south-west to north-east position was beneficial because of trade winds that made traveling up and down the islands easy (Kirch 1984: 219). Trade eventually spread to Somoa and Fiji where chiefs acquired prestige goods and spouses. Exchange was important in binding the other islands to the central polity. It also gave the chief more power because he gained prestige goods and other goods which he could redistribute (Kirch 1984: 238). According to Goldman 1970:, “The issue in Tonga, as in Samoa, was sharply focused on the ability to give and the power to demand goods” (301). Tongan exchange was equal. They exchanged goods for goods and food for food. Exchange could also be important for maintaining status through women. Tongan men would often marry women from outside of Tonga to ensure that their rank was not lowered (Kirch 1984: 238).

In the trade world, Fiji became more important to Tonga than Somoa. The exchanges were more frequent and greater. Fiji was able to provide Tonga with many prestige goods such as red and green parrot feathers, sandalwood, sails, pottery, and other items. In exchange Tonga provided Fiji with Whale’s teeth, fine mats, ornaments, and barkcloth. One of the most important items that Fiji provided Tonga was canoes. Canoes from Fiji were especially valued because there was a lack of suitable timber in Tonga (Kirch 1984: 240).

Tonga Today

In Tonga’s ranked society today, the term ?eiki refers to anyone of a superior rank to their family of community. Most nobles today are no longer effective because they are less involved with their people and community. Chiefs today also include eleven cabinet ministers appointed by the king. Only four of the members are hereditary nobles but the others have close blood ties.

Females still have preference over males of the same generation. The father is the head of the household with authority over his wife and children. Even so he still must answer to the wishes of his older sister who in some ways is a “chief” (Lindstrom and White 1997: 49).


Gailey, C. W.

1987 Kinship to Kingship. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Goldman, I.

1970 Ancient Polynesian Society. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Kirch, P. V.

1984 The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdom. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Leib, A. P.

1972 The Many Islands of Polynesia. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Lindstrom, L. and G. M. White (editors)

1997 Chiefs Today. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

Sahlins, M. D.

1958. Social Stratification in Polynesia. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

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