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Polynesians found and settled these islands sometime around 500 B.C. on their long migration across the South Pacific. Around A.D. 950, according to a myth, the supreme Polynesian god (known here as Tangaloa) came down to Tongatapu and fathered a son by a lovely Tongan maiden. Their son, Aho'eitu, thus became the first Tui Tonga -- king of Tonga -- and launched one of the world's longest-running dynasties.

The first tuis ruled from Niutoua village on the northwest corner of Tongatapu. They moved to Lapaha on the shore of the island's interior lagoon about 800 years ago, to take advantage of a safer anchorage for the large, double-hulled war canoes they used to extend their empire as far as Fiji and Samoa. At that time, a deep passage linked the lagoon to the sea; it has been slowly closing as geological forces raise the island and reduce the entrance to the present shallow bank.

Over time, the tui became more of a figurehead, and his power was dispersed among several chiefs, all of them descendants of the original tui. For centuries the rival chiefs seemed to stop warring among themselves only long enough to make war on Fiji and Samoa. The chiefs were fighting in 1798 when missionaries from the London Missionary Society landed on Lifuka in Ha'apai. Two of the missionaries were killed. The rest fled to Sydney, leaving Tonga to the heathens.

Europeans Arrive

Although Dutch explorers had sighted Tonga in the 17th century, the missionaries knew of the islands from the visits of British captains Samuel Wallis, James Cook, and William Bligh in the late 1700s. During his third voyage in 1777, Captain Cook was feted on Lifuka by a powerful chief named Finau I. Cook was so impressed by this show of hospitality that he named the Ha'apai group "The Friendly Islands," the modern kingdom's motto. Unbeknownst to Cook, however, Finau I and his associates apparently plotted to murder him and his crew, but they couldn't agree among themselves how to do it before the great explorer sailed away.

Captain Bligh and HMS Bounty visited Lifuka in 1789 after gathering breadfruit in Tahiti. Before he could leave Tongan waters, however, the famous mutiny took place near the island of Ha'afeva in the Ha'apai group.

Some 20 years later Chief Finau II of Lifuka captured a British ship named the Port au Prince, stealing all of its muskets and ammunition, setting it on fire, and brutally slaughtering all but one member of its crew. The survivor was a 15-year-old Londoner named Will Mariner. He became a favorite of the chief, spent several years living among the Tongans, and later wrote a four-volume account of his experiences. He told how the Tongans mistook 12,000 silver coins on the Port au Prince for gaming pieces they called pa'angas. The national currency today is known as the pa'anga.

The arrival of the Wesleyan missionaries on Lifuka in the 1820s coincided with the rise of Taufa'ahau, a powerful chief who converted to Christianity in 1831. With their help, he won a series of domestic wars. By 1845, he had conquered all of Tonga and declared himself to be the new Tui Tonga.

Royalty Arrives

Taufa'ahau took a Christian name and became King George I of Tonga. In 1862 he made his subordinate chiefs "nobles," but he also freed the commoners from forced labor and instituted the policy of granting each adult male a garden plot in the countryside and a house lot in town. He created a Privy Council of his own choosing and established a legislative assembly made up of representatives of the nobles and commoners. This system was committed to writing in the Constitution of 1875, which still is in effect today. The assembly is known now as Parliament.

King George I died in 1893 at the age of 97, thus ending a reign of 48 years. His great-grandson, King George II, ruled for the next 25 years and is best remembered for signing a treaty with Great Britain in 1900, which turned Tonga's foreign affairs over to the British and prevented any further encroachments on Tonga by the Western colonial powers. Consequently, the Kingdom of Tonga was never colonized.

King George II was succeeded in 1918 by his daughter, the 6-foot-2-inch Queen Salote (her name is the Tongan transliteration of Charlotte). For the next 47 years, Queen Salote carefully protected her people from Western influence, even to the extent of not allowing a modern hotel to be built in the kingdom. She did, however, come to the world's attention in 1953, when she rode bareheaded in the cold, torrential rain that drenched the coronation parade of Queen Elizabeth II in London (she was merely following Tongan custom of showing respect to royalty by appearing uncovered in their presence). She later hosted Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in Nuku'alofa.

Queen Salote died in 1965 and was succeeded by her son, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. Then in his late 40s, he set about bringing Tonga into the modern world. On the pretext of accommodating the important guests invited to his elaborate coronation scheduled for July 4, 1967, the International Dateline Hotel was built on Nuku'alofa's waterfront, and Fua'amotu Airport on Tongatapu was upgraded to handle jet aircraft. Tourism had arrived, albeit modestly.

Democracy Doesn't Arrive

In the late 1980s, a group of commoners founded Kele'a, a newspaper published without the king's input. The paper created a ruckus almost from its first issue by revealing that some government ministers had rung up excessive travel expenses on trips abroad.

More scandals followed, including news that the government was selling Tongan passports to overseas nationals (which helps explains Tonga's growing Chinese population). Incensed, several hundred Tongans marched down Nuku'alofa's main street in a peaceful protest, and established the Tonga Human Rights Democracy Movement. A recent scandal included the 2001 loss of some US$20 million of Tonga's overseas trust fund through a questionable investment by the official Court Jester (actually an American businessman).

In 2005, Tonga's civil servants went on strike demanding better pay. The protest went on for 6 weeks until the government agreed to raise wages by as much as 60%. A year later a pro-democracy gathering turned into the riot which burned several square blocks of downtown Nuku'alofa. Not all of downtown was torched, for the burnings apparently were targeted at an airline, a hotel, and power, cellphone, and other businesses owned by the king and his associates.

The king has since promised to divest himself of his business interests, and he has appointed a commission to search for a path to a more popularly elected parliament. Lacking clairvoyance, I cannot predict what future course Tongan politics will take.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.