The population of Tonga is estimated at 104,000 (no one knows for sure). Approximately 98% of the inhabitants are pure Polynesians, closely akin to the Samoans in physical appearance, language, and culture.
As in Samoa, the bedrock of the Tongan social structure is the traditional way of life -- faka Tonga -- and the extended family. Parents, grandparents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews all have the same sense of obligation to each other as is felt in Western nuclear families. The extended-family system makes sure that no one ever goes hungry or without a place to live.
The Tongan System
The extended family aside, some striking differences exist between Tonga, Samoa, and the other Polynesian islands. Unlike the others, in which there is a certain degree of upward mobility, Tonga has a rigid two-tier caste system. The king and 33 "Nobles of the Realm" -- plus their families -- make up a privileged class at the top of society. Everyone else is a commoner, and although commoners can hold positions in the government (a commoner serves as prime minister), it's impossible for them to move into the nobility even by marriage. Titles of the nobility are inherited, but the king can strip members of their positions if they fail to live up to their obligations (presumably including loyalty to the royal family).
Technically the king owns all the land in Tonga, which in effect makes the country his feudal estate. Although the nobles each rule over a section of the kingdom, they have an obligation to provide for the welfare of the serfs rather than the other way around. The nobles administer the villages, look after the people's welfare, and apportion the land among the commoners.
Even traditional dress reflects the Tongan social structure. Western-style clothes have made deep inroads in recent years, especially among young persons, but many Tongans still wear wraparound skirts known as valas. These come to well below the knee on men and to the ankles on women. To show their respect for the royal family and to each other, traditional men and women wear finely woven mats known as ta'ovalas over their valas. Men hold these up with waistbands of coconut fiber; women wear decorative waistbands known as kiekies. Tongans have ta'ovalas for everyday wear, but on special occasions they break out mats that are family heirlooms, some of them tattered and worn. The king owns ta'ovalas that have been in his family for more than 500 years.
Tongan custom is to wear black for months to mourn the death of a relative or close friend. Because Tongan extended families are large and friends numerous, almost everyone in traditional Tonga dress wears black.
Because Tonga and Samoa lie east of the 180th meridian, both countries should logically be in the same day. But Tonga wanted to have the same date as Australia and New Zealand, so the line was drawn arbitrarily east of Tonga, putting it 1 day ahead of Samoa.
To travelers, it's even more confusing because the time of day is the same in Tonga and Samoa. When traveling from one to the other, only the date changes. For example, if everyone is going to church at 10am on Sunday in Tonga, everyone's at work on Saturday in Samoa.
Tonga's Seventh-day Adventists, who celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday but work on Sunday, have taken advantage of this abnormality to avoid running afoul of Tonga's tough Sunday blue laws. In God's eyes, they say, Sunday in Tonga really is Saturday. Accordingly, Tonga is the only place in the world where Seventh-day Adventists observe their Sabbath on Sunday.
Tongans converted to Christianity in the old days -- apparently an easy transition, as Tongan legend holds that their own king is a descendant of a supreme Polynesian god and a beautiful earthly virgin. Today about half of all Tongans belong to the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, founded by early Methodist missionaries and headed by the king. The Free Church of Tonga is an offshoot that is allied with the Methodist synods in Australia and New Zealand. There are also considerable numbers of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, and Mormons. Church services are usually held at 10am on Sunday, but few are conducted in English. St. Paul's Anglican Church, on the corner of Fafatehi and Wellington roads, usually has communion in English on Sunday at 8am. The royal family worships at 10am in Centenary Church, the Free Wesleyan Church on Wellington Road, a block behind the Royal Palace.
The red national flag has a cross on a white field in its upper corner to signify the country's strong Christian foundation.
As was the case throughout Polynesia, the Tongans accepted most of the puritanical beliefs taught by the early missionaries but stopped short of adopting their strict sexual mores. Today Tongan society is very conservative in outlook and practice in almost every aspect of life except the sexual activities of unmarried young men and women.
Tongan families without enough female offspring will raise boys as they would girls. They are known in Tongan as fakaleitis (like a woman) and live lives similar to those of the mahus in Tahiti and the fa'afafines in the Samoas. In Tonga they have a reputation for sexual promiscuity and for persistently approaching Western male visitors in search of sexual liaisons.