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Tonga's history and the brand

Auckland, New Zealand

Re: Tonga and Tongans, how good is our national image

Dear Editor

I thank Sefita Hao'uli for his effort for an informal stocktake of our national image through the brand Tonga and Tongan. An attempt to carry out this exercise has to touch on our history and it has some unavoidable limitations but here is my peni taha for the mix.

The Tongan Empire

Tonga has always been ruled by a King. Historians reported that the Tu'i Tonga was of Divine origin. It was believed that he was the son of the Creator God Tangaloa 'Eitumatupu'a. The Tu'i Tonga, because of his divine origin, became sacred Ruler. He was supreme ruler, and his influence was at its height in the 13th century when his domain covered part of the Lau Group in Fiji, Rotuma, Futuna, 'Uvea, Tokelau, Samoa and Niue.

Captain 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. On his final visit to the islands in 1777, Captain Cook noted that "whenever the Tu'i Tonga walks out, all who meet him must sit down till he passed." Cook, 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.

Some historians reported that Tongans came from Samoa, hence Tonga or south is to do with our being to the south of our homeland Samoa. Early recordings of Tonga shows that Tongans went back to rule their homeland Samoa for centuries. It is claimed that these warriors' own children in Samoa led the fight to drive Tongans out of Samoa. These warriors left behind the Malietoa and Malietau titles in Samoa but also adopted the saying Mate pe e Tonga he ngaue 'a e Tonga. There are still signs of the Tongan brutality in Samoa such that Samoans will always forever respect the brand Tonga and Tongan, just as much as a student at Toloa will forever respect a student from Manamo'ui. To the Samoans there is no sweeter win than a win over Tonga such as a win by 'Atele over Toloa and likewise.

It is against this short backdrop of our pre-Tu'i Kanokupolu Era that the brand Tonga and Tongan were regarded and respected in the Pacific region and reported by early explorers as highly respectful of their king and nobles, god-fearing, religious, proud, very friendly people but tough, arrogant, very physical and blood thirsty. It is also against this backdrop that Tonga and Tongan were regarded as the most independent and strategically thinking lot in the Pacific. For Tongans, they looked at themselves and their most honored mission is to do and die (for the King) and not to ask why.

The Tu'i Kanokupolu Era

During the 1820's and 1830's two important events were taking place. One, Christianity was struggling to get a foothold in Tonga. Two, there was a struggle for power between Taufa'ahau, the young chief of Ha'apai, and the Tu'i Tonga and his followers. At about the same time, young Tongan nobles serving as mercenaries took Tongan culture to Fiji's most eastern island group, the Laus. Ma'afu led the warriors that were widely feared in Fiji and became a king himself in the form of the Tu'i Nayau. Historians reported that Cakobau ceded Fiji to Britain (hence the sugar industry and the importation of the Indians) because of his fear of a takeover by Ma'afu. To the Fijians, they have respected the brand Tonga and Tongan and will continue to do so in many more centuries to come given Ma'afu's deeds. The Tongan blood in the Fiji political circles currently brings a new dimension to their politics. Their politics is not only divided among Fijians and Indians origins but also among Fijian and Tongan bloods.

Tupou I

Tupou I did wonderful things like the unification of the 3 Dynasties, the Law and the Constitution but he was swayed in his decisions by his association with Shirley Baker. The most remarkable of this was in the Church and the separation of the Siasi Fakaongo and the Siasi Tau'ataina. During this period, outsiders regarded Tonga as a country (despite its laws, constitution and people) you can almost do anything in there provided you have the full support of the King only. Despite the colonialisation of the time, Tonga remained on its own hence colonial powers regarded Tonga as stubborn and independent-minded.

Tupou II's era was marked by the interventions of the Fiji-based British Governor due to the influence of some Jews on the finances of government and the widespread nepotism in government, which were the very roots of the bad financial affairs of the government. During the period, the British regarded Tonga as a country of failure due to nepotism.

Tupou III's era was marked by her humble and warm characters and her effort to tuki mo nonofo the core values of the Tongan society such as anga'ofa (a loving nature), anga faka'apa'apa (a respectful reverent disposition), mamahi'i me'a (zealousness in a good cause to the point of pain), tauhi vaha'a (maintaining good relations) and lototo (to be humbly willing and deferential but kindly committed). She also built warm relations with the super powers. Tonga fought alongside the US in the Solomons during World War 11 and a countrywide fundraising was conducted to donate a war plane to the Allies. Her marriage to Tungi Mailefihi was a uniting force and ensured political stability in the country. Queen Salote lifted the country's global profile when she traveled in the rain during Queen Elizabeth's coronation. During the period, outsiders regarded Tonga as very humble, respectful and friendly people.

Tupou IV

Tupou IV's reign is characterized by his emphasis to prepare Tonga for the modern world. He worked very hard to boost education (e.g Tonga High School), trade (e.g Commodities Board), sports/health (e.g soccer, boat racing, exercising, etc) and maintain good relations with all foreign countries (e.g US, Aust and NZ).

Tupou IV lifted Tonga to the top of the Pacific, as reflected in the Hala Touliki song: "Ta koe sola ki Selusalema ki he BA LLB, Hiki e fonua ki he tumutumu 'o e Pasifiki." In education, Tonga currently holds the most number of PhDs and graduates per capita than in any other country in the world. Tonga, as of today, has the highest UN Human Development Index ranking among the Pacific Islands, well ahead of 123 other countries including Fiji and Samoa. A report released by the World Bank last month stated that it is easier to start up a business in Tonga than Fiji and Samoa.

In trade, copra and banana was the mainstay of the economy and there was once employment for everyone.

In Sports, we have the likes of Mani Vaka who dominated the heavyweights in boxing. Paea Wolfgramme put Tonga on the map when he won silver at the Atlanta Olympics. Keta 'Iongi and Sanitesi Latu were stars of their time. Sione Mafi led the 'Ikale Tahi to beat the Wallabies and many others. These fine sport icons carried the brand Tonga as something to be feared, to be respected and to be taken very, very seriously.

International relations

In international relations, under Tupou IV's leadership he was able to set the platform for Tongans to migrate everywhere. 'Io ne siutaka e Lupe ko e kumi ha fakalahi 'o Tonga, particularly to NZ, Australia, Pangopango and the US. Those who stuck to the Tongan core values of anga'ofa, anga faka'apa'apa, mamahi'i me'a, tauhi vaha'a and lototo have made it big overseas in their respective fields. Willie O, Kefu, Haumono, Manu, Tonga, Smith, Gerald, Johansson and many others carried/are carrying the brand Tonga and Tongan as raw talents available to be marketed and developed, athletic, competitive, tough, physical, disciplined (except John Hoppa of course!), etc, etc. The same goes to Lomu, Alatini, Lauaki, Tu'itupou, Howlett and many others in NZ too. There are many in the US and other parts of the world too. In education the brand Tonga is highly respected through scholars such as Dr Mahina, Dr Konai Thaman, Dr Taufe'ulungaki and many others.

Other migrants and their offsprings who have deviated from the Tongan core values have earned the brand Tonga violent crimes, gangsters, drugs, school dropouts, failures, etc. In the government social welfare benefit circles and 'iate, the brand Tonga is associated with corrupt practices, liars, smart, cunning, tax evaders, etc.


The Pacific Islander coach Boe once remarked that he needed the pride of a Samoan, the flair and speed of a Fijian and the power of a Tongan to scare the giants in world rugby. Such were the perfect complements and respect given to the brand Tonga through the Tungi/Tu'iplelehake, Ratu Mara and Malietoa combination and their influences on Pacific politics.

In the Pacific regional/international institutions, the brand Tonga and Tongan is currently respected through Mahe Tupouniua with an unbroken record of being at the helm of the Forum Secretariat for more than ten years. Dr Vili Fuavao was the first director of the Samoa-based South Pacific Regional Environment Programme for more than 5 years and is currently the UN FAO Regional Representative for the Pacific. Dr Visesio Pongi was the Director of the Suva-based South Pacific Board for Education Assessment for more than 5 years and is the current UNESCO Regional Representative for the Pacific. Dr Steven Halapua, the Terminator of the PSA strike, has been at the helm of the Honolulu-based Pacific Islands Development Programme for more than 10 years. There are Tongan experts in almost all the regional organisations in the Pacific. There are Tongans in the UN and the Commonwealth Secretariat too.

In the domain of Pacific diplomacy, Tu'a Taumoepeau, 'Akauola, Dr Hu'akavameiliku and Taniela Tufui are highly respected diplomats in the region and internationally. When they speak everyone listens and nod their heads. Hence the expression "Tongan Mafia" is used when a Tongan diplomat works underground to convince the entire meeting to adopt Tonga's stance. On the other hand, the "Bloody Tongan" is used when a Tongan diplomat gets stubborn in negotiations while the "Tongan Bastard" (fakatapu atu) is used when in the midst of seriousness a Tongan diplomat gets humorous and break the deadlock with a typical Tongan joke containing of many fakapunakes and heliakis.

Tupou IV is directly responsible for lifting Tonga to the top of the Pacific standing where the brand is the top, first, respected, recognized, feared and appreciated. The high standing for the brand Tonga and Tongan in the Pacific is also supported by the political stability of the country. Despite these many achievements, this era has also been tarnished with the catch-up rather than a proactive attitude towards political reform. In addition are government's many phony schemes with some major ones unbelievably happening in the last 5 years. To rub salt to the wound, the involvement of the king's children in monopolistic businesses together with a not-so-popular prime minister has not helped with the King's standing among Tongans in Tonga and abroad. This has also negatively affected local and external people's view of the brand Tonga and Tongan.

Democracy movement

The founder of Tonga's pro-democracy movement, Professor Futa Helu, led his campaign in the 1970s. By 1986, the movement gained more momentum when 'Akilisi entered the House. By 1992, the movement became even stronger with its official establishment. By 2000, the movement has shaken people's appreciation of Tonga's core values of anga'ofa, anga faka'apa'apa, mamahi'i me'a, tauhi vaha'a and lototo. By 2005, the "politics of negativity" bears golden fruits as a lot of Tongans jumped into the bandwagon through the PSA strike not knowing how to practice democracy and justice in their own families and how to avoid corruption and nepotism in their own daily undertakings.

Corresponding to the evolution of the pro-democracy movement, the respect and the top standing that the brand Tonga and Tongan enjoyed in the Pacific has slowly eroded and gaining momentum each year, thanks to the politics of negativity whereby you only focus on destruction rather than construction. The erosion is most notable in politics and sports like rugby and netball where the brand Tonga is now associated with fo'i malie and meimei.

In 2000, the Fiji brand was known as the land of coups, five years later the brand Tonga is known as the land of protest marches and strikes. For nowhere else in the world one can find strikers gathering daily to sing, pray, dance and laugh in such a joyous mood.


To some in the world, it is unbelievable to have a highly educated, talented and religious society like that in the Third Millennium. A society which is still subjected to a 13th century belief that the King has a divine origin and therefore a sacred Ruler. It is also unbelievable to have such a country with much of its wealth and power concentrated on a very few people over so many years.

To others, it is unbelievable to see the self-destruction of Tonga by its own style of politics. Mate pe e Tonga he ngaue 'a e Tonga. Yet to some, it is unbelievable to have highly educated, talented and religious society yet confused and unappreciative of what their king has done for them, whom they are, how far they have came and what they have achieved. But so do is the unchanging genetic purity of the Tonga blood so that to the medical world the brand Tonga is genetic purity.

To the confused Tongans, a lot see themselves as people who have been suppressed for far too long and are just awaiting for someone to kick-start the revolution and they'll go for it. It is no longer to do and die (for the King) and never to ask why but government better explain why otherwise they give them their die.


To many who have heard of the brand Tonga, it is associated with a Kingdom. Recently the brand is more associated with Pigdom. For many of its people love pork so much that some are thinking and behaving like pigs (fakatapu atu). For if the neighbor's garden is beautiful, they'll let their pigs get in there and ruin it and make their droppings here and there. If an overstayer is doing well in a new car, they'll report him/her to the Immigration. If someone writes thought provoking, educational and entertaining letters, people will step in with irrelevant and mostly personal criticisms.

But despite Tonga's ups and downs, the brand Tonga and Tongan is still a key and respectable force in the Pacific and wherever they may be. We need to urgently regain the lost respect and pride and we don't need to do much to regain this. Tongans just need to be more positive in its politics, to be ruled more consultatively and in a more participatory manner and to relook at the core values of anga'ofa, anga faka'apa'apa, mamahi'i me'a, tauhi vaha'a and lototo in the context of a fast changing world. It would take no time to regain the eroded respect and the top spot in sports.

Lastly Mr Editor, kataki na'a kuo fai ha sani Tungua pea fakamolemole na'a kuo te tukihifo hotau fa'ahinga pea na'a kuo melemo ha me'a 'i he'ete manatu. Motu'a pe tangata!

'Ofa atu

Sailosi Finau

Auckland, NZ

sailosifinau [at] yahoo [dot] com [dot] au