Ancient Tonga   






 Archaeological excavations throughout the islands have produced evidence of the early settlement of Tonga. Fragments of decorated pottery, which are approximately 3,000 years old (that’s 1,000 BC), have been unearthed by Dr David V. Burley of Simon Fraser University, Canada.
This style of earthenware has been named Lapita pottery, after a dig-site in New Caledonia early in the 20th century. Carbon dating from shell middens, as well as distribution of the fragments and other artefacts, suggests that the Lapita People migrated across Oceania over a period of several hundred years, between 3,300 and 2,900 years ago. They are thought to have originated in Taiwan via the Bismarck Archipelago (in Eastern New Guinea) then later moving through the Western Pacific, Melanesian Islands in one mass migration. It is generally accepted that the Lapita are the common ancestors of the Polynesian people. They were extremely skilled navigators & sailors, crossing hundreds & thousands of miles of ocean to colonise new areas with each successive generation until they had found and settled on every habitable island in the Pacific. Evidence has proven these Polynesian voyagers had reached the shores of the Americas. Last to be settled were the Hawai’ian islands and Aotearoa (NZ).
The oldest found settlement in Polynesia is at Nukuleka by the entrance of Fanga’uta Lagoon on Tongatapu. They appear to have spread quickly around the shorelines of the lagoon and the western Malaia Bay.
Dr Burley’s observations of the Nukuleka site have two important implications for Oceania prehistory. First, as a founding settlement, Nukuleka probably served as the initial staging point for population expansion within Western Polynesia from Tongatapu northward to other parts of Tonga and into Samoa. Second, the presence of ceramics at Nukuleka that appear to have been “imported” from the Santa Cruz Islands may imply that Tonga was initially settled by voyagers travelling directly from central Island Melanesia, rather than through intermediate settlements in Fiji as was previously assumed. By the time the populous set off again to settle the Eastern Pacific Islands a very strong and new “Polynesian” culture had developed- probably most evident in the common language which differs only subtly between Island Nations. Hopping via the Cooks, Tahiti and the Marquesas it took a further 1,500 TO 2,000 years to reach Hawaii and New Zealand at the extremities of the Polynesian triangle- and everywhere in-between.

This movement of people into and across the Pacific has been described as:- “one of the greatest migratory feats of mankind.”



Tonga is now acknowledged among Pacific archaeologists as the birth place of the Polynesian language and culture.
It was not until some time after the costal lagoon settlement that the populous moved inland and became established as an agricultural society. Since the arrival of Tasman & Cook villages have become more concentrated and moved themselves further inland, probably as a result of diminished costal resources and protection from civil unrest.
Tonga maintained the seafaring traditions of the Lapita settlers and developed the huge bi-hulled sailing vessel the “Kalia”. At the height of the Tongan Maritime Empire the perfectly protected, shallow harbour of Fanga’uta would have been a spectacle to enter- equal to any of the Mediterranean past. One would have been dazzled by the white limestone harbour works- huge blocks dressing the shoreline, serving as docks & wharfs for the enormous 20 to 30 meter Kalia. Beyond, across a vast expanse of shimmering white sand stood the Langi- towering white stepped pyramids- monuments and tombs of the ancient Tu’i dynasties. Further again stood the Ha'amonga- a limestone megalith arch in the fashion of Stonehenge though with the lintel stone neatly fitted into massive tongue & groove joints. This works, with its complexity of marker stones, served as something of a calendar or perhaps a sextant or star compass to set their courses for ocean crossings. By the time Tasman, Cook and the Europeans arrived this was virtually lost to the jungle and it’s only in recent years that archaeologists have discovered the original beauty and grandeur of the ancient capital.
The Tongans championed star navigation to effortlessly sail vast distances in their explorations of the largest expanses of water on the planet. They transported sufficient warriors in their double ended Kalia war ships to conquer their neighbouring island countries- creating the most far-flung Polynesian Empire.
Tonga had establishing sovereignty over Samoa, Futuna, Rotuma and ‘Uvea and influenced islands as distant as Niue, Tokelau, Lau, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Anuta and Tikopia.
The huge multi-hulled Kalia were swifter and more manoeuvrable than anything afloat and were designed to sail straight up the beach- the rigging and rudder could then be swung in reverse positions allowing the hulls to sail off again with the tide- without coming about. Not an outrigger and not a catamaran- they were designed with one larger hull and one slightly smaller. This allowed maximum stability with the larger hull rising and the smaller dipping into the ocean swells. A raised platform joined the two and supported a half cylinder shelter. The Kalia has been referred to as the most remarkable voyaging canoe ever to ply the Pacific. It could beat to windward or sail very fast down wind. William Mariner (more on Mariner below) observed that by reason of Tonga being situated to windward, it was therefore easier to sail with the wind from Tonga to Fiji than it was to sail in the teeth of the south east tradewinds. “The Tongans’ superior enterprising spirit, in affairs of navigation, may be said to constitute a feature of their national character. Their superiority in this respect is so great, that no native of Fiji, as far as is known, ever ventured to Tonga but in a canoe manned with Tonga people, nor ever ventured back to his own islands, but under the same guidance and protection", he wrote.




In 1643 Able Jansoon Tasman was the first European to arrive in Tongatapu and landed his tenders for supplies in the bay behind Kanokupolu village. His caution would not allow him to bring his ships to harbour- keeping them on the ready to escape any sign of hostility. Subsequently he anchored seaward of a small pass in the reef just off the north west coast of Tongatapu (right in front of Blue Banana Beach Houses) rather than enter the enclosure of the protected bay just around the peninsula- the very bay that James Cook sought refuge in (one hundred & thirty five years later).

Captain James Cook visited Tonga in 1773, 1774 and again in 1777, spending enough time to make & record observations of Tongan society and culture. He made good use of the sheltered Malaia (Maria) Bay behind Kanokupolu village before venturing into Fanga’uta Lagoon to meet the Tu’i Tonga at the ancient capital of Mu’a.

The most famous mutiny in history and the subject of numerous Hollywood movies occurred, in Tongan waters among the Ha’apai group of islands, in 1789. Captain William Bligh and 18 loyal crewmembers were set adrift in an open boat with minimal supplies. They reached Timor in the Dutch East Indies, having survived the longest ever ocean voyage in an open boat.

In 1797 George Vason, aboard the Duff, arrived in Kanokupolu with the first group of missionaries from England. After his return he published an account of his experiences in Tonga, during his term as a missionary and subsequent "fall from grace". The “mission” was a failure however Vason was himself converted to the idyllic Polynesian lifestyle. At the time of his departure the islands were declining into civil war.

In 1802 the captain and crew of the Duke of Portland were lured into the bay at Kanokupolu and invited to a feast while their ship was ransacked & looted. A handful of the sailors attempted a failed escape with the Portland. Elizabeth Morey (the captain’s companion) and her African maid Eliza were spared- Elizabeth taken as one of Kolovai war-chief Teukava’s wives. In 1804 Elizabeth managed an escape on the merchant vessel Union of New York but only after the captain and seven crew suffered the same fate as the Portland’s. With the assistance of a villainous beachcomber known only as Doyle, the Portland itself became the first ship ever to be seized by South Pacific islanders. Elizabeth (and the Union) eventually came to a tragic end, leaving behind in Tonga two sons and becoming the South Pacific’s first white woman castaway.

In 1806 a young cabin boy assigned to the British privateer the “Port au Prince”, was one of the few survivors of the ransacking of their ship and massacre of crew at Ha’apai. Mariner was adopted by the warrior king Finau ‘Ulukalala II and was given the name Toki Ukamea. The young Will Mariner returned to England in 1810 and later documented an account of his time in the Tonga Islands, filling a 460 page journal describing in great detail the untouched culture and lifestyle of the Tongan people and the turmoil of the decline to civil war- (still in print if you want to know more).





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