Home Page | Polynesian Cultures |

Culture of Tonga

Category Name

Culture of Tonga

  1. Overview

    Tongans have a way of doing things whole heartedly, whether its talking among themselves
    or entertaining guests. For example, tables (or, traditionally, mats) at a Tongan feast are
    heaped high with food, and the enthusiasm with which the men and women perform their
    lakalaka, mauluulu and other dances is infectious with energy. As you’ll quickly learn, it’s
    easy to see that these culturally rich people come from the “Friendly Islands.”

  2. Location

    Tonga is located about two-thirds of the way between Hawai’i and New Zealand, southwest
    of Samoa and east of Fiji.

  3. Geography

    The approximately 170 islands in the Kingdom of Tonga are divided among three groups:
    Tongatapu, which derives its name from the main island where the capital of Nukualofa is
    located; Ha’apai, a series of smaller islands to the north of Tongatapu; and Vava’u, the
    northernmost islands. Unlike the homes of their Polynesian cousins, most Tongan islands are
    relatively low-lying but very fertile.

  4. Population

    According to WORLD BANK there were approximately 108,000 Tongans living in the
    kingdom as of 2017, almost all of them Polynesians. Roughly 60% of the population lives on
    the main island of Tongatapu, which means “sacred Tonga.” In addition, there are significant
    communities of Tongans living in American Samoa, Hawai’i, California and Utah; and also in
    New Zealand and Australia. Over the past centuries, Tongans spread widely over the
    western part of Polynesia. Additionally, many people in Samoa, Uvea, Futuna, and the Lau
    Islands of Fiji share Tongan blood.

  5. History and Discovery

    Like all their Polynesian cousins, the Tongans did not have a written language to record their
    early history; but anthropologists recognize them as being among the most ancient of the
    Polynesians who probably migrated to their islands about 3,000 years ago.
    Tonga’s first contact with the western world came when Dutchmen Schouten and LeMaire
    came upon the islands in 1616. The Tongans called them palangi, which describes the white
    clouds of their sails “bursting from the sky.” The Europeans found a socially advanced
    society which had already extended its influence beyond its own islands.
    Over a century-and-a-half later, British explorer Captain James Cook was equally impressed
    in 1773 and again in 1774. When he returned for a final visit in 1777, he left two gifts. To the
    people of Tonga, their nickname -the Friendly Isles. To the paramount chief, or Tu’i Tonga, a
    turtle from the Galapagos Islands which roamed the royal palace grounds until it died in
    1960.
    Spaniard Francisco Maurelle sailed into the excellent anchorage at Neiafu on the northern
    island of Vava’u in 1781, claiming the islands for Spain. The intrepid Capt. Bligh and those
    cast adrift with him from the Bounty mutiny successfully passed through Tongan waters in
    1789, though not without some fatal skirmishes. The Spanish king sent Don Alejandro
    Malaspina on a follow-up voyage a dozen years after Maurelle, but Spanish influence waned
    as other European sandalwood traders, whalers and Christian missionaries became more
    prevalent in the first half of the 19th century.
    By 1845 the first Taufa’ahau Tupou united all of the Tongan islands under his leadership as
    the first undisputed Tu’i Tonga (“King of Tonga”). He took the name King George Tupou I. In
    1875 King Tupou instituted a constitutional monarchy, which still reigns to this day. In 1901,
    the kingdom entered into an international protection agreement with Great Britain, which
    left the Tupou dynasty in power. The agreement was rescinded in 1970, but Tonga remains a
    member of the British Commonwealth.

  6. Languages

    Like all their Polynesian cousins, the Tongans did not have a written language to record their
    early history; but anthropologists recognize them as being among the most ancient of the
    Polynesians who probably migrated to their islands about 3,000 years ago.
    Tonga’s first contact with the western world came when Dutchmen Schouten and LeMaire
    came upon the islands in 1616. The Tongans called them palangi, which describes the white
    clouds of their sails “bursting from the sky.” The Europeans found a socially advanced
    society which had already extended its influence beyond its own islands.
    Over a century-and-a-half later, British explorer Captain James Cook was equally impressed
    in 1773 and again in 1774. When he returned for a final visit in 1777, he left two gifts. To the
    people of Tonga, their nickname -the Friendly Isles. To the paramount chief, or Tu’i Tonga, a
    turtle from the Galapagos Islands which roamed the royal palace grounds until it died in
    1960.
    Spaniard Francisco Maurelle sailed into the excellent anchorage at Neiafu on the northern
    island of Vava’u in 1781, claiming the islands for Spain. The intrepid Capt. Bligh and those
    cast adrift with him from the Bounty mutiny successfully passed through Tongan waters in
    1789, though not without some fatal skirmishes. The Spanish king sent Don Alejandro
    Malaspina on a follow-up voyage a dozen years after Maurelle, but Spanish influence waned
    as other European sandalwood traders, whalers and Christian missionaries became more
    prevalent in the first half of the 19th century.
    By 1845 the first Taufa’ahau Tupou united all of the Tongan islands under his leadership as
    the first undisputed Tu’i Tonga (“King of Tonga”). He took the name King George Tupou I. In
    1875 King Tupou instituted a constitutional monarchy, which still reigns to this day. In 1901,
    the kingdom entered into an international protection agreement with Great Britain, which
    left the Tupou dynasty in power. The agreement was rescinded in 1970, but Tonga remains a
    member of the British Commonwealth.

  7. Village Life

    The houses displayed in the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Tonga Village represent traditional
    historical architecture.

    Fale Faka-Tu’i – As with many chiefly Polynesian structures, the Fale Faka-Tu’i is built on a
    raised rock platform, but in typical Tongan architectural style, it is supported inside by four
    large ironwood posts. Similar to Fijian culture, cowry shells hanging throughout the interior
    mark the royal nature of the palace. The roof is thatched with sugar cane leaves. Both the
    interior and exterior of the building are decorated with braided coconut fiber — kafa or
    sennit lashings, fine reed walls, Tongan ngatu or bark cloth, and intricately woven mats.
    Cultural tradition also requires that dried coconut leaves be placed on the floors and then
    covered with finely woven mats which add extra softness and comfort. Pictures of past and
    present Tongan royalty adorn the walls inside the Fale Faka-Tu’i: One shows King George
    Tupou I, who unified his people and established a constitutional monarchy based upon
    Christian principles, primarily the Ten Commandments. Another features King George
    Tupou ll who followed in his father’s footsteps, as did his daughter, Queen Salote Tupou lll,
    who ascended to the throne in 1919 at age 18. She gained international recognition for her
    gracious role at Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth ll coronation parade in 1953 when she
    ignored the rain while riding in her open carriage and continued greeting the cheering
    crowds. Of course, there’s also a picture of the present king, who has visited Laie on several
    occasions.

    Fale Faka-Kolo – Every Tongan village has a “meeting house” where all meetings and formal
    kava ceremonies take place. Ranking chiefs sit on the elevated platform while the lower
    section is for commoners.
    Tongans play a type of shuffleboard called lafo in the “game house.” Originally played only by
    royal family members, the object is for competitors sitting at each end of a long, narrowly
    fold mat to slide lafo seeds along the length of the mat so that they come as close as possible
    to the end without falling off. The seed closest to the edge receives 6 points while the other
    seeds receive one. A player receives a total of 5 seeds, and the strategy is to knock the
    opponent’s seeds off the mat. The game is played in the Fale Faka-Kolo to protect the mats,
    which are made with a finer weave than everyday household mats.

    Kava – Which is called ‘ava in Samoa, Tahiti and Hawai’i (where it’s spelled ‘awa), and yaqona
    in Fiji — is widely drunk throughout most of Polynesia. For centuries it has been a common
    tradition and is still often used today as a ceremonial drink before the start of important
    meetings and functions. Kava is made from the dried root of the piper methysticum plant,
    which is a member of the pepper family. Reports that it is mildly narcotic or intoxicating are
    not correct in reference to traditional, plain kava; although the beverage has a slight
    numbing effect, which is why it has been used in Europe and other places in pill form as a
    stress-reducing agent.
    A recent scare that such kava pills could cause liver damage resulted from pharmaceutical
    companies including other parts of the plant in the mix, whereas Polynesians have only used
    the roots for centuries. Polynesian men would pull the root and branches from the ground
    and wash the dirt off, scrape off the outer skin and allow the plant to thoroughly dry out. On
    some of the islands, kava is so important ceremonially that certain dried roots were even
    given names, and/or they became the subject of significant oratory. In most cases a portion
    of the root would be ground up with the appropriate stone pounders until it is roughly in
    powder form.
    Special carved wooden bowls, such as the ones displayed at the Polynesian Cultural Center,
    would be used to mix the kava with water. To obtain the clearest liquid possible, a strainer
    made from the tangled fibers of wild hibiscus bark is used to filter the particles. The strainer
    is squeezed dry and shaken outside to remove any unwanted particles. The process is
    repeated until the kava is ready to be served in a half-coconut shell cup.
    Medicinally, Tongans would use kava as a headache remedy, to alleviate pulmonary pains, to
    treat diseases such as gonorrhea, blackwater fever, tuberculosis, leprosy, cancer, asthma,
    stomach upsets and insomnia. Kava also helps fight contagions to minimize the risks of
    infections.
    Due to the ceremonial importance of kava, there are several important myths related to it,
    one of which goes like this: One day the king of Tonga went fishing with his men. They did
    not catch anything and were hungry. They stopped at an island where a couple and their
    daughter named Kava lived. The girl had leprosy. Because there was a famine in the land and
    there was nothing for the king and his men to eat, Kava suggested to her parents that they
    kill and bake her for the king and his party. After feasting and then discovering this sacrifice,
    the king was deeply moved. He instructed the parents to bury their daughter’s remains
    properly. They did so and two plants grew on the grave: a kava plant grew from the head and
    sugar cane grew from the feet.
    One day a Tongan hero by the name of Loau came to the island and the couple told him all
    that had happened. Loau told them to take the two plants to the king, who would instruct
    them what to do with the kava…which is how the kava ceremony came to Tonga. Keeping the
    myth in mind, we can now understand that kava symbolizes sacrifice, diplomacy, and
    renewal to the Tongans. Kava was willing to die to save her parents from the needs and
    demands of the king. Her body represents its use as a medium for making peace. It is
    interesting to note that in Tonga today, the kava ceremony represents the best way to bring
    together families and groups in times of contention.
    In Tongan protocol, a formal kava ceremony can be utilized as an opportunity for Tongans to
    forgive, save face, and re-establish respect. When kava is first tasted, it is bitter; but soon the
    effects of the roots bring calmness, which also represents renewal. Tongans recognize the
    importance of kava: It is a tradition which the Tongans, from royalty to commoners,
    appreciate and practice knowledgeably and respectfully.

    Fale Hanga – The Tongans always assign a special “work house” for the women to weave and
    make bark cloth, which they call ngatu. Each of the Polynesian islands makes bark cloth with
    their respective traditions. For example, some Polynesians make it out of breadfruit tree
    bark or banyan tree bark. In Tonga ngatu is almost always made from the inner bark of the
    paper mulberry tree.
    While making ngatu is the traditional work of women, Tongan men have the responsibility to
    grow the plants. During the growing period they will carefully prune excess leaves and
    branches in order to eliminate notches which may mar the overall quality of the tapa. It
    takes approximately two years for the trees to reach the best height and width for ngatu
    making.
    Once the branches are cut, they are left in a shady place for up to a week. Then the bark is
    carefully nicked and slowly stripped from the branch. The outer bark is peeled away leaving
    the creamy-colored inner bark, which is soaked in water for up to a day according to the
    desire of the crafter. After a bark strip has been stretched to its maximum width, it is laid
    aside and pounding begins on another two-inch-wide length of bark.
    In order to have a bed-sized piece of ngatu, quite a few strips must be glued together. A small
    tapioca root is used to make the glue: Tongans harvest the right-sized roots, boil them until
    they are half-cooked and let them cool. The women lay all the pieces of the first layer in the
    same direction, then they gently rub the tapioca over the layer. When it is completely
    covered, a second layer is placed over the first, but with the new strips running cross-wise.
    This strengthens the ngatu by giving it a warp and woof. This process is continued until the
    desired size is reached. Sometimes there are holes in the ngatu where knots occurred in the
    tree branch. The women eliminate these by cutting little patches and gluing them over the
    defects.
    Once the ngatu is glued together and patched, the women prepare it for imprinting
    traditional Tongan designs using a clever die, or a design mat called the kupesi. The women
    make the stiff base of the kupesi from a fiber-like part of coconut blossoms to which they
    have sewn coconut leaf midribs in the desired pattern. Because they use kupesi over and
    over again the edges are nicely finished. To imprint the design, they place the kupesi
    underneath the blank bark cloth. Then the women dip a specially folded wad of ngatu into a
    container of natural dye, and lightly paint the surface of the new ngatu, which the coconut
    rib pattern of the kupesi presses upward so it catches the dye first.
    Tongan dyes are made according to old traditions: Brown dye is obtained from either the
    bark of the mangrove tree or the kukui nut tree, and black dye by boiling brown dye with red
    hibiscus flowers. The women continue imprinting the design until all of the large ngatu is
    covered with the basic design. To complete the process, the women outline larger design
    elements in black, using a paintbrush made from a dried segment of pandanus fruit. It’s not
    unusual for Tongan women to make a ngatu 50 yards long, which is called a launima which
    usually takes a whole day to imprint. Of course, a 100-yard-long ngatu, or a lautefuhi, takes
    twice as long.
    Before European fabrics were introduced, Tongans used ngatu for clothing, blankets,
    wedding costumes, dancing costumes, gift exchanges, and interior house decorations. There
    are specific ngatu for special occasions: Black ngatu uli, for example, is used for funerals,
    while ngatu with certain designs reflect high rank.

    Pandanus weaving – Two plants are very important to the craft of weaving in Tonga and the
    rest of Polynesia: lou’akau or pandanus (Pandanus odoratissimus Linnaeus) and louniu or
    coconut (Cocos nucifera) leaves. Lou’akau leaves are favored for weaving fine household
    items such floor mats, bedding mats, storage baskets, table mats, and fans. They are also
    used for special needs such as canoe sails; and for personal items such as fine mats for
    clothing and waist skirts (ta’ovala), hats, bracelets, and slippers.
    Lou’akau leaves are cut when they are still green. They are then laid out to dry in direct
    sunlight, except when it begins to rain at which time they are quickly brought inside for
    protection. There is a particular kind of pandanus which is edged with short prickly thorns.
    These are trimmed off before the drying process. When whiter colored leaves are desired,
    the freshly-picked leaves must first be parboiled in a large pot before they are laid out to dry.
    Some Polynesians also bleach them in sea water. When the leaves are dry approximately
    two weeks later, women smooth them, and roll them into larger “wheels” about one foot in
    diameter. They are then secured, stacked and stored for future use.
    When a weaver starts a project, she unrolls the leaves carefully, and using a smooth shell
    such as a pipi, she rubs the leaves until they’re flat and pliable. Using a different shell
    (perhaps a clam shell), she then strips the leaves according to the widths required for the
    completion of the desired project. The thinner the strips, the more important and valuable
    the project, because weaving thinner strips takes longer and more skill. Tongan women
    basically use an interlocking weaving method, or they use a binding technique using strips
    which are wound around and around coconut midribs.
    Tongans treat items made from lou’akau respectfully. For example, they take their shoes off
    before walking on most mats. This custom also has a modern form throughout Polynesia
    today, where many people observe the custom of taking their shoes off before entering a
    house, even if there are no pandanus mats in the house.

    Coconut Leaf Weaving – The easy availability of fresh coconut leaves makes them the most
    important weaving material in Polynesia, especially for everyday use. The leaves are
    chopped off the trees and particularly used for outside needs. They also have the advantage
    of being disposable.
    Once a green coconut frond is cut, it’s relatively easy for a person to split off one side along
    with a thin piece of the mid-stem. The piece of mid-stem, which is more woody, can be easily
    made into a circle, secured at the ends, and formed into the rim of a basket. Weaving the
    individual leaves now hanging below the rim follows the usual alternating over-and-under
    pattern. When the basket is sufficiently deep, or the leaves almost all plaited, the ends are
    clumped into three strands and braided into a long line across the bottom. Finally, the three
    strands are tied into a knot, sealing the basket.
    Tongans and almost all Polynesians frequently make such baskets and use them to carry
    coconuts from the plantation, carry food, hold materials for crafts and many other uses.
    Coconuts leaves can also be woven into interesting toys for children, such as a windmill, ball,
    fish, grasshopper, bird, pineapple, or musical instrument, or a three-leaf piece from one side
    of the frond can be quickly braided into a cool coconut headband. Polynesians will also use
    coconut leaves to quickly finish off a house: For example, they can be layered to make a roof,
    woven to decorate walls, used to screen out the wind and rain, or made into mats to line
    floors over which finer mats would be placed.
    The traditional craft of weaving is also enjoyed for the companionship it promotes among
    women, as well as the creative pleasure it gives, and the comfort and utility woven goods
    provide. Finally, in the islands weaving materials are a free part of nature’s bounties.

  8. Interesting Facts

    Named the “friendly” people of Polynesia by Captain James Cook, who was impressed by the
    warmth and kindliness of the islanders.