archipelago, located in Polynesia, extends to about 300 kilometers
and includes from 150 to 200 islands. The largest islands within the
group are Tongatapu, ?Eua, and Vava’u. Only three other islands are
inhabited; Eva, Niuafo’ou, and Niuatoputapu (Goldman 1970:
281).Tonga is on the western side of the international date line.
Radioactive carbon dating of a Tongan specimen gave us a date going
back to about the 5th century B.C. This date is the oldest of all of
Polynesia (Lieb 1972: 79).
Polynesian chiefdoms, Tonga is unique because of its level of
political development and extensive travel and exchange (Kirch 1984:
217). The entire archipelago was controlled by a pair of sacred and
secular paramount chiefs. The placing of the islands in a south- west
to north-east position made traveling easy. During the trade-wind
season traveling up and down the chain of islands was easy (Kirch
Despite the lost
coral islets and atolls, the islands have extremely fertile soil.
However, certain conditions do affect development. The islands are
small with fixed boundaries and are occupied by tens of thousands of
people. Irrigation is not possible, limiting their agricultural
capabilities to dryland field systems. Being in the middle of the
ocean leaves them susceptible to natural disasters such as cyclones
and droughts (Kirch 1984: 221).
The rainfall is
about 1500 mm to 1800 mm a year which made the islands flourish.
Animal husbandry was well developed as was agriculture. The Tongans
used swidden agriculture raise yams, aroids, and bananas. Although
the land was not allowed to lay fallow for very long, it was kept
fertile through mulching. There was also an emphasis on land
division. The intensity of Tongan agriculture is well documented by
European explorers as being a fertile flourishing land (Kirch 1984:
Tonga is the
most stratified form of the western Polynesian status system (Goldman
280). It is also one of the oldest. The archeological evidence for
political hierarchy first appeared in AD 1000. In pre-contact Tonga
people were ranked personally and collectively. Everyone was ranked
separately and no person had the same status (Gailey 1987: 49).
Despite the different ranks, all people had mana which was given to
them by the gods. Of course, the higher in rank you were, the more
mana you had ( Goldman 289). The higher ranks were therefor able to
control the labor and products of the lower class (Gailey 1987: 49).
Tongan people were ranked according to their closeness to a common
ancestor. Through mythical tales, Tongans saw themselves as descended
from the gods (Goldman 1970: 282).
Status in Tonga
was not static. Marriages did occur across ranks but the highest
ranks were not allowed to marry the commoners. (Gailey 1987: 57).
When a child was born, it took the rank of the mother. Power could
also change if a lineage was conquered, reducing chiefs to commoners
(Goldman 1970: 305).
There were three
levels of status in Tongan society. These levels are represented in
Figure 1. The highest of course was the chiefs and their immediate
relatives. There were three paramount chiefs of Tonga: Tui Tonga, Tui
Haa Takalaua, and the Tui Kanokupolu. The second level was chiefs
attendants called matapule and the lowest and most common in society
were the tua (Sahlins 1958: 22).Genealogy was important through out
Polynesia but seemed to be particularly important in Tonga because it
was needed to make claims to chiefly titles (Kirch 1984: 223). The
Tui Tonga which means “Lord of Tonga” went back 39 generations
(Goldman 1970: 293). The first 22 generations were mythical however
(Kirch 1984: 224).
highest level were the Tu’i Tong and the hau. They were at the top
of the hierarchial pyramid and were in charge of the decision making.
Since both the Tu’i Tong and the hau ruled, the power was split.
The Tu’i Tong served mostly as a mediator with the deities. Through
the Tu’i Tong’s mediation, he would ensure the fertility of the
land (Kirch 1984: 230). The Tu’i Tong wasn’t priest or god. He
was the highest male chief and therefor the most sacred male in the
country (Goldman 1970: 294). The Tu’i Tonga also presided over the
first-fruits ceremony which served to bind outside islands to the
core. The hau is the secular paramount chief held by the Tu’i
Kanokupolu. The hau held the ultimate authority (Kirch 1984: 230).
The next level
was the falefa which was known as the “four houses”. They were
joined with the Tui Tonga as ministers (Goldman 1970: 299). Sahlins
refers to them as “executive aids who were also chiefs” (22). The
Tu’i Kanokupolu also had his own Falefa. They served as the middle
ground between the Tui Tonga and the matapule. They were often of
foreign descent and there is not much information as to their purpose
(Goldman 1970: 299). The four houses were split into two groups. One
group had the tasks such as sounding trumpets, singing funeral
dirges, and managing the funeral and dances at the death of Tui
Tonga. The other group were foreigners and were in charge of
distributing food and assigning jobs in the royal funeral (Goldman
The next rank
below the falefa were the matapules. They were not chiefs but had
contact with them (Gailey 1987:, 86). The matapule were of foreign
origin, usually coming from Fiji, Samoa, Rotuma, or Tokelau. They
were predominantly ceremonial attendants but they also served as
warriors, craft specialists, navigators, and low level administrators
(Gailey 1987: 86). They were managers of ceremonies and were often
defined certain duties such as drum beating or dancing (Goldman 1970:
298). They were also seen as the mediator between the upper and lower
Political Hierarchy of the Tongan Chiefdoms
mentioned by some is the mu’as. The mu’as are a controversial
rank. Mariner mentions mu’a as an intermediate between eike and
matapule. However, overtime mu’as could merge into the rank of
tu’a. Tu’as are the commoners and they are at the very bottom of
the social scale. According to Sahlins, “The commoners status was
created through the normal process or primogeniture and the
progressive lowering in status of descendants of younger brothers”
(159). At the time of European contact, the division between chiefs
and commoners were great (Kirch 1984: 232).
One of the most
fascinating ranks in Tonga society is that of fahu. The term fahu can
be translated “above the law” or “beyond custom”(Gailey 1987:
60). The first-born son took the title, social position, and the
leadership in the family. It was a general rule that the higher you
were in authority, the more important the primogeniture became. As
important as primogeniture was, the sex of a child could also
determine rank. The sister out-ranks her brother in formal honor
(Goldman 1970: 288). Although non chiefly men and women had no power,
a chiefly woman was able to exercise social authority. Not only did a
sister outrank her brother but so did her children. Brothers and
sisters would tend to separate from each other but their children
would interact with each other and even marry.
could control production over lower ranking women, just as men
controlled production of lower ranking men. Women also held power
over her maternal uncle’s children and material (Gailey 1987: 60).
They also had the power over her brother’s children and could
prevent them from marrying. She could also command labor over her
brother’s spouse and adopt her children’s brothers (Gailey 1987:
of Tonga addressed Chief’s brutal control. Gifford did not find
much evidence of unnecessary power exercised by chiefs but according
to some missionaries, chiefs seemed to have arbitrary power over the
rights and life of inferiors. One example of this is a tale of a
Chief murdering a commoner to see how well his gun worked. Despite
this fact, people still respected their chiefs with obedience and
submission. In warfare, chiefs were very powerful. They were the ones
who initiated action and the lesser chiefs and attendants transmitted
the orders to the commoners. Warfare was important in order for
chiefs to keep their chiefly status. Mariner recorded an event in
which a chief used his council to have other chiefs killed because
they had been acting out against him (Sahlins 1958: 27).
observers suggest that warfare in Tonga did not take place until
after contact. Observers recognize early wars with outsiders such as
Samoans, Fijians, Futunans, and Uveans. It is said that it was from
Fiji that the Tongans acquired its military technology and megalithic
tradition ( Goldman 1970: 280). Cook, an early observer of Tongan
society, found that they were peaceful but shortly after he left
Tongans spend two years fighting in the Fijian islands. In the late
eighteenth century, domestic civil wars were all over the Tongan
islands. Goldman 1970: states that:
sprang up everywhere, naval fleets were constructed, arms were
obtained from Europeans, military alliances were sealed and broken,
able warriors were sought out and promised rewards. War had become a
deadly interest and the organization of land and naval powers a task
of vital urgency.” (300)
tell of amazing tactics, skills, and daring of commanders. Commanders
were not chosen by ranks but by skill and prowess. Combat units were
led by different chiefs, some by an ordinary chiefs and others by
district. A greater chief was in charge of the entire battle.
An advantage to
fighting in war was increase in status. Commoners were able to make
themselves known through battle. He was often rewarded with a title,
land grant, or the momentary right to drink from a chief’s kava
cup. Although warfare could be good for the commoner, ultimately it
was the chief that benefitted the most (Goldman 1970: 301).
of the Tongan islands has shown through radioactive carbon dating
that they are the oldest inhabited islands within Polynesia. Their
first monument sites appeared in AD 1000. The mounds of Tonga are the
most conspicuous archeological feature of Tonga (Goldman 1970: 285).
There were mounds up to 100 feet in diameter and 7 feet above the
ground (Lieb 1972: 92). McKern identified five types of mounds. The
Esi mounds were raise circular mounds on which chiefs and families
went to relax. Not only did they symbolize the chief’s separation
from the people but they were high enough to catch an ocean breeze.
Pigeon mounds like the name implies were used for chiefs to snare
pigeons. Commoners had to snare them from the ground which gave the
chiefs more of an advantage. Tanuanga were small burial mounds for
commoners. Faitoka were large mounds shaped like cones which chiefs
were buried in. The bodies were placed in stone vaults. These mounds
were quite large with the largest having a diameter or 110 feet at
the base and 40 feet at the top which a height of 15 feet. The fifth
mound was called Langi. Langi were burial mounds for the highest
ranking paramounts and their immediate relatives (Goldman 1970: 286).
There are also native forts on the islands. The forts are normally
circular with walls and moats to aid in defense. The forts are
representative of Tongans war skills (Lieb 1972: 92).
In order to
honor the first born sons, Tongans erected a wall across an isthmus
on Vavau. When the first-born son was born a stone was put into the
wall. The wall was to honors all the senior scions of the district
(Goldman 1970: 287).
megalithic tradition picked up from Fiji led to their own unique
structures. The Trilithon was knows to Tongans as “The burden of
Maui carried on a stick” It is an archway composed of three huge
slabs of stone. It was built by Tuitatui as a message to his sons not
to quarrel (Goldman 1970: 286).
aspects of Tonga, their approach to trading is unique. Their
south-west to north-east position was beneficial because of trade
winds that made traveling up and down the islands easy (Kirch 1984:
219). Trade eventually spread to Somoa and Fiji where chiefs acquired
prestige goods and spouses. Exchange was important in binding the
other islands to the central polity. It also gave the chief more
power because he gained prestige goods and other goods which he could
redistribute (Kirch 1984: 238). According to Goldman 1970:, “The
issue in Tonga, as in Samoa, was sharply focused on the ability to
give and the power to demand goods” (301). Tongan exchange was
equal. They exchanged goods for goods and food for food. Exchange
could also be important for maintaining status through women. Tongan
men would often marry women from outside of Tonga to ensure that
their rank was not lowered (Kirch 1984: 238).
In the trade
world, Fiji became more important to Tonga than Somoa. The exchanges
were more frequent and greater. Fiji was able to provide Tonga with
many prestige goods such as red and green parrot feathers,
sandalwood, sails, pottery, and other items. In exchange Tonga
provided Fiji with Whale’s teeth, fine mats, ornaments, and
barkcloth. One of the most important items that Fiji provided Tonga
was canoes. Canoes from Fiji were especially valued because there was
a lack of suitable timber in Tonga (Kirch 1984: 240).
ranked society today, the term ?eiki refers to anyone of a superior
rank to their family of community. Most nobles today are no longer
effective because they are less involved with their people and
community. Chiefs today also include eleven cabinet ministers
appointed by the king. Only four of the members are hereditary nobles
but the others have close blood ties.
have preference over males of the same generation. The father is the
head of the household with authority over his wife and children. Even
so he still must answer to the wishes of his older sister who in some
ways is a “chief” (Lindstrom and White 1997: 49).
Gailey, C. W.
1987 Kinship to
Kingship. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Polynesian Society. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Kirch, P. V.
Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdom. Cambridge University Press, New
Leib, A. P.
1972 The Many
Islands of Polynesia. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.
and G. M. White (editors)
Today. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
Sahlins, M. D.
Stratification in Polynesia. University of Washington Press, Seattle.