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Articles Blog

Nuka 'alofa, Tonga

Karyn Planett

It’s been said that Tonga is the land where the new day dawns, where time begins. And, in fact, that’s so. You see, long ago cartographers curiously drew the International Dateline to zigzag 500 miles east of Tonga, therefore east of the 180th meridian. This mapmaker’s whimsical detour afforded Tonga the honor, thusly, of being the first land in the entire world to “see the new day.” * Stranger still is the fact that Toga and Samoa share exactly the same time but are technically one day apart because they’re on opposite sides of the Dateline. Go figure.

Nonetheless, Tongans greet each new day at an ever-so-leisurely pace. And have for centuries. Because of this, their days are easy, their lives unhurried, and their blood pressures a doctor’s dream.

Somewhere Beyond The Sea

Some 150 to 200 islands, sprinkled across 575 miles of the South Pacific, belong to Tonga. Of these, only fifty or so are home to year-round residents who till the soil, fish the seas, and educate their children who boast nearly a 99% literacy rate. 

There are three main island groupings in Tonga including Vava’u to the north, Ha’apai in the center, and Tongatapu in the south. And the majority of the islanders, more than two thirds to be exact, reside on Tongatapu where the nation’s capital, Nuku Alofa, has been located for more than 600 years. “Nuku” by the way means “abode” and “Alofa” means “love.”

Early Visitors

Many scholars believe Polynesian people migrated south to Tonga from Western Samoa 2500 years ago, give or take. To Samoans, the word “tonga” actually means “south” in their native language. Their life was simple and typically pacific, save for the occasional rounding up of warriors to man war canoes for attacks on nearby islands. These actions, of course, were necessary to expand the Tongan Empire.

Then, in 1643, Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman came ashore in Tongatapu to trade with local people. (Two other Dutchmen--Schouten and Le Maire--had already sailed through the northern islands in 1616.)

Others European mariners followed but it was Captain James Cook, during his second voyage, who became so enamored with Tonga that he affectionately dubbed them the “Friendly Islands.” History tells us Cook stayed on in Tonga for more than two months. He developed such a bond with the Tonga ruler Fatefehi Paulaho that, in 1773, Cook presented him with a tortoise that enjoyed the “royal treatment” and lived to roam about unharmed for the next two centuries. Visit Cook’s Landing Place to relive this time.

Captain Bligh and Others

Captain William Bligh, while commanding HMS Bounty in the seas off Tonga’s island of Tofua, wrangled with Fletcher Christian and other disgruntled crewmembers. The year was 1789. What followed was the legendary mutiny that led to the Captain and 18 loyal sailors being set adrift in a 23-foot long, open boat to sail 3618 miles over the next 41 days to the Dutch settlement of Timor.

The crew of the British whaler Port-au-Prince was also a bit unlucky in these waters. Chief Finau II attacked these seamen in 1806 and burned their ship to salvage its precious nails. Only a few men survived including a 15-year old named Will Mariner who was protected like an adopted son for the next four years by the chief. Mariner’s account of this extraordinary experience, written with the aide of a London physician named John Martin, is remarkable reading even today.

Men of the Cloth

Missionaries came to Tonga in the early 1800s. One of their most visible converts was the then chief Taufa’ahau whom the Christians courted with a variety of gifts including firearms and other weapons. This firepower allowed the renamed and baptized King George I to conquer neighboring islands and solidify his rule for the next half-century.

This mutually beneficial relationship also resulted in the conversion to Christianity for all Tongan islanders and, today, the most popular religion is the Wesleyan Free Church of Tonga.

Great Britain took over the reins of Tonga’s foreign affairs following King George’s death in 1893. Ultimately, Britain relinquished its sovereignty over these islands in June 1970 when Tonga joined the global family of independent nations. In 1991, she also became a member of the U.N.

Since 2006 Tonga’s monarch has been King George Tupou V, the latest in a dynasty dating back to 1831. The 122,000 islanders live a peaceful life and are eager to share the islands’ highlights with visitors. They include the Royal Tombs of Mala’Ekula; the Royal Palace dating back to 1867; Talamahu Market where carved-bone “dream catchers” and tapa cloth are for sale; the Ha’amonga Trilithon from 1200 AD; the Terraced Tombs called “Langi”; Houma Blowholes where the sea spray shoots 60 feet into the air; and the sunny beaches of Kings Island and Oholei. 

Just remember to keep an eye on your watch so you’re back before the ship sails. It’s easy to forget the time in Tonga.