Tonga General Information, Pacific Islands

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General Information About Tonga

Vava'u, Tonga

The Kingdom of Tonga is comprised of 176 islands, with 36 of them being inhabited. Tonga is also known as the Friendly Islands because of the friendly reception afforded to Captain James Cook on his first visit there in 1773.

He happened to arrive at the time of the 'inasi festival, the yearly donation of the first fruits to the Tu'i Tonga (the islands' paramount chief) and so received an invitation to the festivities. According to the writer William Mariner, the chiefs wanted to kill Cook during the gathering, but could not agree on a plan.

Tonga is sub-divided into five divisions: 'Eua, Ha'apai, Niuas, Tongatapu and Vava'u.

Lengthwise, the kingdom stretches over a distance of about 800 kilometers in a north-south line located about a third of the distance from New Zealand to Hawaii. It is surrounded by Fiji, Wallis and Futuna to the northwest, Samoa to the northeast, Niue to the east, Kermadec to the southwest and New Caledonia and Vanuatu to a more distant west.

In many Polynesian languages, the word Tonga means 'south' as the archipelago is the southernmost group of islands in central Polynesia.

Over 70% of the population of Tonga lives on the main island of Tongatapu. The capital of Tonga is the urban centre of Nuku'alofa.

The manufacturing sector consists of mostly handicrafts. Rural Tongans rely on plantation and subsistence agriculture. Coconuts, vanilla, beans, bananas, coffee beans and root crops such as yarns, taro and cassava are the major cash crops.

The population of Tonga is approximately 104,000.

The main ethnic group is Tongan with the remainder made up of Pacific Islanders, Europeans and Chinese.

Tonga is one of the few countries in the world that have successfully resisted European colonization, and the Polynesian kingdom has never lost its sovereignty to a foreign power. Tonga is the only Kingdom in the South Pacific and in 2010, it took a decisive step towards becoming a fully functioning constitutional monarchy, after legislative reforms paved the way for its first partial representative elections.


Tongan and English are the official languages in Tonga. Tongan is a Polynesian language and is closely related to Hawaiian, Niuean and Samoan.

Tongan is a spoken rather than written language. Only the Bible, the Book of Mormon and a few other books are written in Tongan. There are not enough people who can read Tongan to make it commercially viable to publish books in Tongan, so most reading material is in English.

Important Dates

The following are a list of holidays observed in Tonga:


1 Jan – New Year's Day
6 Apr – Good Friday
9 Apr – Easter Monday
25 Apr – ANZAC Day
4 Jun – Emancipation Day
12 Jul – Birthday of the Heir to the Crown of Tonga
1 Aug – Official Birthday of the King of Tonga
4 Nov – Constitution Day
4 Dec – Tupou I Day
25 Dec – Christmas
26 Dec – Boxing Day


Flight Times

Travelling to Tonga is easy from New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Hawaii or Los Angeles. Travellers from other countries will almost always have to go through one of these before reaching Tonga. Catching a flight from Auckland, New Zealand or Nadi, Fiji are the most convenient and these cities have the most flights departing for Tonga.

A flight from Auckland to Nuku'alofa will take around three hours; flying from Sydney will take around five hours and a trip from Los Angeles to Auckland will take approximately thirteen hours.

Time Differences

Tonga does not observe Daylight Savings and is 13 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT +13).

Tonga is situated east of 180° but the International Dateline makes a detour to include Tonga west of the line. Take account of this in navigational calculations.


A shopping trip in Tonga is sure to be a great experience. There are the local, traditional craft shops as well as the modern city malls. Shops are well maintained and have a wide variety of goods. A Tongan market is also a great place to find handicraft or handwork items to take home as souvenirs.

Most of the grocery stores in Tongatapu are well stocked with a range of produce, perishables and dry food. If you are travelling further, it would be a good idea to stock up on a few items before you go.


The flag on Tonga is red, with a red cross on a white rectangle on the upper hoist side corner.

The red cross represents the country's belief in Christianity. The white stands for purity and the red represents the blood Jesus shed at his crucifixion and reminds Tonga's people that they owe their salvation to him.

The flag originated in the 1860's and was adopted in 1875, making it one of the world's oldest flags. The 1875 constitution stated that the flag should never be changed.

The Tongan flag was originally the same as that of the Red Cross, so was changed to avoid confusion with it.


An Austronesian-speaking group linked to the archaeological construct known as the Lapita cultural complex reached and colonised Tonga around 1500-1000 BCE. Scholars have much debated the exact dates of the initial settlement of Tonga, but recently it has been thought that the first settlers came to the oldest town Nukuleka. Not much is known about Tonga before European contact because of the lack of a writing system. However, oral history has survived and been recorded after the arrival of the Europeans. The Tongan people first encountered Europeans in 1616 when the Dutch vessel Eendracht made a short visit to the islands to trade.

By the 12th century Tongans, and the Tongan paramount chief, the Tu'i Tonga, had a reputation across the central Pacific – from Niue, Samoa, Rotuma, Wallis and Futuna, New Caledonia to Tikopia – leading some historians to speak of a Tu'i Tonga Empire. In the 15th century and again in the 17th, civil war erupted. Into this situation the first European explorers arrived, beginning in 1616 with the Dutch explorers Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire, and in 1643 with Abel Tasman. Later noteworthy European visitors included James Cook in 1773, 1774, and 1777, Alessandro Malaspina (Spanish Navy) in 1793, the first London missionaries in 1797, and the Wesleyan Methodist Rev. Walter Lawry in 1822.

In 1845 the ambitious young warrior, strategist, and orator Taufa'ahau united Tonga into a kingdom. He held the chiefly title of Tu'i Kanokupolu, but had been baptized with the name siaosi ("George") in 1831. In 1875 with the help of missionary Shirley Waldemar Baker, he declared Tonga a constitutional monarchy, formally adopted the western royal style, emancipated the "serfs", enshrined a code of law, land tenure, and freedom of the press, and limited the power of the chiefs.

Tonga became a protected state under a Treaty of Friendship with Britain on 18 May 1900, when European settlers and rival Tongan chiefs tried to oust the second king. The treaty posted no higher permanent representative on Tonga than a British Consul (1901–1970). Although under the protection of Britain, Tonga maintained its sovereignty, and remained the only Pacific nation never to have given up its monarchical government – as did Tahiti and Hawai'i. The Tongan monarchy follows an uninterrupted succession of hereditary rulers from one family. In 1918 the influenza epidemic that spread through the world caused the deaths of 1,800 people in Tonga, approximately 8% of the population.

The Treaty of Friendship and Tonga's protection status ended in 1970 under arrangements established by Queen Salote Tupou III prior to her death in 1965. Tonga joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970 (atypically as an autochthonous monarchy, that is one with its own local monarch rather than that of the United Kingdom – compare Malaysia, Lesotho, and Swaziland), and became a member of the United Nations in September 1999. While exposed to colonial pressures, Tonga has never lost indigenous governance, a fact that makes Tonga unique in the Pacific and gives Tongans much pride, as well as confidence in their monarchical system. As part of cost cutting measures across the British Foreign Service, the British Government closed the British High Commission in Nuku'alofa in March 2006, transferring representation of British interests in Tonga to the UK High Commissioner in Fiji. The last resident British High Commissioner was Paul Nessling.

Image Source: Jon Thomson. Blowholes on the coast of Tongatapu
Blowholes on the coast of Tongatapu
cc Jon Thomson

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