Tuʻi Tonga Empire

The Tuʻi Tonga Empire, or Tongan Empire, are descriptions sometimes given to Tongan expansionism and projected hegemony in Oceania which began around 950 CE, reaching its peak during the period 1200–1500.

Tu'i Tonga Empire

Islands within the sphere of influence of the Tongan Empire
Tu'i Tonga 
 950 CE
 'Aho'eitu brought his faction to Samoa
 the title Tuʻi Tonga was abolished

It was centred in Tonga on the island of Tongatapu, with its capital at Muʻa. Modern researchers and cultural experts attest to widespread Tongan influence, evidence of transoceanic trade and exchange of material and non-material cultural artefacts.


Beginning of Tongan expansionism

With the decline of Samoa's Tui Manu'a maritime empire, a new empire rose from the South.[1] In 950 AD, the first Tu'i Tonga 'Aho'eitu started to expand his rule outside of Tonga. According to leading Tongan scholars, including Dr. 'Okusitino Mahina, the Tongan and Samoan oral traditions indicate that the first Tu'i Tonga was the son of their god Tangaloa.[1] As the ancestral homeland of the Tu'i Tonga dynasty and the abode of deities such as Tagaloa 'Eitumatupu'a, Tonga Fusifonua, and Tavatavaimanuka, the Manu'a islands of Samoa were considered sacred by the early Tongan kings.[2] By the time of the 10th Tu’i Tonga Momo, and his successor, Tuʻitātui, the Tu'i Tonga's empire had grown to include much of the former domains of the Tui Fiti and Tui Manu'a, with the Manu'a group as the only exception. To better govern the large territory, the Tu’i Tonga had their throne moved by the lagoon at Lapaha, Tongatapu. The influence of the Tu’i Tonga was renowned throughout the Pacific, and many of the neighbouring islands participated in the widespread trade of resources and new ideas.

Expansion (1200–1500)

Under the 10th Tuʻi Tonga, Momo and his son Tuʻitātui (11th Tuʻi Tonga) the empire was at its height of expansion, tributes for the Tu'i Tonga were said to be exacted from all tributary chiefdoms of the empire. This tribute was known as the " 'Inasi " and was conducted annually at Mu'a following the harvest season when all countries that were subject to the Tu'i Tonga must bring a gift for the gods, who was recognized as the Tu'i Tonga.[3] Captain Cook witnessed an Inasi ceremony in 1777, in which he noticed a lot of foreigners in Tonga, especially the darker people from Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu . The finest mats of Samoa ('ie tōga) are incorrectly translated as "Tongan mats;" the correct meaning is "treasured cloth" ("ie" = cloth, "tōga" = female goods, in opposition to "oloa" = male goods).[4] Many fine mats came into the possession of the Tongan royal families through chiefly marriages with Samoan noblewomen, such as Tohu'ia, the mother of the first Tu'i Kanokupolu, Ngata, who came from Safata, 'Upolu, Samoa. These mats, including the Maneafaingaa and Tasiaeafe, are considered the crown jewels of the current Tupou line[5] (which is derived matrilineally from Samoa).[6] The success of the Empire was largely based upon the Imperial Navy. The most common vessels were long-distance double-canoes fitted with triangular sails. The largest canoes of the Tongan kalia type could carry up to 100 men. The most notable of these were the Tongafuesia, ʻĀkiheuho, the Lomipeau, and the Takaʻipōmana. It should be mentioned that the Takaʻipōmana was actually a Samoan kalia; according to Queen Sālote and the Palace Records this was the Samoan double-hulled canoe that brought Tohu'ia Limapō from Sāmoa to wed the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua.[6] The large navy allowed for Tonga to become wealthy with large amounts of trade and tribute flowing into the Royal Treasury.

Decline of Tuʻi Tonga and two new dynasties

The Tuʻi Tonga decline began due to numerous wars and internal pressure. In the 13th or 14th century, the Samoans had expelled the Tongans from their lands after Tu'i Tonga Talakaifaiki was defeated in battle by the brothers Tuna, Fata and Savea, progenitors of the Malietoa family. In response, the falefā was created as political advisors to the Empire. The falefā officials were initially successful in maintaining some hegemony over other subjected islands but increased dissatisfaction led to the assassination of several rulers in succession. The most notable were, Havea I (19th TT), Havea II (22nd TT), and Takalaua (23rd TT), who were all known for their tyrannical rule. In AD 1535, Takalaua was assassinated by two foreigners while swimming in the lagoon of Mu'a. His successor, Kauʻulufonua I pursued the killers all the way to ʻUvea, where he killed them.[7]

Because of so many assassination attempts on the Tu'i Tonga, Kauʻulufonua established a new dynasty called the Ha'a Takalaua in honour of his father and gave his brother, Mo’ungamotu’a, the title of Tu’i Ha’atakalaua. This new dynasty was to deal with the everyday decisions of the empire, while the position of Tu’i Tonga was to be the nation's spiritual leader, though he still controlled the final say in the life or death of his people. The Tu'i Tonga "empire" at this period becomes Samoan in orientation as the Tu'i Tonga kings themselves became ethnic Samoans who married Samoan women and resided in Samoa.[8] Kau'ulufonua's mother was a Samoan from Manu'a,[9] Tu'i Tonga Kau'ulufonua II and Tu'i Tonga Puipuifatu had Samoan mothers and as they married Samoan women the succeeding Tu'i Tonga – Vakafuhu, Tapu'osi, and 'Uluakimata – were allegedly more "Samoan" than "Tongan."[10]

In 1610, the 6th Tu'i Ha'a Takalaua, Mo'ungatonga, created the position of Tu’i Kanokupolu for his half-Samoan son, Ngata, which divided regional rule between them, though as time went on the Tu’i Kanokupolu's power became more and more dominant over Tonga. The Tu'i Kanokupolu dynasty oversaw the importation and institution of many Samoan policies and titles and according to Tongan scholars, this "Samoanized" form of government and custom continues today in the modern Kingdom of Tonga [11] Things continued in this manner afterward. The first Europeans arrived in 1616, when the Dutch explorers Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire spotted Tongans in a canoe off the coast of Niuatoputapu, followed by Abel Tasman. These visits were brief, however, and did not significantly change the island.

The dividing line between the two moieties was the old coastal road named Hala Fonua moa (dry land road). Modern chiefs who derive their authority from the Tuʻi Tonga are still named the Kau Hala ʻUta (inland road people), while those from the Tuʻi Kanokupolu are known as the Kau Hala Lalo (low road people). Concerning the Tuʻi Haʻatakalaua supporters: when this division arose, in the 15th century, they were of course the Kauhalalalo. But when the Tuʻi Kanokupolu had overtaken them they shifted their allegiance to the Kauhalaʻuta.

Modern scholarship

Modern archeology, anthropology and linguistic studies confirm widespread Tongan cultural influence ranging widely[12][13] through East 'Uvea, Rotuma, Futuna, Samoa and Niue, parts of Micronesia (Kiribati, Pohnpei), Vanuatu and New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands,[14] and while some academics prefer the term "maritime chiefdom",[15] others argue that, while very different from examples elsewhere, "..."empire" is probably the most convenient term."[16]

See also

  • History of Tonga
  • Early history of Tonga
  • Thalassocracy


  1. see writings of Ata of Kolovai in "O Tama a Aiga" by Morgan Tuimaleali'ifano; writings by Mahina, also coronation edition of Spasifik Magazine, "The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia," edited by Lal and Fortune, p. 133etc.
  2. "The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia," edited by Lal and Fortune, p. 133
  3. St. Cartmail, Keith (1997). The art of Tonga. Honolulu, Hawai'i: University of Hawai'i Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-8248-1972-9.
  4. the Tongan linguistic analogue is "to'onga," see http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/objectdetails.aspx?oid=535267&coltype=pacific%20cultures&regno=fe011574
  5. Kie Hingoa 'Named Mats, 'Ie Toga 'Fine Mats' and Other Treasured Textiles of Samoa and Tonga. Journal of the Polynesian Society, Special Issue 108(2), June 1999
  6. see Songs and Poems of Queen Salote edited by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem
  7. Thomson, Basil (January 1901). "Note Upon the Natives of Savage Island, or Niue" (PDF). The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 31: 137–145. JSTOR 2842790.
  8. "The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia," edited by Lal and Fortune, p. 133; Gunson, Niel (1997). "Great Families of Polynesia: Inter-island Links and Marriage Patterns". Journal of Pacific History. 32 (2): 139–179. doi:10.1080/00223349708572835.; "Tongan Society," Edward Gifford; "Tongan Society at the Time of Captain Cook's Visits," Queen Salote, Bott and Tavi
  9. Gunson, Niel (1997). "Great Families of Polynesia: Inter-island Links and Marriage Patterns". Journal of Pacific History. 32 (2): 139–179. doi:10.1080/00223349708572835.; also "Deconstructing the Island Group," Australian National University
  10. Gunson, Niel (1997). "Great Families of Polynesia: Inter-island Links and Marriage Patterns". Journal of Pacific History. 32 (2): 139–179. doi:10.1080/00223349708572835.; "Tongan Society," Edward Gifford; "Tongan Society at the Time of Captain Cook's Visits," Queen Salote, Bott and Tavi
  11. see "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-03-05. Retrieved 2006-03-05.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) History of Tonga; 'Okusitino Mahina 2004; and journal articles
  12. Recent Advances in the Archaeology of the Fiji/West-Polynesia Region" Archived 2009-09-18 at the Wayback Machine 2008: Vol 21. University of Otago Studies in Prehistoric Anthropology.]
  13. "Hawaiki, Ancestral Polynesia: An Essay in Historical Anthropology", Patrick Vinton Kirch; Roger C. Green (2001)
  14. "Geraghty, P., 1994. Linguistic evidence for the Tongan empire", Geraghty, P., 1994 in "Language Contact and Change in the Austronesian World: pp.236-39.
  15. "Monumentality in the development of the Tongan maritime chiefdom", Clark, G., Burley, D. and Murray, T. 2008. Antiquity 82(318): 994-1004"
  16. ["Pacific voyaging after the exploration period"], NEICH, R. 2006 in K.R. Howe (ed.) Vaka Moana, voyages of the ancestors: the discovery and settlement of the Pacific: 198-245. Auckland: David Bateman. p230
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