Visitor Facts for visiting in Vava'u Islands, Tonga
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Culture of Tonga
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The Tongan archipelago has been inhabited for perhaps 3000 years, since settlement in late Lapita times. The culture of its inhabitants has surely changed greatly over this long time period. Before the arrival of European explorers in the late 1600s and early 1700s, the Tongans were in frequent contact with their nearest Oceanic neighbors, Fiji and Samoa. In the 1800s, with the arrival of Western traders and missionaries, Tongan culture changed dramatically. Some old beliefs and habits were thrown away and others adopted. Some accommodations made in the 1800s and early 1900s are now being challenged by changing Western civilization. Hence Tongan culture is far from a unified or monolithic affair, and Tongans themselves may differ strongly as to what it is "Tongan" to do, or not do.
Contemporary Tongans often have strong ties to overseas lands. They may have been migrant workers in New Zealand, or have lived and traveled in New Zealand, Australia, or the United States. Many Tongans now live overseas, in a Tongan diaspora, and send home remittances to family members (often aged) who prefer to remain in Tonga. Tongans themselves often have to operate in two different contexts, which they often call anga fakatonga, the traditional Tongan way, and anga fakapalangi, the Western way. A culturally adept Tongan learns both sets of rules and when to switch between them.
Any description of Tongan culture that limits itself to what Tongans see as anga fakatonga would give a seriously distorted view of what people actually do, in Tonga, or in diaspora, because accommodations are so often made to anga fakapalangi. The following account tries to give both the idealized and the on-the-ground versions of Tongan culture.
The people of Tonga are referred to as Tongan(s). Archaic literature may still use the term Tongese.
Traditionally, fishing and farming have accounted for the livelihood of a majority of Tongans. Crops include squash pumpkins, which have in recent years replaced bananas and copra as the largest agricultural exports. Vanilla is another important cash crop.
Women have greater social prestige than men, so a man's sister will outrank him socially even if he is the older sibling. Until recently it was taboo for an adult male and his sister to be in a room together. The recent introduction of television is changing this taboo however.
In pre-contact Tonga, newly pubescent males were tefe, or circumcised by cutting one slit in the foreskin, on the underside of the penis. Afterwards, the family held a feast for the new "man". Circumcision is still practiced, but it is now done informally. A boy, or a group of boys, go to the hospital, where the operation is done under sanitary conditions.
In pre-contact Tonga, a girl's first menstruation was celebrated by a feast. This practice continued up until the mid-1900s, at which point it fell out of favor.
In pre-contact Tonga, female pre-marital chastity was the ideal, if not the norm.
Theoretically, a girl received suitors at a faikava, or kava-drinking gathering. She presided over the bowl, made the kava, and handed out the cups. The suitors sat in a circle around the bowl, chatting, bragging, arguing, and showing off for the demure young lady. All was done under the eye of the elders, thus protecting the maiden from any unseemly advances.
In practice, a young man would attempt to get the demure young maiden to meet him on the beach, at night, where she might be persuaded to have sex with him. Any resulting pregnancy seems not to have weighed too heavily on the woman, or her child. As long as she could name a father, the child would have relatives on both sides, and the woman would of course be supported by her family, and particularly by her brothers, or classificatory brothers.
There was less tolerance of sexual mistakes on the part of high-born women, who were expected to "demonstrate" their virginity by bleeding heavily on their wedding night. The groom's aunts would display the stained barkcloth (or later, sheet), after bathing the bride to inspect her for cuts that might have been inflicted to draw blood. It is said that grooms might show their love and concern for non-bleeding brides by cutting themselves and smearing their own blood on the barkcloth or sheet.
The virginity of the bride was the guarantee for the paternity of a high-ranking child. Another way in which high-society marriages differed from those of commoners is that marriages with close kin were allowed, rather than forbidden. Rather than allow their bloodlines to be contaminated with the blood of commoners, the hou?eiki married among themselves.
After marriage, informal divorce seems to have been common and easy. An unhappy wife had only to return to her brother, who was obligated to support her. Adultery was known, as it is in every human society, but was a perilous venture, especially if the cuckolded husband was a renowned warrior.
In common with many other Polynesian societies, ancient Tonga also made room for the male homosexual, the mahu. These men wore female clothing, took on female roles, and had casual sexual liaisons with other men. There seems to have been no stigma attached to sex with a mahu.
Related, yet different was the mana?ia, the male beauty. When a boy at young age turned out to be very handsome, he would be barred from heavy work, instead he would be pampered, his skin rubbed with oils, his hair meticulously taken care of, and so on. The idea was that in this way he would grow up to such a beauty that he would be irresistible to chief's daughters. Then a child of high rank would be born into the family, elevating the status of all.
After the arrival of the Europeans, a Christian marriage took place before the traditional rites, or was inserted between them. Mahus kept a low profile. Commoners adopted the ideal of pre-marital virginity and the display of bloody bedclothing. Divorce theoretically became formal, and difficult, though this may have only slightly discouraged informal separations and subsequent common-law unions.
With the waning of missionary influence, urban youngsters are now experimenting with dances and dating, the later Western imports. Mahus are now known as "fakaleiti" and are celebrated in the Miss Galaxy Pageant, which claims princess Lupepau?u, granddaughter of the king as its patron.
There is said to be some prostitution in urban areas now, particularly areas with frequent Western visitors (Nuku?alofa, Neiafu). Sex education is discouraged by the church; encouraged (with limited success) by the Ministry of Health. There are a few cases of AIDS in the kingdom, but Tonga's relative isolation has prevented the disease from becoming the scourge that it has been in other countries.
Rank and status
All Polynesian cultures are strongly stratified, ranging from somewhat less to even more. Tongan culture is no exception, and despite almost two centuries of western influence, it is, together with Ha?amoa (Samoa) still the most stratified culture. In former times the king (tu?i) with the royal family was on top. Below him were the high chiefs (hou?eiki), the estate holders and warlords. Below them the lower chiefs (fototehina). Below them the working chiefs (matapule), in fact attendants to the chiefs to which they belonged, providing services to them, like fishing, tax collection, kavamixing, undertaking and protocol keeping. Below them the ordinary people (tu?a). Below them, or maybe more or less on the same level, the slaves, prisoners of war (popula).
In the modern context, the king remains in this position and has the final executive power of government. The high chiefs are now limited to 33 titles and called nobles (nopele), but some nobles carry more than one title. They are still estate holders, and as such have some influence, but they are not the government (although many of them are high ranking civil servants). The lower chiefs have disappeared (and the word fototehina now means 'brothers'). The matapule have also largely disappeared except those who keep the protocol and serve as official spokesmen for the king and nobles. And also the royal undertaker, Lauaki. Tax collection is a task for the central government only. Slavery is abolished, since the emancipation of 1875, and all other people are just the 'commoners'.
The worldly power described above can be called status. A Tongan obtains his status from his father (or sometimes uncle, but always through the male line). He inherits his (noble or matapule) title from his father. The crownprince will succeed his father. Land ownership is only inherited through the father.
However, status as such does not place you in society; this is based on rank. A Tongan obtains his rank from his mother, and that determines his place in the social order. Within the family the rank of women is higher than that of men. Likewise the elder sister of a king, if he has one, has a higher blood rank the king himself. This was the so called Tamaha, holy child, in pre-European times.
In practice high rank and high status always go together because no high ranking woman would ever marry a commoner, and no chief would ever marry a low ranking woman. In fact when prince ?Alaivahamama?o eloped with the daughter of a low chiefess Tu?imala, he was stripped from his royal status and had to flee to Hawai?i. Children from that marriage, grandchildren of the king, would have obtained no significant rank. Albeit later, after a divorce, ?Alai was reconciled with his father and married princess Alaileula from Samoa. He did not however become prince again and died in 2004 with only the noble title Ma?atu.)
Rank and status are fixed from birth. There is no way in Tongan society to climb up in rank. A low ranking chief will always remain the lesser of a high ranking chief, even though his lands may be bigger and richer and so forth. But he can try to marry a high ranking woman, for instance if she is interested in his rich lands, and so increase the rank of his children. Status on the other hand, although usually fixed too, can have some vertical movement. The second son of a noble, normally not in line for his father's title, may get it after all if his older brother dies prematurely. In addition to this sometimes, but very rarely, the king may elevate some person to high status.
Even more striking was the situation with Taufa?ahau, the later king George Tupou I. He was born in a chiefly family of lower rank, not belonging to the hou?eiki. As such he never could attend at the chiefly kava ceremonies as the equal of the high chiefs. By consequence he avoided them. Even after the battle of Velata when he had defeated the Tu?i Tonga and had become the most powerful man of the whole archipelago, he still remained a person of inferior rank. But then he had the power to take Lupepau?u, who had been the wife of the Tu?i Tonga and hence the highest ranking woman at that time as wife. Thus, paradoxically, his children were born into a higher 'status' than he had. Presently his descendants, the current royal family, are the highest ranking Tongans of all.
Once a Tongan has obtained a hereditary title, be it noble or matapule, he will be named with that title and no longer with his baptised name. Such titles are usually for life, but the holder can be stripped of it when convicted of a serious crime, and he will then return to his original name. Some titles are equal to the family name, others are not. For example when somewhere in history they were given away to another family if the original holder died without sons. In former times a woman could hold such a title, but nowadays only men. To distinguish successive holders of the same title, it is permisseable to add the original name between parenthesis. For example: Fielakepa (Siosaia Aleamotu?a). No further prefixes such as The, Mr. or Sir are needed in addressing, although in writing often Hon (Honourable) is used. Tongans are still overawed by those of higher rank.
Violent crime is limited, but increasing, and public perception associates this with returns of ethnic Tongans who have been raised overseas. A few notable cases involve young men raised since infancy in the USA, whose family neglected to obtain citizenship for them and who were deported on involvement with the American justice system. At this moment crime increases faster than the police force and will remain a serious problem for the years to come. Increasing wealth has also increased the gap between the rich and the poor, leading to more and more burglaries.
At this moment most prisons in Tonga still abide with the old laissez-faire attitude. Usually having no fences, no iron bars and so forth, that makes it very easy for the inmates to escape. This system may be required to change, adapting for the influx of foreign born/raised criminals who may treat such a system with contempt, alternatively a minimum/maximum security prison system may need to be developed placing escapists and/or repeat offenders into closed prisons, but for the moment the jailors can trust on the goodwill of the inmates. Some are glad to be in prison, not to be bothered by demanding family members. There is no social stigma on being in prison (although that may change now too), but then of course it also does not serve as a deterrent against crimes.
More troublesome are the youth offenders "schoolboys who want to have money to show off" and are apprehended in burglaries. As there are no juvenile prisons, they are to be locked up in the main prisons together with hardened criminals. For a while it was tried to confine them on Tau, a small island offshore Tongatapu but that was not ideal either.
In the 1990s Chinese immigration caused resentment among the native Tongan population (especially those from Hong Kong, who bought a Tongan passport to get away before the Beijing takeover). Much violent crime nowadays is directed against these Chinese.
Traditional women's crafts
In pre-contact Tonga, women did not do the cooking (cooking in an earth oven was hard, hot work, the province of men) or work in the fields. They raised children, gathered shellfish on the reef, and made koloa, barkcloth and mats, which were a traditional form of wealth exchanged at marriages and other ceremonial occasions. An industrious woman thus raised the social status of her household. Her family also slept soundly, on the piles of mats and barkcloth that were the traditional bedding. On sunny days, these were spread on the grass to air, which prolonged their life.
Among the typical koloa are:
Bark cloth, or tapa (but called ngatu in Tonga).
Waist mats, called ta?ovala.
Waist girdles, called kiekie.
And any other type of traditional (dance) clothing.
Woven mats serve a variety of purposes, from the ordinary to the ceremonial. Many woven mats are passed down from generation to generation, acquiring greater status with the passage of time. It is in fact a collection of these mats in the palace that forms the true crown jewels of Tonga. These royal mats are displayed only on high state occasions such as the death of a member of the royal family or the coronation of a monarch.
Traditional men's crafts
Many Tonga war clubs like the one pictured above were presented as gifts to visiting Allied military personnel during World War II. also used for canoe paddle and for War dancing e.g_ Metu'upaki
Before Western contact, many objects of daily use were made of carved wood: food bowls, head rests (kali), war clubs and spears, and cult images. Tongan craftsmen were skilled at inlaying pearl-shell and ivory in wood, and Tongan war clubs were treasured items in the neighboring archipelago of Fiji.
Tongan craftsman were also adept at building canoes. Many canoes for daily use were simple popaos, dug-out canoes, shaped from a single log with fire and adze and outfitted with a single outrigger. Due to a dearth of large trees suitable for building large war canoes, these canoes were often imported from Fiji.
The tradition Tongan fale consisted of a curved roof (branches lashed with sennit rope, or kafa, thatched with woven palm leaves) resting on pillars made of tree trunks. Woven screens filled in the area between the ground and the edge of the roof. The traditional design was extremely well adapted to surviving hurricanes. If the winds threatened to shred the walls and overturn the roof, the inhabitants could chop down the pillars, so that the roof fell directly onto the ground. Because the roof was curved, like a limpet shell, the wind tended to flow over it smoothly. The inhabitants could ride out the storm in relative safety.
There are a many surviving examples of Tongan stone architecture, notably the Ha?amonga ?a Maui and mound tombs (langi) near Lapaha, Tongatapu. And so several on other islands. Archaeologists have dated them hundreds to a thousand years old.
Pre-contact Tongan males were often heavily tattooed. In Captain Cook's time only the Tu?i Tonga (king) was not: because he was too high ranked for anybody to touch him. Later it became the habit that a young Tu?i Tonga went to Samoa to be tattooed there.
The practice of Tatatau disappeared under heavy missionary disapproval, but was never completely suppressed. It is still very common for men (less so, but still some for women), to be decorated with some small tattoos. Nevertheless it is more popular for youngsters nowadays, so there is a revival. Especially shoulders, wrists, ankles, legs, arms. Often a crest of the high school attended. Or the initials of one's name.
Western textile arts
Tonga has evolved its own version of Western-style clothing, consisting of a long tupenu, or sarong, for women, and a short tupenu for men. Women cover the tupenu with a kofu, or Western-style dress; men top the tupenu either with a T-shirt, a Western casual shirt, or on formal occasions, a dress shirt and a suit coat. Preachers in some Methodist sects still wear long "frock coats", a style that has not been current in the West for more than a hundred years. These coats must be tailored locally.
Tongan outfits are often assembled from used Western clothing (for the top) mixed with a length of cloth purchased locally for the tupenu. Used clothing can be found for sale at local markets, or can be purchased overseas and mailed home by relatives.
Some women have learned to sew and own sewing machines (often antique treadle machines). They do simple home-sewing of shirts, kofu, and school uniforms.
Nuku?alofa, the capital, supports several tailoring shops. They tailor tupenu and suitcoats for Tongan men, and matching tupenu and kofu for Tongan women. The women's outfits may be decorated with simple blockprint patterns on the hems.
There is also some local production of knit jerseys by Tongans operating imported sergers. They produce on speculation and sell at the Nuku?alofa market.
Women who attend the Wesleyan Methodist girl's school, Queen Salote College, are taught several Western handicrafts, such as embroidery and crochet. They learn to make embroidered pillowcases and bed coverings or crocheted lace tableclothes, bedcovers, and lace trim. However, Western-style handicrafts such as these have not become widely popular outside the school setting. They require expensive imported materials that can only be purchased in major towns. Village women are much more likely to turn their efforts to weaving mats or beating barkcloth, which can be done with free local material.
A few Tongan village churches are decorated with freehand murals or decorations done in house paint, which may mix crosses, flowers, and traditional barkcloth motifs. The practice is uncommon and the execution is always crude.
Coral and tortoise-shell jewelry
In the 1970s there was a small factory near Nuku?alofa that made simple jewelry from coral and tortoise-shell for sale to Western tourists. It is not clear if this factory is still operating. The government may have protected sea-turtles and corals (as has been done in most other countries) and ended this line of manufacture.
Music & dance
We know relatively little about the 'music of Tonga' as it existed before Tonga was discovered by European explorers. Early visitors, such as Captain Cook and the invaluable William Mariner, note only the singing and drumming during traditional dance performances. We can assume the existence of the lali or slit-gong, and the nose flute, as these survived to later times. Traditional songs, passed down over the generations, are still sung at chiefly ceremonies. Some ancient dances are still performed, such as ula, ?otuhaka and me?etu?upaki.
Methodists were known for their extensive use of hymns in their emotional services. True to their tradition, the early missionaries introduced hymn-singing to their congregations. These early hymns -- still sung today in some of the Methodist sects, such as the Free Church of Tonga and the Church of Tonga -- have Tongan tunes and simple, short Tongan lyrics. There is a special Tongan music notation for these, and other, musics.
Traditional music is preserved in the set pieces performed at royal and noble weddings and funerals, and in the song sung during the traditional ceremony of apology, the lou-ifi. Radio Tonga begins each day's broadcast with a recording from Honourable Ve?ehala, a nobleman and celebrated virtuoso of the nose flute. This music is not popular music; it is a cherished heirloom, preserved by specialists and taught as needed for special occasions.
In times, there was only one main meal, a midday meal cooked in an earth oven. Villagers would rise, eat some leftover food from the previous day's meal, and set out to work in the fields, fishing, gathering shellfish, etc. The results of the morning's work would be cooked by the men, and served to the assembled household. The remnants would be placed in a basket suspended from a tree. This food served as an end-of-the-day snack as well as the next day's breakfast. Food past its prime was given to the pigs.
The diet consisted mainly of taro, yams, bananas, coconuts, and fish baked in leaves; shellfish were usually served raw, as a relish. The liquid from the center of coconuts was commonly drunk, and the soft "spoon meat" of young coconuts much relished. Baked breadfruit was eaten in season. Pigs were killed and cooked only on special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, feasts honoring a visiting chief, and the like. Tongans also ate chickens.
Food could be stored by feeding it to pigs. Pre-contact Tongans also built elevated storehouses for yams. Yams would keep only a few months. Hence a household's main security was generous distribution of food to relatives and neighbors, who were thus put under an obligation to share in their turn.
Many new foods were introduced in the 19th and early 20th centuries, following Western contacts and settlements. The cassava plant was one such introduction; it is called manioke in Tongan. While it lacks the prestige of the yam, it is an easy plant to grow and a common crop. Introduced watermelons became popular. They were eaten either by themselves, or pulped and mixed with coconut milk, forming a popular drink called ?otai. Other fruits, such as oranges, lemons, and limes, became popular. Tongans also adopted onions, green onions, cabbage,carrots, tomatoes, and other common vegetables. In the last few decades, Tongan farmers with access to large tracts of land have engaged in commercial farming of pumpkins and other easily shipped vegetables as cash crops.
Women cooking topai for mournersTongans now consume large quantities of imported flour and sugar. One dish that uses both is topai, doughboys, flour and water worked into a paste and dropped into a kettle of boiling water, then served with a syrup of sugar and coconut milk. Topai are a common funeral food, being easily prepared for hundreds of mourners.
There are now bakeries in the larger cities. The most popular loaves are soft, white, and bland. There are also local soft drink bottlers, who make various local varieties of soda. A Tongan who might once have breakfasted on bits of cooked pork and yam from a hanging basket may now have white bread and soda for breakfast.
Purchased prepared foods have also made great headway, even in remote villages. Canned corned beef is a great favorite. It is eaten straight from the can, or mixed with coconut milk and onions, wrapped in leaves, and baked in the earth oven. Tongans also eat canned fish. In villages or towns with refrigeration, cheap frozen "mutton flaps" imported from New Zealand are popular. Tongans also eat the common South Pacific "ship's biscuit", hard plain crackers once a shipboard staple. These crackers are called ma pakupaku.
Tongans no longer make an earth oven every day. Most daily cooking is done by women, who cook in battered pots over open fires in the village, in wood-burning stoves in some households, and on gas or electric ranges in some of the larger towns. The meal schedule has also changed, to more Westernized breakfast, light lunch, and heavy dinner. Tongans say that the old schedule is unworkable when household members have Western-style jobs, or attend schools at some distance from home; such family members cannot come home to eat, then have a doze after a heavy mid-day meal.
As well as drinking soda, Tongans now drink tea and coffee. Usually this is of the cheapest variety, and served with tinned condensed milk.
Some men drink alcohol. Sometimes this is imported Australian or New Zealand beer; more often it is home-brew, hopi, made with water, sugar or mashed fruit, and yeast. Imported drinks are sold only to Tongans who have liquor permits, which require a visit to a government office, and limit the amount of alcohol which can be purchased. There are no such formalities with hopi. Drinking is usually done secretively; a group of men gather and drink until they are drunk. Such gatherings sometimes result in drunken quarrels and assaults.
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