Around 1500–1000 BCE, an Austronesian-speaking population associated with the Lapita cultural complex arrived and settled in Tonga. Scholars have long disputed the precise dates of Tonga’s first colonization, but it is now believed that the first inhabitants arrived in the oldest town, Nukuleka, about 826 BCE, or 8 years. Because of the absence of a writing system, nothing is known prior to European contact, although oral history has persisted and been documented after the advent of the Europeans.
Tongans and the Tui Tonga, the Tongan supreme chief, had a reputation throughout the central Pacific by the 12th century, from Niue, Samoa, Rotuma, Wallis & Futuna, New Caledonia, to Tikopia, prompting some historians to talk of a Tui Tonga Empire. Civil conflict occurred in the 15th and 17th centuries.
The Tongans first saw Europeans in 1616, when the Dutch ship Eendracht, commanded by Willem Schouten, paid a brief visit to trade. Other Dutch explorers followed, notably Jacob Le Maire (who explored the northern island of Niuatoputapu) and Abel Tasman (who visited Tongatapu and Haapai in 1643). Later notable European visits included the Royal Navy’s James Cook in 1773, 1774, and 1777; the Spanish Navy’s Alessandro Malaspina in 1793; the first London missionaries in 1797; and the Wesleyan Methodist Reverend Walter Lawry in 1822.
Tufahau, an ambitious young warrior, strategist, and orator, unified Tonga into a monarchy in 1845. He had the main title of Tui Kanokupolu, but was baptized in 1831 as Siaosi (“George”) by Methodist missionaries. With the assistance of missionary Shirley Waldemar Baker, he proclaimed Tonga a constitutional monarchy in 1875, officially adopted the western royal style, liberated the “serfs,” established a code of law, land tenure, and freedom of the press, and restricted the chiefs’ authority.
On 18 May 1900, when European immigrants and competing Tongan chiefs attempted to depose the second monarch, Tonga became a protected state under a Treaty of Friendship with Britain. According to the treaty, the highest permanent representation on Tonga was a British Consul (1901–1970). Tonga retained its sovereignty under British protection, and remained the only Pacific country to preserve its monarchical system (unlike Tahiti and Hawaii). Tongan monarchy is based on an unbroken line of hereditary monarchs from the same family.
The 1918 flu pandemic killed 1,800 Tongans, accounting for around 8% of the population.
The Treaty of Friendship and Tonga’s protective status expired in 1970, as a result of agreements made before to Queen Salote Tupou III’s death in 1965. Tonga joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970 (unusual for a nation with its own monarch rather than the United Kingdom’s, as Malaysia, Lesotho, and Swaziland do), and the United Nations in September 1999. Despite colonial pressures, Tonga has always governed independently, making it unique in the Pacific.
The British Government closed the British High Commission in Nukualofa in March 2006 as part of cost-cutting measures throughout the British Foreign Service, shifting representation of British interests to the High Commissioner in Fiji. Paul Nessling was the last resident British High Commissioner.