Area 289 square mi (748 square km)
Population 105,600 2014
Highest Point 3,409 ft (1,033 m)
Lowest Point 0 m
GDP $434.4 million 2014
Primary Natural Resources fish, fertile soil.
THE KINGDOM OF TONGA is one of the few states in the south PACIFIC OCEAN to have retained its traditional monarchy and much of its traditional culture. King Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV enjoys the popularity gained by his ancestors and holds considerable power in the national government, but there are pressures toward increased democratization of the islands, fueled by problems of overpopulation and traditional landdistribution practices.
Culturally and linguistically part of POLYNESIA, the name Tonga derives from the Polynesian word for “south.” The islands are located in the center of the south Pacific, just west of the INTERNATIONAL DATE LINE, east of FIJI, south of WALLIS AND FUTUNA and SAMOA, and west of NIUE. Its 171 islands spread over 273,000 square mi (700,000 square km), with a total coastline of 259 mi (419 km), are divided into three main groups, plus several smaller islands further to the north (the Niuas).
The Tongatapu Group includes the island of Tongatapu (“sacred Tonga”), with 35 percent of the land and most of the population. About 62 mi (100 km) to the north is the Ha‘apai Group, consisting of very small islands and coral reefs, followed by the Vava‘u Group another 62 mi (100 km) to the north. Most islands are raised limestone or coral overlaying a volcanic base, with few hills. Some of the islands are of volcanic origin, close to the geologically active undersea region of the Tonga Trench, with recent activity on Fonuafo‘ou in the Ha‘apai Group. The volcanic islands are very different from the others, with high cliffs and deep forests. One of these, ‘Eua, southeast of Tongatapu, is becoming a chief attraction to tourists for its undeveloped RAINFORESTS, beaches, and caves.
Known as the Friendly Islands by European explorers, the islands of Tonga were united under one chief in 1845. Struggles between traditionalists and the reformminded royal family (converted to Christianity by Wesleyan missionaries) led to adoption of a constitution in 1875 that is still mainly in force but also led to abuses that brought British interference to the islands and the establishment of a protectorate in 1900. Queen Salote Tupou III (1918–65) was immensely popular and settled much of this discord.
Politically savvy, the queen kept Tonga’s position as a proud Polynesian kingdom within the British Empire and introduced health services and education. But she also abrogated much of the rights and powers women had enjoyed in traditional Tongan society, a reflection of her upbringing in the Christian missions. Never having been fully administered as a colony, Tonga cut its official ties with the UNITED KINGDOM in 1970, but remains an active member of the Commonwealth.
Agriculture (mostly palm groves and coconuts) is the largest economic activity in Tonga, but it continues to depend on imports of much of its food from NEW ZEALAND. Tourism is also an important industry, but by far the largest revenue generator for Tonga is remittances from Tongans working overseas (as much as 40 percent of the gross domestic product in the mid 1980s). These problems are exacerbated by cyclone and earthquake activity, plus one of the densest populations in the Pacific. The old noble landowning classes are facing increased demands for a more equitable distribution of precious land resources, while many Tongans continue to flee to other countries to find work.