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Tonga is the only nation in the South Pacific that has never been colonized by a European power. The Kingdom of Tonga is a sovereign nation consisting of 176 coral and volcanic islands covering an area of the South Pacific that covers more than 270,000 square miles. Only 45 of these islands are inhabited, and more than 70% of its population lives on the largest island of Tongatapu.

Tonga is west of Niue, southwest of American Samoa, south of Samoa, southeast of Wallis and Futuna, and east of Fiji. Its nearest neighbor is Niue.

Tongatapu is situated in the southern group of islands. Its climate is cooler than the rest of Tonga. The nation's capital city, Nuku'alofa, is located on Tongatapu. The island is fairly flat, and has fertile, volcanic soil. Just off the northern coast of Tongatapu are several small islands and coral reefs. The first European visit to Tongatapu was in 1643, and Captain James Cook later introduced cattle to the island. Other significant islands in Tonga are Utu Vava'u, Eua, and Niuafo'ou.

Utu Vava'u is the largest of forty islands in the Vava'u island group. The island has a land area of about thirty-seven square miles. At its highest point, Mount Talau, Utu Vava'u is 430 feet above sea level. The climate is warmer on Utu Vava'u than in the rest of Tonga because it is in the northern part of the chain, so its vanilla bean and pineapple production is higher. Off of its south coast are several small islands and waterways.

The island of Eua is hilly, with its highest point, Funga Te'emoa, being 1,024 feet above sea level. Unlike other islands in Tonga, Although the top soil of Eua is volcanic, the island was not formed by volcanic activity but through the rubbing together of tectonic plates. There are several caves and holes in the surface of Eua, some of which have not been explored. It is the only island with a river. Eua is located in the south, near Tongatapu.

Niuafo'ou is the most northerly of the major Tongan islands. The island is an active volcano, and its inhabitants face the threat of volcanic eruption. Twenty-five people were killed in 1853 when lava flowed through the village of Ahau, and another eruption occurred in 1946, forcing the evacuation of its entire population. Vai Lahi, a crater lake on Niuafo'ou, is more than fourteen miles above sea level, and has three permanent island and a fourth that appears when water levels are low. On average, the lake is fifty-two miles deep.

The first inhabitants of the islands of Tonga were the Lapita people, who came from Southeast Asia by way of Melanesia, sometime between 3000 BC and 1300 BC, Tonga being one of the first Lapita settlements in Polynesia, if not the very first.

Although cannibalism was a part of the early history of Tonga, there is no evidence that it has been practiced since the early European explorations, when several Christian missionaries found themselves being served as the main course. It is unknown whether cannibalism was a religious practice or a simple result of there being a lack of meat. Early Tongans practiced an ancient Polynesian religion but since they had no written language, our knowledge of these practices is limited to myths and stories that have been passed down.

Tonga was visited by Dutch explorers in 1616, but there were no other recorded contacts until 1643. Captain James Cook, who came in 1773, referred to the islands as the "Friendly Islands" because he and his crew received a congenial welcome from islanders, who invited them to a feast. However, an Englishman by the name of William Mariner, who lived in Tonga from 1806 to 1810, wrote that the chiefs had intended to kill Cook, but couldn't agree on a plan. Tonga was not frequently visited by Europeans, perhaps because the difficulty of navigating its numerous islands and shallow reef systems.

There were visits, however, and they weren't always friendly. Before settling on Pitcairn Island, the crew of mutineers from the HMS Bounty were stoned when they landed on the island of Tofua, and one sailor was killed before they made their escape. In 1806, Tongans massacred nearly the whole crew of the British warship, Port au Prince, while it sat at anchor off of Lifuka, burning the ship. The writer referred to above, William Mariner, was one of the few survivors.

Although some missionaries were killed, large numbers of islanders were eventually converted to Christianity. The first missionaries were Wesleyans, and today the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga is the state religion, although only about a third of the population claims that as their religion. Nearly 98% of Tongans claim Christianity as their religion, however. Mission schools provide for most of the education on the islands. Today, Tonga has a literacy rate of nearly 99%, and many Tongans achieve higher education, although mostly pursued overseas.

 

 

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