For whatever reason there is often a romance that surrounds royal states, but it is many times one that also masks internal divisions, and the Kingdom of Tonga is no exception.
Propagandists from the nation will call it the only remaining “Pacific Kingdom” (true), as well as insisting that all people love the royal family and things are going great (less true).
Background to the Kingdom of Tonga
Apparently lineage to the crown in Tonga goes back to the 15th century, as well as being from the same family, with the King essentially being a modern inaction of the Tongan tribal chief.
Under said family Tonga once ruled everything from New Caledonia down to the Solomon Islands, as well as Fiji and Samoa. A point our Pyongyangesuque guide was keen to point out “Much of our best sites were built by Fijian and Samoan slaves” – seemingly having not gotten the memo that slavery is looked down upon a bit these days.
During colonial times Tonga claims to have been the only country in the region never to have been taken over, although they did have a 70 year “treaty of friendship” with the UK, as well as modern day junior relationship with Australia, although not to Nauru levels.
The Modern Kingdom of Tonga
If we count from the end of the treaty with the UK then Tonga remained an absolute monarchy from 1970-2010, over which time it had many problems, such as the royals wasting a lot of money and protesting “commoners” who felt quite rightly that they were being under-represented.
This led according to our guide on the formation of the constitutional monarchy, although as Wikipedia puts it slightly better a semi-constitional monarchy.
In practice this means a 27 member parliament where 16 are elected by commoners, whilst 9 are elected by a 32 person “nobility”. This ensures not only the king all, but retaining power, but also that the constitution would never get changed due to a 2/3 majority being all, but impossible. A move straight out of the Thai and Myanmar school of politics.
You could argue the UK is similar with the House of Lords, but that would be a stretch.
The Kingdom of Tonga in 2024
So, does the Kingdom of Tonga work in 2024? The simple answer would be yes and no and indeed depends on who you ask. Our guide for example, who we shall call “Comrade Kim” had the following take after being asked about the nobility;
“What you do not understand is that this is our culture, we share everything, so it does not matter of there is a nobility as we are all Tongan”.
We will ignore the obvious questions this brings up, but will point out out a few points. Said guide was quite wealthy and a member of the Royal band and he had also showed us the palace gifted to the princess on her 21st birthday. I’m assuming it is not communal……
Things though are far from awful and indeed while many surely are happy with the King, much like Bhutan, there’s not as much Gross Domestic Happiness in Tonga than meets the eye.
And according to our hosts at least this makes it even more interesting to visit with Comrade Kim stating “We are not a country, we are the Kingdom of Tonga” – although I guess it depends on your take on things…
You can check out the Kingdom of Tonga on our Least Visited Countries Tour.