Tonga was inhabited 3,000 years ago. The country is a very old Polynesian monarchy – its royal family goes back more than 1,000 years – with an old and well-developed social and political system. Occasional Europeans visited it from early in the 1600s: it was sighted by the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman in 1643 and later visited by the British explorer Captain James Cook. The first larger-scale arrival was in 1826, when Wesleyan missionaries landed and began a highly successful conversion campaign. Civil wars raged between Christian and non-Christian factions until Taufa’ahau Tupou, ruler of the island of Ha’apai and a Christian convert, gained control of and united the islands, becoming, in 1845, King George Tupou I (1845–93) and adopting the country’s first constitution.
Tonga was never a British colony. In 1900, the King agreed a treaty of friendship with Britain, which gave Britain control of foreign affairs, and kept Tonga free from other predatory powers. The treaty was frequently revised until May 1970, when Tonga became fully independent.
King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV succeeded his mother, Queen Salote Tupou III, on her death in 1965.
From 1990 a pro-democracy movement gathered strength, challenging Tonga’s political system which endeavoured to combine its 1,000 year-old feudal system with democracy. Elections did not result in any changes in the executive and only a small number of members of the Legislative Assembly were elected. The country did not, in consequence, have a developed party political system.
Tonga’s first-ever political party, the People’s Party, was formed in 1994 out of the pro-democracy movement. In the 1996 elections four of the nine people’s seats were won by pro-democracy candidates and leading democracy campaigner ’Akilisi Pohiva had a convincing majority in his constituency.
In January 1999 the People’s Party held a four-day convention on constitutional change and, with the new name of Human Rights and Democracy Movement (HRDM), it went into the elections of March 1999 with the hope of raising its numbers in the assembly from the six seats they then controlled. In the event they won only five of the nine people’s seats.
In April 1999 former Prime Minister (1965–91) and brother of King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, Prince Fatafehi Tu’ipelehake, died. In January 2000, the King appointed his younger son, Prince ’Ulukalala Lavaka-Ata, to replace Baron Vaea as Prime Minister.
In October 2001, the country was rocked by financial scandal resulting in the resignation of two ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister. More than US$20 million – the proceeds of the sale of Tongan citizenship in the 1980s – had been placed in June 1999 with a company in the USA that had apparently disappeared.