Looking for trouble in Tonga: a reply to Vomiting Diamonds
Anyway, where does class exploitation and resistance fits in to all this? It seems to me it's a bit in the background in all this somewhat abstract discussion of modes of production.
Diamonds makes a fair point. I do give the impression, in my previous blog post and in certain other posts I have made about modern Tonga, that rulers like King Tupou I and Queen Salote operated completely independently of any pressure from social forces. In my last post I praised documents like the Emancipation Edict of 1862 and the of 1875 Constitution as historically progressive, yet gave the impression that they were the doing of Tupou, and Tupou alone, rather than the achievement of the sort of popular movement which is usually responsible for the success of progressive social measures.
Every society is a mixture of cohesion and conflict, but social scientists tend to disagree about whether the conflict or the cohesion is more worthy of study. Marxist historians, with their belief in the ubiquity and importance of class struggle, are likely to be disappointed with the emphases made by some of the leading scholars of the Tongan past.
The two pioneering scholars of nineteenth and twentieth century Tongan history are Ian Campbell and Sione Latukefu. In his book Island Kingdom: Tonga Ancient and Modern Campbell brings together findings from archaeological digs, the scribblings of early European visitors to the Pacific, and a lot of economic data to create a lucid narrative of Tongan history. Latukefu, a Methodist minister as well as an academic, spent decades interviewing Tongans about the histories of their families, villages, and churches, and was thus able to escape the Eurocentrism of many palangi commentators on his society.
criminalised youth, and inhabitants of isolated outer islands.
Campbell and Latukefu often give the impression that the course of Tongan history has been determined by a handful of great men and women. Island Kingdom includes a couple of fascinating chapters on Tupou I's reforms of Tongan society, but these chapters leave us with the impression that these changes came about because of the wisdom of Tupou I and his close adviser, the Wesleyan missionary Shirley Baker, rather than because of anything the mass of Tongans said or did.
But there are hints in some of the work of younger scholars about how the limitations of Campbell and Latukefu might be surmounted.
In his book Tonga in Crisis the anthropologist and poet 'Okusitino Mahina compares the pro-democracy protests which culminated in the riot that razed half of Nuku'alofa in November 2007 with events in the nineteenth century:
[T]he introduction of Codes of Law beginning with the Vava'u Code in 1839, followed by the 1862 Emancipation Edict and the promulgation of the 1875 Constitution...were the direct results of major political upheavals that threw the whole of Tonga into some fifty years of bloody Civil Wars...Characterised by bloodshed, burning and destruction, these political and religious conflicts, which culminated in the promulgation of the 1875 Constitution, raise some serious questions. Should we embrace the 1875 Constitution and treat the political violence that led to its formation as a complete disgrace? Or, should we embrace the political violence and regard the Constitution as a total disgrace?
If we wanted to flesh out Mahina's claims ourselves, we could do worse than deploy a technique EP Thompson developed during his researches into nineteenth and eighteenth century English history. Thompson was a man who spent decades railing against attempts to portray British society as traditionally cohesive rather than conflict-ridden, and who insisted that history had to be seen from the 'bottom up', through the eyes of subaltern groups, as well as through the narratives left by Prime Ministers and diplomats and generals.
As he worked his way through stodgy official histories, old government reports, and yellowing court records, Thompson learned to read between the lines of his material: to 'listen' for the voices of marginalised and unfashionable individuals and groups. By attending to the oversights of official histories, and the lacunae in supposedly exhaustive documents, Thompson was able to reveal another side to his country's history.
I want to suggest how the Thompsonian technique might be applied to Tongan history by pointing to what I think is a significant silence in standard accounts of one of the most important phases of the country's nineteenth century civil wars.
After subduing all of his native Ha'apai archipelago in central Tonga, Tupou moved north, and took control of the Vava'u Islands. Soon Tupou was fighting on Tongatapu, the large southern island which has usually dominated Tonga. As the site of the traditional Tongan capital of Mu'a and tens of thousands of hectares of rich plantations, Tongatapu was indispensable to Tupou.
In 1835 a handful of Tongatapu chiefs converted from paganism to Christianity, and established, with the help of a few British missionaries, a fortified settlement around a church in Nuku'alofa, on the northern coast of the island. Tupou arrived with an army in 1837, after pagan forces besieged the little outpost of Christendom. Tupou's troops relieved the siege, and made a series of attacks on pagan villages in the interior of Tongatapu. As each village fell to the holy warriors, its people were slaughtered. Several historians have suggested that the missionaries in Nuku'alofa goaded Tupou into these massacres, by quoting some of the gorier passages of the Old Testament to him.
Although Tupou appeared to pacify much of Tongatapu in 1837, his rule was not accepted by the survivors of his invasion, and in 1840 he was forced to mount a new campaign against his pagan enemies.
During his second war for Tongatapu Tupou made a radical change in tactics. Gathering his army outside Kolovai, a pagan stronghold on the western tip of Tongatapu, he made a speech without precedent in Tongan history:
We did wrong in the last war when we did not fight as Christians; then our object was not to save but to destroy. Now, I tell you all that we must not fight in that way again. If the enemy come out of their fort tomorrow morning, every man must try to seize them, but not to shoot them, except in a case of life or death.
For a fortnight Tupou's army sat outside Kolovai's high earth walls, waiting for its enemies to surrender. The soldiers inside the fortress were mostly serfs, who had been compelled to take up arms by the chiefs whose lands they worked. As word of Tupou's speech reached them, they began to sneak out of the fortress. When Tupou finally advanced on Kolovai the fort's depleted garrison surrendered immediately.
After the fall of Kolovai, Tongatapu's pagan chiefs began peace talks with Tupou, and the war soon petered out. When another rebellion against his rule broke out on Tongatapu in 1852, Tupou used the tactic which had defeated his enemies at Kolovai. Once again, mass desertions took the wind out of the rebels. After 1852 Tupou never faced another armed uprising.
When we ponder these questions we need to remember the origins and development of feudalism on Tongatapu.
The Lapita people, the ancestors of today's Polynesians, brought a relatively egalitarian society with them when they colonised Tonga three thousand years ago. Based as it was on fishing and small-scale farming, the Lapita economy was incapable of generating the sort of surplus that could support a privileged and idle class.
Over millennia, though, Tongatapu's inhabitants developed a sophisticated and highly productive system of agriculture to support their growing population. A chiefly class rose to appropriate the surplus produced by this economy; priests and poets were deployed to justify and beautify the privileges of this new class. When Cook arrived on Tongatapu in 1773 he found a fantastically stratified society. Chiefs regarded the serfs who worked their estates as members of a different race, and denied that they had souls.
In 1839, after taking advice from some missionaries, Tupou had created the 'Vava'u Code', Tonga's first set of written laws. The Vava'u Code ordered chiefs to give their serfs a fair amount of land to farm for subsistence purposes, asserted the universality of human rights under Christianity, and demanded that every able-bodied Tongan perform useful work. The Vava'u Code foreshadowed the Emancipation Edict, which removed serfs from the control of chiefs, and the Constitution of 1875, which transferred chiefs' properties to the state. Although it was a modest document, compared to the reforms that were to come, the Vava'u Code nevertheless announced that Tupou would not tolerate some of the old excesses of the chiefs.
News of Tupou's Christian religion and his irreverent attitude toward some Tongan shibboleths would have preceded his arrival on Tongatapu. Is it possible that the willingness of the defenders of villages like Kolovai to capitulate to Tupou I was in part a declaration of no confidence in Tongatapu's local feudal class? Did Tupou, with his attacks on the privileges of the chiefs, his Christian rhetoric about the brotherhood of man, and his promise not to mistreat captured enemies, seem like a potential ally to some of Tongatapu's beleagured peasants? Is some sort of peasant rebellion hidden by conventional accounts of the 1840 and 1852 wars on Tongatapu?
[Posted by Maps/Scott]