Size isn't everything: or, why we should study Tongan history
Kiwi journalists often talked, though, about Samoa being 'granted' independence on June the 1st, 1962, as if freedom were some gift generously bestowed on the islanders by their white-skinned betters. In reality, of course, the Samoans only managed to reestablish control over their own affairs after a sixty-six year struggle against first German then New Zealand colonialists. In the course of this struggle protesters were gunned down on Apia streets, whole villages were burned, and roads were blockaded for years on end. Samoan freedom was won, not given.
Our media made another egregious error when it referred, again and again, to Samoa becoming 'the first independent Pacific nation' fifty years ago.
Last week, while parties were raging in Samoa, Tonga was quietly marking the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Edict created by the visionary King Tupou I.
After reunifying Tonga, which had suffered decades of war in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Tupou had in the 1850s set about giving his ancient nation modern institutions and laws. A convert to Methodism, Tupou had come to abhor his country's feudal lords, who clung to the pagan belief that the serfs who worked their land had no souls and no rights, and could thus be beaten or slain with impunity. After visiting Sydney and being shocked by the sight of homeless workers sleeping in parks, though, Tupou decided that capitalism was just as undesirable as feudalism.
a hybrid mode of production that was neither feudal nor capitalist. Serfdom was abolished, and every adult male Tongan was guaranteed a small parcel of land to work. The old feudal lords were turned into state-funded administrators of the land distribution system. Freedom of the press and of religion were guaranteed.
Tupou I's reforms won him strong support from a majority of his people, and helped to keep the country united during a time when imperialist powers like Britain, Germany, and America were trying to provoke Tongans into the sort of civil wars which were used to justify the advent of colonial rule in Fiji and Samoa.
It makes no sense for our journalists to refer to Samoa as the Pacific's first independent nation, when Tonga never lost its independence to colonialists. Sadly, though, both Kiwi journalists and Kiwis in general have a longstanding habit of either ignoring or ridiculing Tonga's record of uninterrupted autonomy.
Many Tongans see their country's royal family as a symbol of independence; for palangi Kiwis, though, it is a target for mockery. We salivate over the weddings and jubilee bashes of the Windsor and Grimaldi families, but turn into ardent Republicans as soon as we see a crown sitting on a Tongan head.
We are just as hypocritical when we mock Tonga's dependence on the money its sons and daughters send home from abroad. Remittances are certainly crucial to the Tongan economy, but it is hard to see the cash which flows home from the cities of New Zealand, Australia, and America as some sort of implicit critique of Tongan society.
In recent years New Zealand's politicians and social commentators have become increasingly agitated by the numbers of young Kiwis who leave the country to avoid paying back their student loans. These refugees from debt are pilloried as 'disloyal', told that they are breaking New Zealand law, and threatened from afar with all manner of punitive measures. Is it not remarkable that we have to pass legislation and crack knuckles to compel our young emigrants to wire some money home, when young Tongans routinely send cash back to their birthplace without any compulsion from the state? Surely the role of remittances in the Tongan economy is a positive reflection on that country, not a cause for ridicule?
As the Bee Gees pointed out, though, Size Isn't Everything. Tonga may be a very small nation, but it is also a non-white Pacific nation which avoided colonisation in the nineteenth century. That gives it a significance out of all proportion to its size.
Amongst nineteenth century Pakeha, the superiority of European civilisation over its darker-skinned rivals was regarded as self-evident, and the victory of the coloniser over the colonised was seen as inevitable.
Many of us might reject overt racism today, but the notion that the subordination of the Pacific to European and American rule was historically inevitable is much harder to jettison. As the British historian EP Thompson liked to point out, once a conflict has concluded in a certain way it is very tempting to believe that such a conclusion was inevitable. History is easily made into destiny.
Thompson liked to study peoples and events which showed, through their very existence, that history was not a uniform and inevitable process. He wrote about outfits like The Levellers, who tried to build a communist utopia in seventeenth century England, and events like the Swing Riots, which saw rural labourers briefly stop the Industrial Revolution in its tracks in 1830s England, because he believed they were windows through which we might see an alternative history.
Although it is a small society, Tonga offers us a window through which we can see an alternative history of the Pacific. Tupou I was, after all, only one of a clutch of leaders who tried to defeat the designs of European and American imperialists by building a strong modern society on Polynesia foundations. In Aotearoa, King Tawhiao created a thriving nation in the central regions of Te Ika a Maui, but was unable to unify Maoridom, which lacked Tonga's history of political unity, and was defeated in the Waikato War of 1863-65. Hawaii's King Kalakaua not only unified his own people but began building a sort of anti-imperialist empire in the Pacific, presenting himself as a defender of local interests against white colonialists, before eventually succumbing to American pressure. To examine Tonga's real history over the past century and a half is to get a better sense of how the histories of the Waikato and Hawa'ii may have turned out, had the dice fallen a different way.
But Tonga's history of independence is important for our understanding of the present, as well the past. If we assume that the Pacific and other peripheral parts of the world were destined to be dominated by the imperialist powers of Europe and North America in the nineteenth century, then it is all too easy to assume that the same domination is inevitable today.
Samoa may have long since won its political independence, but in recent years it has faced demands for neo-liberal 'economic reform' from American and Australasian governments and from organisations like the International Monetary Fund. Like the colonial administrators of old, the Western suits of the twenty-first century are demanding that the Samoans allow the foreign buy-up of their land and resources. Other Pacific governments have faced similar demands. The Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund have called on Tonga to 'reform' the land distribution system Tupou I set up, so that Tongan farmers no longer have security of tenure over soil allotted to them by the state. A massive report delivered last week by a Royal Land Commission contains somewhat similar suggestions.
The politicians and technocrats who advocate the breaking up of collectively-owned lands and the sale of resources to overseas investors typically couch their arguments in terms of historically inevitability. Like all neo-liberal ideologues, they insist that 'there is no alternative' to their policy prescriptions. But as EP Thompson and Tupou I showed in their different ways, history always contains alternatives. Tonga's successful resistance to colonisation in the nineteenth century should inspire those who want to resist neo-colonialism in the twenty-first century Pacific.
[Footnote/admission: I've been trying to design a sort of comparative course in Tongan-New Zealand history and culture lately, so this post is a sort of self-justification. I'll print an outline of the course, which is mostly an exercise in wish-fulfilment, later this week...]
[Posted by Maps/Scott]