[I blogged a few months ago about Tevita Manu'atu
, an 'Atenisi Institute student who has been finishing his Bachelors degree by undertaking a detailed study of Kala'au, a village on the isolated southwest coast of Tongatapu. Tevita produced an outline history of Kala'au last semester, using as his raw material a series of interviews with his village's elderly people. Tevita's history noted the religious diversity of Kala'au. Despite its tiny size, the village is today home to members of many different denominations of Christianity.
This semester I've been asking Tevita to test the material he has gathered against the academic literature on Tonga and similar societies. I've thrown him a series of texts and references, and asked him whether they illuminate or contradict the facts he has gathered in his village. Here are some notes I gave Tevita this week.]
stated that you would like to analyse Kala’au society using the methods of FutaHelu and Futa Helu’s great inspiration, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesos. I want to discuss a study of religious life in another Tongan village, because I think this study features the sort of method you want to deploy.
First, though, let's talk quickly about the method Futa Helu got from Heraclitus. Heraclitus
is often seen as the father of dialectics, because he emphasised what is
sometimes called the contradictory unity of the world. According to Heraclitus, or at least Futa Helu's interpretation of Heraclitus, the world is made up of an almost infinite number of
interconnecting parts and processes. Everything affects everything else, at one
time and in one way or another.
Despite all this interconnection, the world does
not, according to Helu and Heraclitus, exist in any sort of harmony. Different parts and processes of reality
clash with one another, and these clashes create perpetual change.
A quick example of contradictory unity: class and capitalism
concretise the vision of the world as a contradictory unity by considering the
composition of a typical Western capitalist society. Such a society is broken into
classes, whose members are defined by the way they make their living. A small
class of people possess and live off capital goods, like factories and businesses, and invested money.
Members of a much larger group of people known as the working class make their
living by working for the businesses owned by the capitalist class. A ‘middle
class’ made up of ‘professionals’ like lawyers and doctors and small business
owners sits between the two most important classes in society.
the capitalist class and the working class have often been in conflict. The
working class has formed trade unions and political parties to demand better
wages and salaries and better social services from the capitalist class, which
has run its own competing business associations and political parties. Election
campaigns generally see a party supported by the workers clashing with a party
favoured primarily by the capitalist class. In extreme situations conflict between workers
and capitalists has exploded into strikes, riots, and even revolutions. The
middle class has tended to vacillate between the two more important classes,
siding at one time with the capitalist class and at another time with the
Western societies are unified by the
fact that all of their social components – all of their classes – are related
to and dependent on one another. Capitalists need workers to operate their
businesses; workers need capitalists to pay their wages and salaries. But, as
dialecticians like to remind us, unity does not mean harmony. Capitalists and
workers are constantly in conflict. It is this continual conflict which
The Beagleholes and the mystery of Tongan churching
we’ve gotten a clear notion of what contradictory unity means, let us leave the
West and return to Tonga. I want to suggest that some of the most interesting studies of
Tonga have a dialectical quality, because they treat Tongan society as
a contradictory unity.
I think that Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole’s discussion of the role of religion in the life
of the Vava’uan village of Pangai has a dialectical quality which might have
pleased Futa Helu. You have read an excerpt from the Beagleholes' short book Pangai: Village in Tonga, which was based on a few months of field work done in 1938 and 1939.
As you have seen, the Beagleholes analyse a feature of Tongan
village society which has puzzled many palangi visitors, and which frustrates
some Tongans. They try to explain the way that even the smallest Tongan village
is home to outposts of a variety of churches. In Pangai, which was a very
modestly sized village when the Beagleholes came visiting, four
churches – the Free Wesleyans, the Church of Tonga, the Free Church of Tonga,
and the Catholics – had buildings of their own where they held regular services, and a number of other religious organisations, like the
Mormons, had followers, but hadn’t yet established places of worship.
I remember you telling me that, as a curious teenager, you decided to do a 'church tour' of Tongatapu, and experience a service by every denomination active on the island. That adventure took a long time to complete! Many palangi tourists are astonished by the number and size of the churches that rise from even the smallest and remote villages on Tongatapu.
It is important
for us to remember that not every South Pacific society features the sort of religious
diversity found in Tonga. Although Samoa is home to a number of different
Christian denominations, many Samoan villages boast only a single church. It is normal for
every member of a village to attend the same church, and in some villages
residents who do not attend church regularly can be fined. There have been
cases, even in recent years, of Samoans who have converted to a religious
denomination not represented in their village being forced to leave that
Horowitz's gambit: Tonga as Texas
scholars have ascribed the religious diversity of Tonga to the supposed history
of the country. Maikolo Horowitz, for instance, has called Tonga ‘the Texas of
the South Pacific’, because of what he regards as the extreme individualism of its
Horowitz thinks that, because Tonga is made up of a large number of
relatively small islands, Tongans were historically able to solve social
conflicts through emigration. A group of Tongans who found themselves in
conflict with authority could ‘up sticks’, sail across a lagoon or a relatively
short stretch of open ocean, and found a new village on a new island. Horowitz thinks that the
supposed fluidity of ancient Tongan society has left its mark on contemporary
Tongans, by making them respond to social conflict by seceding from one
organisation and starting another. It is not surprise, for Horowitz, that
Tongan boasts so many churches, and that these churches are so prone to splits.
It seems to
me that there are a couple of problems with Maikolo Horowitz’s explanation for
religious diversity in Tonga. As Patrick Vinton Kirch, Sione Latukefu, ‘Opeti
Taliai, and numerous other scholars have shown, ancient Tongan society was
highly centralised, and featured a large class of tu’a who had very few rights
and little mobility. Ancient Tongan society was also relatively densely
populated - Kirch estimates that Tongatapu was filled to capacity a thousand
years ago – and so the opportunity to ‘up
sticks’ and settle somewhere new would have been limited, even if the would-be
settlers had managed to evade the control of central authority.
talk about the fluidity and disunity of Tongan society also fails to explain
the stability which has marked much of modern Tongan history. Between 1852,
when Tupou I captured and burnt Pea, the last stronghold of his heathen
enemies, and 2006, when the enemies of Tupou’s descendants burnt downtown
Nuku’alofa to the ground, Tonga saw little or no violent social conflict. How
could this be, if Tongans are as relentlessly fractious as Horowitz claims? It
seems to me that Horowitz’s claims about Tongan society over-emphasise
contradiction, at the expense of unity.
The dialectics of religious diversity
As you have seen, Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole explain the religious diversity of Pangai by
arguing that the competing churches allow for competing personalities in the
village to at once express and solve their conflicts.
The Beagleholes discuss a
Catholic who falls out with other Catholics over their alleged theft of melons
from his fields, and expresses his disgust with them by leaving the church and
becoming a Wesleyan. They cite the case of the very argumentative
amateur theologian, whose idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible cause
conflicts with his fellow worshippers, conflicts which are solved, albeit temporarily,
whenever he shifts church. And the Beagleholes mention those men from Wesleyan
families who, wanting to differentiate themselves from their peers and to
acquire what seems like them esoteric knowledge, shift their allegiance to the
In a small village set in a relatively remote part of what was, in the late 1930s, a profoundly
undemocratic society, competing churches provide malcontents and dissenters
with a way of expressing their sense of difference and dissatisfaction.
churches of Pangai are not only a means to rebellion – they also, according to
Beagleholes, allow for the regulation of conflict. By shifting church, the
person angry with his or her former social circle can acquire a new circle of
friends, and leave behind old conflicts. By leaving the church of their family,
the young and dissatisfied man or women can rebel without - usually - seriously disturbing
the social order or attempting to enter the restricted realm of politics. For
Beaglehole, then, the religious diversity of Pangai, and by extension Tonga in
general, has a dialectical quality. It both expresses and - at least sometimes - manages social
conflict, and divides as well as unites Tongan society. It offers a lesson in contradictory unity.
the Beaglehole’s' study was made more than seven decades ago, and it needs to be
examined in the light of more recent research, including texts like Niel Gunson’s examinations of Tonga's Christian present and shamanic past, ‘Opeti Taliai's PhD thesis, which
argues that Christianity has been, in Tonga, a
‘totalitarian’ religion, Nico Besnier’s discussion of the rise of ‘charismatic’
churches like the Tokaikolo Fellowship in Tonga, Giovanni Bennardo’s recent and
very detailed neuroscientific studies of the worldviews of Tongan villagers, and your own research in Kala’au.
Some questions to consider:
Does the Beagleholes' account of religious life
in Pangai have relevance in Kala’au today? Do the churches in your village
express and regulate social conflict in the way the Beagleholes describe?
Are the Beagleholes exponents of dialectical analysis?
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]