Taniela Vao and the art of time travel
It was a pleasure when Taniela Vao, political scientist, scholar of Tongan history, lay minister in the Free Wesleyan Church, pig breeder, and activist in his country's thriving Democratic Party, dropped into my son's second birthday recently. Taniela was near the end of a short visit to the chilly, traffic-snarled city of Auckland, and looking forward to getting back to the plantation and burgeoning piggery he maintains in the countryside outside the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa.
Last year Taniela and I spent a lot of time drinking kava and talking about the history of his beloved home village of Pea, which sits about ten minutes' drive south of Nuku'alofa on the southwest shores of Fanga'uta lagoon and has a well-deserved reputation for rebellion.
I persuaded Taniela to give me and some of the students in my sociology paper a guided tour of Pea that turned quickly into an exercise in time travel. As he walked us around the edges of a once-impregnable but now invisible fortress wall, stood proudly beside the piles of coral dust that were the only marker of the grave of a great warrior, and gestured at a fence where heads had once been impaled and displayed, Taniela recounted stories he had collected for decades in the kava houses of his village.
After talking with Taniela recently in Auckland I dug out these notes on Pea, which I had handed to my students before we visited the village.
For centuries European societies treated Jews as an ‘Other’ group. One of the movies we watched argued that drug addicts were being treated as an ‘Other’ in contemporary America. In class we heard suggestions that, in present-day Tonga, fakalete have become an ‘Other’ group.
After taking control of Vava’u and Ha’apai in the 1830s, Tupou I began to try to bring his authority and his Wesleyan religion to Tongatapu. Nuku’alofa’s waterfront fort was renamed Mount Zion, and became Tupou’s stronghold on Tongatapu. But many of the chiefs of Tongatapu resented and resisted Tuopu. They looked for authority not to Nuku’alofa, a place with little traditional importance, but to Mu’a, the ancient but decaying capital of the Tongan Empire, where descendants of the Tu’i Tonga line still amongst the monumental tombs of their ancestors. For most of the 1830s the rebellious Tongatapu chiefs maintained their pagan practices, visiting godhouses for advice from shaman-priests and staging elaborate semi-nude dances and boxing fights that upset Tupou I and his Wesleyan missionary advisors.
Tupou I built five forts within shooting distance of Pea and settled down to wait for the village to surrender. After several months Lavaka and Ma’afu, the two principal chiefs of Pea, went to Nuku’alofa to negotiate an end to their rebellion. While they were away Tupou I’s army made a sneak attack on Pea. The gate of the village’s fort had been left unguarded, and the royalist troops were able to pour inside and take the Peans by surprise.
Some Peans resent the way that the Free Wesleyans have built a very large church on their village’s main street. Because it sits on top of part of the site of the village’s fort, and because it overshadows the local Catholic church, the Wesleyan church is seen as a rude message to Pea from the Tongan establishment. The people of Pea feel that Tonga’s government neglects them when it spends money. They contrast the rutted dirt roads in their village with the smooth tar of Hihifo, a district closely associated with Tupou I and his descendants.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]