Sunday, April 26, 2020

Why build a fort?

'Ata is a tiny, remote island with virtually no reef and almost impossibly sheer cliffs. Why, then, would its inhabitants build a fort? Archaeologist David Burley is one of the few living humans to have visited 'Ata. In an article for the Matangi Tonga website, he cites my book The Stolen Island, & suggests it might hold an answer to the puzzle of the fort.

'Ata was evacuated after a raid by NZ & Tasmanian slavers in 1863. Its people had lived in a village called Kolomaile, in the island's tiny interior plateau. Burley excavated their pottery & adzes, but he was puzzled by the fort known as Kolomaile Kolota, which was thirty metres by thirty metres in size, and took up precious land that could have been used for gardens or fale.

Burley turns to an 1854 article by anti-imperialist journalist Charles St Julian, which I quoted in The Stolen Island. After describing how Wesleyan war king Tupou I had unified Tonga, St Julian called 'Ata a last redoubt of heathenism. St Julian said the island's religion was an irritant for Tupou I, & predicted the king would try to 'convert' its people.

By the time 'Ata was raided & depopulated in 1863, the island boasted a church. John Thomas, the stern missionary who converted Tupou I in the '20s, even visited the place to hold a service. Did Tupou I take 'Ata by force, & did the inhabitants build a fort to resist him?

In the late medieval era Tonga was the centre of a maritime empire. By the time Tupou I took power, though, decades of civil war had fragmented the realm. Peter Suren, who has studied the remote northern island of Niuafo'ou, believes it was reconquered by Tupou I in the 1850s. In the 1860s & early '70s Tupou's cousin Ma'afu made a determined & almost successful attempt to take Fiji for Tonga.

Tupou I is still seen as a saint by Tonga's Wesleyan ruling class, & Burley has suggested rather than stated outright that he conquered 'Ata. But the idea doesn't seem far fetched. In 2013 the Tongan historian Taniela Vao gave me a memorable tour of his village of Pea, a pagan stronghold that Tupou I besieged & conquered in 1852. Taniela left me in no doubt about the Wesleyan king's determination, & about the ferocity of his army.

Burley's article is one of a series he's been writing for Matangi Tonga about archaeology and the Friendly Islands. Each of his pieces makes fascinating reading. It is a pleasure to see an archaeologist, whose academic work necessarily uses esoteric language & arcane diagrams, writing for a popular audience.