Story: Tongans

Page 1. Migrations

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Who are the Tongans?

Tongans are the original inhabitants of the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific. According to archaeological and linguistic research, they are the descendants of people who left Fiji and other parts of Melanesia to settle West Polynesia, including Tonga, some 3,000 or more years ago.

In the beginning

Taking the form of a plover, the god Tangaloa ‘Atulongolongo descended from the sky onto an uninhabited island. The bird pecked a maggot growing in a creeper into three parts, and from these grew three men – the first Tongan men. Then the demigod Maui fetched women from Pulotu, the underworld, to be their wives. Their descendants multiplied and became the Tongan people.

Europeans and Tongan culture

The first European sighting of Tonga was made by the Dutch explorers Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire. Captain James Cook, who named Tonga ‘the Friendly Islands’, stayed for three months in 1777. English Methodist missionaries arrived in the 1820s, devising the first Tongan written language and teaching Christian values and beliefs. From this time onwards the Tongan way, or anga faka-Tonga, evolved as a mixture of traditional beliefs and Christian values.

Important strands of anga faka-Tonga are faka‘apa‘apa (respect), talangofua (obedience), fakaongoongo (waiting and listening for instructions), and ‘ofa (reciprocal sharing and helping).

A word from Captain Cook

While in Tonga, Captain James Cook heard frequent use of the Tongan word tapu (prohibited), in connection with the sacredness of high-ranking people. He wrote the word in his journal as ‘taboo’. Since then, it has become part of the English language.

Early migrants

Although Tongans have travelled to New Zealand for over 100 years, there were very few arrivals before the 1940s. The late Queen Sālote, known throughout the world for her participation in Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, often visited New Zealand, and a few Tongans were brought over to look after her. She also brought some relatives and the children of chiefs to be educated. Some of these early visitors got married in New Zealand, and others found work.

People seeking work

In the 1960s more Tongans arrived on temporary permits to take up work opportunities. Some came to learn trades, and others were brought to study professions in tertiary institutions, such as teaching, nursing and medicine. After their permits expired, some returned to Tonga but many remained in New Zealand illegally. At the 1971 census there were a total of 1,273 Tongans in New Zealand.

In the early 1970s short-term contractual agreements between New Zealand and Tonga brought an influx of unskilled workers. Most came for economic reasons, in particular to help the family by sending remittances back home. Once again, some Tongans stayed on when their contracts ended.

From 1974, with a downturn in the economy, the government took a tougher stance on Pacific Islanders who had overstayed their visas. There were random street checks of Pacific people, and dramatic confrontations known as the ‘dawn raids’, by police seeking overstayers. Some Tongans moved on to Australia. In 1976 there was a tala‘ofa (amnesty), and many were granted permanent residence. By this time there were enough Tongans in New Zealand to conduct church get-togethers in the Tongan language.

Migration since 1975

Migration for economic reasons continued in the late 1970s and 1980s, and by 1986 the Tongan population in New Zealand had reached 13,600. In 1986–87 a temporary visa waiver was introduced for entry from Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, and many Tongans took advantage of it. Since then their community has become the fastest growing in New Zealand, largely because of a birth rate twice as high as the national average.

By 2013 Tongan people constituted the third-largest Pacific ethnic group in New Zealand – 60,336 people, or 20% of New Zealand’s Pacific population. 35,385 of these were born in New Zealand. The Pacific Access Category, an immigration quota started in 2002, enables 250 Tongans to be granted permanent residence each year.

How to cite this page:

Melenaite Taumoefolau, 'Tongans - Migrations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 March 2018)

Story by Melenaite Taumoefolau, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 25 Mar 2015