Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tongan history

2008-09-03 to 11   Wednesday to Friday

Latitude 18.42.619S
Longitude 173.59.249W
Distance sailed: 13NM

Weather was awful for most of last week; finally saw the sun for a few hours Friday and Saturday.  Sunday we moved to what is commonly called Anchorage #11.  This is a very nice anchorage on the SW tip of Pangamotu, near the small island of Tapana.  This is the area where we celebrated a Tongan Feast and dance show when we visited in June 2002 – probably our favorite anchorage in the Vava’U Group.  But there are many other anchorages for us to visit.  Tonga is the best cruising place you can imagine.  Far better than the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.  Lots and lots of nearby destinations; you can either choose to anchor near other boats or find a quiet harbor all to yourself.  Topography is unique and sunsets are the most beautiful to be found anywhere in the world.

Saturday was our 39th wedding anniversary and we celebrated on the boat with champagne, smoked salmon and crab cakes – all things we brought from Panama.  Glad we had the forethought to provision well and to save the last and best bottle of champagne for our anniversary because none of these things are available here in Tonga.  The local stores sell only very basic foodstuffs; no cookies or candy or luxury items; in fact, not even things we would consider essentials.  Do not plan on provisioning in Tonga because there is very little to buy here in the way of food.  Lots and lots of baskets and various souvenir items are abundant however.  And very nice fresh local vegetables and fruits – again not a lot of the type vegetables that Bill and I like; just not into taro.

Sunday morning I realized that it was again our 39th wedding anniversary because we are now a day ahead of the time zone in which we were married.  At least I think that logic applies.  This day-ahead stuff gets me a little confused.

Yesterday we were visited by an old Tongan woman, her husband and grandson.  She was selling carved bone necklaces and woven baskets and carved wooden gods.  She asked me if I had anything to trade.  So she got the last 4 kid’s tee-shirts that I had bought in Cartagena to give away in the San Blas Islands, along with some sewing needles, fish hooks, crayons, milk and homemade oatmeal cookies.  And in return she gave me a carved god of Peace.  This little god has another name but I could not understand what she was saying.  She also invited us to attend a festival in her village on October 1 at the Catholic Church.  If we are in this area on Oct 1 then we might attend.  The church services here in Tonga are supposed to be something really special with very beautiful singing and the guide books say that if you are lucky enough to be invited that you should not miss it.

Today we sailed back to the main harbor of Neiafu.  Last Saturday we went on a mission to find Diet Coke or some kind of sugar-free cola.  I enjoy one diet cola each afternoon while Bill drinks his daily 2 beers, and was down to my last 6-pack.  After visiting a half-dozen poorly stocked stores we finally found a case at one of the Chinese food stores, but the guy wanted 250 pa’anga for a single case of Coke Zero!  That was about $135 USD for a single case of Coke!!!  No way we would pay that ridiculous amount.  But a cargo ship arrived a couple of days ago and we heard that Coke Zero was now available in several of the small stores, so it was worth the 10- mile trip back to the main harbor.  Sure enough, we scrounged all the stores and managed to buy 2 cases of Coke Zero; so now I am provisioned for a couple of months with my treat.  We bought the last 2 cases available on this island.  Glad we didn’t wait another day to make the trip back to town.  This time each case cost only 48 pa’anga, about $25 USD; a much more reasonable price.  The Chinese guy last week who wanted $135 for that case of soft drink knew he had the last case available to sell on the entire island and was price gouging.

Tonight we joined our friends on S/V FREE SPIRIT to celebrate their arrival in Tonga with the “Palmerston survivors.”  Five or six boats were caught in horrible weather for over a week while anchored or moored at Palmerston.  One of the boats was S/V FLAME; Paul and Diane were line-handlers for our boat when we transited the Panama Canal.  It was great to seen them all again.  The anchorage at Palmerston is totally exposed off the reef outside the atoll; there is no protection from the sea at all.  A tropical depression moved through the area while they were there with winds up to 40 knots and seas up to 6 ½ meters.  And they had to ride it out for an entire week.  Several boats broke off their moorings during the worst of it one night; some were damaged and some managed to move out to sea and stay out until daylight.  The whole ordeal sounds very unpleasant but they had no choice because it was 600 miles to any sheltered anchorage.  Then their passage from Palmerston to Tonga was in very hight seas and most unpleasant.  We told them they should all have tee-shirts printed saying “I survived Palmerston.”  It was a fun evening and we are very glad everyone arrived here safely.

A bit about Tonga:

One legend tells that the Tongan islands were fished out of the sea by the mighty Polynesian god Tangaloa.  Another story has Tonga plucked from the ocean by the demigod Maui, a temperamental hero well-known throughout the Pacific.  I am not sure how these “legends” evolved since Tonga was inhabited centuries before Polynesia developed and long before the idea of Maui was even conceived.

It is generally accepted that the first inhabitants of Tonga arrived from Samoa.  Historians have surmised that about 2000 BC the people of what is called the Lapita culture pushed east from the Malluca area.  By 1300 BC, via island Melanesia, they had reached Fiji and soon spread to Tonga and Samoa.  From Samoa and Tonga the Polynesian culture emerged over the next 1000 years as people continued to move east to Marquesas (300 A.D.) and south all the way to Easter Island (800 A.D.) and to New Zealand (850 A.D.) and north to Hawaii (400 A.D.)

The Kingdom of Tonga is the last operational monarchy in the world – and that is changing at this very moment.  The royal family traces its ancestry as monarchs back to around 1000 A.D.   The King of Tonga was known as Tu’i Tonga.  It is amazing that the royal line has remained unbroken for such a long time – more than 40 kings from the same family.  During the early years of the Kingdom the Tongans were often aggressive colonizers, extending their empire over eastern Fiji, Niue and northward as far as the Samoas and Tokelau.  Tongan warriors occasionally raided as far as the Solomon Islands 2700 kilometers away.  For sometime there also has been a modified form of Parliamentary government in place in Tonga, but the King still had the final say in everything.  The King’s word could not be questioned.

In 1831 missionaries baptized the ruling Tu’i Tonga, who took the Christian name George. As King George Tupou I, he united all the Tongan islands and with the help of Reverend Shirley Baker came up with a national flag, a state seal and national anthem, and then began drafting a constitution.  This constitution passed in 1875.  It included a bill of rights, a format for legislative and judicial procedures, laws for succession to the throne and a section on land tenure.  This constitution is also responsible for Tonga’s heavily Christian laws today.

The second King George Tupou II died at the age of 45 in 1918 and his 18-year-old daughter Salote became Queen of Tonga.  Queen Salote’s son, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, brought about the re-establishment of full sovereignty for Tonga on June 4, 1970.  The constitution and nominal Parliamentary government remained in effect, but the King was again all-powerful.  The King appoints the prime minister and the cabinet.  Tonga holds regular elections but the system ensures that the 9 “People’s Representatives” elected by commoners have virtually no influence.  There are no political parties in Tonga.  As in any parliament, there are debates and votes, but in reality it is simply a rubber stamp for legislation driven by the royal family.  The prime minister and the cabinet appointed by the King serve at his pleasure, so they either do what he wants or they are replaced by someone who will.

King Tupou IV also brought about a number of notable accomplishments: two of which were admission to the Commonwealth of Nations and admission to the UN.  However, many of his economic decisions have been questionable.  His association with a series of ill-advised schemes generated much private grumbling among Tongans and a lot of unkind attention from the world’s press, which portrayed him as an autocratic buffoon.  One scheme was a plan to import and refine crude oil from Iran for shipment around the Pacific; if you could see the layout of these islands and total lack of infrastructure then you would realize how ridiculous this scheme sounds.  Another environmentally-worrying scheme was to burn used tires from the United States to generate energy.  He also fell for a scheme to build a floating city on Minerva Reef; luckily this plan was abandoned.  The most unusual was his involvement with Korean cultists who convinced him they had a machine that could convert seawater into natural gas.

By far the most damaging dent to the King’s reputation actually grew from one of his more financially successful ventures – the selling of Tongan citizenship to Chinese, which raised 30 million Tongan dollars (currency is called pa’anga).  The funds raised by this venture were placed into the Tongan Trust Fund.  The King was persuaded to invest 20 million Tongan dollars in some very questionable US companies by Bank of America “financial advisor” Jesse Bogdonoff.  Mr. Bogdonoff then moved to Tonga and convinced the King to appoint him as Tonga’s official Court Jester.  The money vanished and Tonga stopped laughing.  Mr. Bogdonoff was either an opportunistic swindler or a mid-level bank employee way out of his depth.  He protested his innocence.  The Tongan government said he is a thief.  Either way, Tonga has lost the money.  One of Mr. Bogdonoff’s previous occupations was selling magnets for back pain.  That tidbit should help you form an opinion as to his qualifications to be a financial advisor for Bank of America.

Queen Salote’s son, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, died about 2 years ago; and his younger brother is the current King Tupou (don’t know his given name). The newest King announced several weeks ago that The Kingdom of Tonga will change to an operational Parliamentary form of government.  I do not know the actual date that this becomes effective, but the locals say this is a very welcome change.  Local opinion is that it is time for the citizens of Tonga to have a real voice in governmental affairs.  After all, with today’s technology Tonga is not the isolated groups of islands that it once was.  Tongans are very pro-democracy

When we chartered in Vava’U in June 2002 we obviously flew here.  The trip involved several flights.  First international flight was from Los Angeles to Fiji via Air Pacific.  The next 3 flights were via Royal Tongan Airlines:  Fiji to Tongatapu; Tongatapu to Ha’apai; Ha’apai to Vava’U.  Nuku’alofa, Tongatapu is the capital city of all Tonga and the King’s official residence is located there.   Our plane was suddenly diverted as we were in the process of landing in Nuku’alofa.  There was no announcement and we asked the flight attendant why the landing attempt was aborted.  She called up to the cockpit and started giggling.  Turned out that the 80-year-old King liked to jog.  His favorite place to jog was the airport.  Our flight’s landing was aborted because the old King was jogging on the runway.  His country; his airline; his airport.  If he wanted to jog on the runway that was his prerogative and all planes must wait for him to finish.

Guess that attitude will be changing now that there will be a new form of government.

The Kingdom of Tonga consists of 171 islands grouped into 4 geographical as well as governmental groups. Tongatapu Group is the southernmost group and is the administrative center.  Moving northward, next is the Ha’apai Group; then Vava’U Group.  Well north of these 3 groups is the Niuatoputapu Group, which is commonly referred to as New Potatoes by the cruising community.  Try saying Niuatoputapu --- it does sound very similar to New Potato.  Few cruisers visit New Potatoes because of its geographical location.  Not really on the way to anywhere.  We entered Tonga at the northernmost island of the Vava’U Group.  We will visit the Ha’apai Group and Tongatapu Group.  Total population of all 4 groups is around 101,000.  Total land area is only 280 square miles, although the sea area is vastly greater.

The largest tourist attraction of Tonga is whale watching.  There are more whales around Tonga than anywhere else in the world.  During the mating and calving season it is estimated that there are 2800 to 2900 whales around Vava’U.  You can take a day-tour to swim with the whales.  The only land mammal native to Tonga is the flying fox or fruit bat.  These are about 3-feet long.  We saw hundreds of them in trees around one house in outskirts of Tongatapu when we were here in June 2002 and I hope not to see one again.

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