The Tongan culture has drastically changed over the years. Before European explorers arrived in the late 1600s and early 1700s, the Tongans were already in constant contact with their geographic neighbors, Samoa and Fiji.
At the dawn of the 1800s, during the arrival of the Western traders and missionaries, the Tongan culture changed a lot as some of the old beliefs were thrown out as a number of belief were adopted from other countries.
Contemporary Tongans frequently have strong ties overseas lands. Some of them would opt to migrate in other countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Thus, Tongans are known to have been guilty of “diaspora”.
Tongans often have to operate in two contexts, which they refer to as the traditional Tongan way, and the Western way.
A culturally adept Tongan learns both sets of rules and when to switch between them. Any description of Tongan culture that confines itself to what Tongans see as anga fakatonga would give a seriously fuzzy view of what people actually do, in Tonga, or in diaspora, because accommodations are so often made to anga faka plangi The following account tries to give both the idealized and the on-the-ground versions of Tongan culture.
All Polynesian cultures, including the Tongan culture are strongly stratified. In the past, the king (tu’i) with the royal family was on top of the stratification. Below him were the high chiefs (hou’eiki), the estate holders and warlords.
While below them the lower chiefs (fototehina). Below them the working chiefs (mat pule), in fact attendants to the chiefs to which they belonged, providing services to them, like fishing, tax collection, kava mixing, undertaking and protocol keeping. Below them the ordinary people (tu’a). Below them, or maybe more or less on the same level, the slaves, prisoners of war (popula).
On the other hand, in the contemporary context, the king is still in this position and has the final implementation or execution power. The high chiefs are now limited to 33 titles and called nobles (nopele), but some nobles carry more than one title. They are still considered as estate holders, but then, they are not the government.
The lower chiefs have disappeared (and the word fototehina now means ‘brothers’). The mat pule have also largely disappeared except those who keep the protocol and serve as official spokesmen for the king and nobles. And also the royal undertaker, Lauaki. Tax collection is a task for the central government only. Slavery is abolished, since the emancipation of 1875, and all other people are just the ‘commoners’.
The worldly power mentioned above can be referred to as status. A Tongan gets or obtains his status from his father, in some cases from his uncle. He inherits his (noble) title from his father. The crown prince would then succeed his father. Land ownership is only inherited through the father.
However, a status as such does not actually place in the society. It the rank that would do so.
A Tongan could obtain his rank from his mother which also determines his place in the social stratification. If within the family, women are more revered thus they have a higher rank than the men inside the family. Likewise the elder sister of a king, if he has one, has a higher blood rank the king himself. This was the so called Tamah, holy child, in pre-European times.
In practical terms, the high status and the high rank would always go together because the society does not usually allow a high ranking woman to marry a commoner. Likewise, no high ranking man should marry a low ranking woman in the society.
Rank and status are fixed since their birth. There is no way in Tongan society to climb up in rank. A low ranking chief would remain the lesser of a high ranking chief, even if his lands may be greater and richer and so forth. But he can try to marry a high ranking woman, for instance if she is interested in his rich lands, and so increase the rank of his children. Status on the other hand, can have some vertical movement. The second son of a noble, normally not in line for his father’s title, may get it after all if his older brother dies prematurely. In addition to this sometimes, but very rarely, the king may elevate some person to high status.