Kingship and Kinship : The House of Tupou, Democracy and Transnationalism in Tonga




Metuamate, Areti

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Tongan kingship has roots in an ancient system of Tu‘i (paramount ruler) that stretches back over a thousand years. The present king, Tupou VI, is the twenty-fourth Tu‘i Kanokupolu and the sixth monarch of the Tupou dynasty. What has enabled these institutions to survive so long is a range of accepted social arrangements and relationships that make up an intricate kinship system that underlies the very fabric of Tongan society. The rise of democracy, while an important modern development in Tonga’s recent political history, has not significantly affected this. Even Christianity, with its transformational impact on Tonga in the nineteenth century and beyond, was not able to shift Tonga’s deeply kinship-oriented social hierarchy. The image often portrayed in the Western media is that Tonga is a small (read insignificant), traditional (read out-dated) Polynesian society ruled firmly by a King and his noblemen; consequently this view is one that is shared by many in Australia and New Zealand. My thesis will show that such a view is simplistic and misses a key point about the centrality of kinship in Tonga, as in many parts of Oceania. In Tonga today, as it has been for centuries, kinship plays the essential role in determining how society is governed. While the King has a prominent role as the constitutional Head of State, to Tongans his role as Tu‘i is more important because it connects him as kin to each and every Tongan person, wherever they are in the world. The role and place of the King is only possible because of the existence and continuity of a complex range of (reciprocal) practises that make up the Tongan kinship system. This study builds on research on Tongan transnationalism, governance, history, and culture, and draws on material gathered in my fieldwork in Tonga and amongst Tongans in the diaspora, and in over 50 interviews I undertook in Tonga, the United States, Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. My research, which has a particular focus on King George Tupou V, demonstrates that the king is important to Tongans, but primarily as a part of a broader kinship system which positions him in relation to others. As an individual the king is expected to embody a range of qualities, which this study outlines as layers of kingship. But going one step further it will show that the king is a representation of what it means to be Tongan and his role is but one of many layers of kinship. The core argument developed in this thesis is that Tonga is not governed by kingship, but by kinship.



Tonga, Pacific, Kingship, Kinship, Maori, Cook Island, Areti, Metuamate, fahu, tu'i, tupou, tuku'aho, ta'ovala, democracy, monarchy, kingitanga, leadership, government, governance




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