“Will England punish poor Tonga?” King Tupou II and the 1900 Treaty of Friendship

    This is the second of our articles marking Emancipation Day.

    On May 7, 1900, King Tupou II wrote to the Special British Commissioner agent in Tonga, Basil Thomson.

    “I desire,” the king wrote, “to know how treaties are made by the great Governments of the world, especially England.

    “First. Are Treaties made when two Governments are of the same mind, or only when it is the mind of the stronger of the two?

    Second. If a great and powerful State wishes to make a Treaty with a small and weak State, is it right that the small and weak State should be punished by the strong State because it does not wish to make the Treaty?

    Third. Does a great and powerful State seek occasion to quarrel with a weak State for seeing that a portion of its powers will be taken away from it by a Treaty?

    Fourth. Will England punish poor Tonga for wishing to keep the existing Treaty of Friendship she made with England?

    I send my love.

    Your affectionate friend,

    Tupou II.”

    Less than a fortnight later, Thomson, accompanied by a 50 strong guard, marched into  Mala’e Pangai, the main square of Nuku’alofa and proclaimed a protectorate.

    Britain wanted the king to sign a new treaty handing over control of Tonga’s foreign relations and to put Europeans under the jurisdiction of a British court. It also wanted exclusive rights to establish coaling stations in the harbours of Vava’u and Tongatapu and the right to build a fort.

    The Colonial Office was keen not to give any formal pledges that Britain would not annexed the kingdom.

    Thomson was ordered to find out how the king was likely to react to a direct takeover and whether there would be active resistance.

    Tupou II had ascended the throne when he was only 18 and found himself surrounded  by hostile chiefs, under constant pressure from palagi traders seeking privileges and trying to deal with the effects of drought and cyclones at the end of the 19th century.  The kingdom’s finances were unsettled and the government had borrowed £500 loan from the German firm Deutsche Handel’s und Plantagen-Gesellschaft.

    Tupou II  had ruled for eight years when Thomson arrived. He made it clear that he believed Tonga should remain independent and rejected the draft treaty that Thomson presented.

    Thomson warned Tupou II that Britain would regard any rejection of the treaty as hostile and take action. He told the king that if he signed the treaty Britain would recognise him as ruler in the event of civil disturbance. However, he made no promise to keep Tupou II on the throne.

    Tupou II would not sign unless the restrictions on the conduct of  foreign relations were removed. Thomson blamed the King’s renewed resistance on Fr Father Oliert the acting head of the French Roman Catholic mission, who, he claimed, wanted to make Tonga  French protectorate.

    Thomson reluctantly agreed to modify the treaty and remove the offending sections. The replacement section was meant to strengthen independence.

    Tupou II appeared to have prevented a protectorate and kept control of his own foreign relations, but Thomson would not give up. Thwarted by the king, he decided to go ahead and proclaim a protectorate anyway.

    On May 19 Thomson and an escort of 50 armed men marched to the palace, rebuked the king and made more threats. Accompanied by other British officials and his escort, he marched to the square and read out his proclamation in English and Tongan:

    “Whereas His Majesty the King of Tonga has been pleased to sign an Agreement, dated the 2nd May, 1900, and a Treaty, dated the 18th May, 1900, wherein he agrees that his relations with foreign Powers shall be conducted under the sole advice of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government, and that her Majesty shall protect his dominions from external hostile attacks, it is hereby proclaimed that a Protectorate by Her Britannic Majesty has been established accordingly.”

    Two years later, in his book Savage Island: an account of a sojourn in Niué and Tonga, Thomson declared: “For political, strategic and geographical reasons England could not afford to tolerate a foreign Power in possession of the best harbor in the Pacific islands within striking distance of Fiji . . . . the Germans had ceded all their treaty rights to us, we had either to take what was given to us, or leave the field open to others. In extending our protection, therefore, to the Tongans we were serving their interests even more than our own.”

    Unsurprisingly, King Tupou II took a different view. He noted that at least Thomson had  not raised the British flag over Tonga, but wrote sadly: “Our  minds are stirred at the thought of our land being taken by one of the Great Powers . . . for our land could not be justly seized for having wronged any State, or for having broken any Treaty, but only for having wished to keep ourselves independent.”

    For more information

    Penelope Lavaka. The Limits of Advice. Britain and the Kingdom of Tonga 1900-1970. PhD thesis. Australian National University, 1981.

    Amanda Lee (2019) Tau: A brief history of the Tongan military from the late nineteenth century to the present. MA thesis. University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, 2019.

    Fakamatala faka-Tonga:

    Ko e ‘ātikolo ‘eni hono ua ‘a e Kaniva’ he uike’ ni ‘i hono  fakamanatu e uike ‘o e ta’u’atāina ‘a Tonga mei Pilitānia’. ‘Oku taukave foki ha ni’ihi ‘i he fo’i hisitōlia faka-Tonga  pehē na’e ‘ikai pule’i ‘e Pilitānia ‘a Tonga ko e malu’i pē ko ā. Ko e fo’i fananga ia ne toutou malanga’i ‘e he kau pukepuke fonua’ ki he hako tupu’ tautefito hili e tau’atāina’ he 1970 ke ‘oua na’a nau ‘ilo ki he pango ko ia na’e hoko’ i he kuonga e pule ‘a e Tu’i II. Ko e hisitōlia ko ‘eni ne ‘osi  lekooti maau ia ‘e Pilitānia pea ‘oku tauhi ia ‘i he ngaahi ‘univēsiti lahi pea mo e ‘Emipasī ‘a Pilitānia ‘i Fisi’. Kuo ma’u ‘e he Kaniva ‘a e pepa ko ia’ pea ‘e hokohoko atu heni ‘a hono fakamatala’i’ ‘o e lekooti ko ia’. Ko e fo’i lea ko e protectorate ‘a ia ne ngāue’aki ki he talite ‘a Tonga mo Pilitānia ko ‘eni’, ko hono ‘uhinga faka-Pilitānia’ ko e pule’i mo malu’i pe controlled and protected. Pea ko e me’a totonu ia ne hoko’. ‘Oku lave leva ‘a e ‘ātikolo ko ‘eni ki he ‘aho ne  laka atu ai  ‘a e Komisiona Makehe ‘a Pilitānia ‘i Tonga  ‘i Mē 1900 tangata ‘eni Basil Thompson mo ha’ane kau ka’ate mo ha kau ‘ofisiale Pilitānia kuo nau ‘osi fakamahafu ki Palasi ‘o fekau ki he Tu’i II ka ‘ikai ke ne fakamo’oni ki he talite ke pule’i ‘e Pilitānia ‘a hono fakalele ‘o e pule’anga Tonga’ tautefito ki he Potungāue ki Muli mo e Fakamaau’anga’ pea ‘e pau ke fakamālohi’i ‘e Pilinitānia ‘a hono fakahoko e talite’ pea ko e me’a ia ne iku ki ia’. 


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