The Great Reform of Taufa’ahau Tupou I, King of Tonga

Kalafi Moala, veteran journalist

By Kalafi Moala

Taufa’ahau Tupou I

My teacher-father used to tell me that in order for us to find our way into the future, we need to know our past. He elaborated by saying that if you go through a jungle and get lost, the best way to get back on track is to trace your steps back to the starting point.

 My father’s advice has helped me adjust my thinking on so many occasions whenever I have felt uncertain about the future, especially in exploring what the future holds for Tonga. I have found it very helpful indeed over the years, that whenever the way forward seems foggy, I start looking back into history, to see what can be learned. It made it easier, then, “to press the restart button” once we see with clarity.

Much debate has been going on over the last 30 years on the changes we need to apply in Tongan society so as to move the country forward, socially, politically, and economically. Various ideologies have been introduced as solutions to create a national pathway into the future. But nothing has really worked. In the meantime the waves of social problems and issues continue to beat upon our shores with devastating effect.

Very little has been said about our need for spiritual reform in order for us to re-discover our purpose and calling. But when we examine our past history we discover that the greatest reform that has ever taken place anywhere in the Pacific region, took place in our own little kingdom. And this has established our pathway into the future, though many of us have forgotten our history.

Whenever we talk about the subject of reform in Tonga, the legendary figure of Taufa’ahau or King George Tupou I, as he was later known, looms large in our collective minds. He was the instrumental figure in bringing about the first reformation to have taken place in Tonga. It lasted for 170 years, and modern Tongan society today is still essentially a product of what this Christian king and his missionary advisors started in the first half of the 19th century.

This warrior king who became a Christian, brought about the greatest and most radical sweeping reform ever carried out in this country. The reason his reform worked and lasted to this day is because it was a Christian reform; it was based on Judeo-Christian morality and principles. We have built on its foundation from generation to generation, until recently, a group of extreme socialists push their new reform to dismantle and replace it with something that has not worked anywhere.

In our history, even though our social structure and culture sustained us for several centuries, there were many things that needed to be reformed. To put it frankly, we were a warlike heathen socio-culture ruled by dictator kings. 

There was slavery and much of Tongan society lived under oppression. The land tenure system needed changing, for only the royal family and chiefs owned land at the time.

There was no rule of law, for the law as Taufa’ahau once said, “was according to the dictates of the will of the king.” And despite our ability to build a Tongan empire that stretched throughout the Pacific, we were heading the same way other island nations were heading: colonization by the powerful countries dominating the world.


His Majesty Tupou I, Father of Modern Tonga

But Almighty God had other plans for Tonga. And he found someone who was willing to become the servant-king. Taufa’ahau was converted in 1830 through the teaching of Christian missionaries, who also became his advisors in reforming Tonga.

He simply altered the fundamental belief system of Tongan society by the teaching of the Bible, and reconfigured the authority and governance structure of Tonga, establishing at first a code of laws, and then a full fledged formal constitution in 1875, to be the compass for the journey of Tongan society into the future. This constitution, even with a few amendments, is still alive and is the legal basis of Tongan Society today.

 Taufa’ahau’s reform has stood the test of time, essentially making Tonga one of the most educated, highly developed, and most harmonious socio-cultural Christian societies in the “third world.”

But what is reform, and what is involved in reform? How is Christian reform different from other reform movements? 

From our own history, we are learning that true lasting reform comes out of spiritual social awakening. Taufa’ahau’s reform was driven by an understanding and commitment to the Sovereignty of a Living Creator-God. 

The Webster dictionary defines reform as “to make better by stopping abuses.” The Oxford dictionary added, the “removal of faults and abuses, especially moral, political, or social.”

In reform we are looking at corrective action that is done in regards to abuses in moral, political, and social spheres. At the same time there is the replacement of abuses or reconstruction by appropriate behavior and actions in all those spheres.

There is through Christian reform a social transformation that affects all spheres of life, but that reform is based on values, beliefs, and a moral system. Taufa’ahau’s reform, despite some inadequacies in application, was truly founded on a Biblical belief system.

Taufa’ahau’s reform gave us the Constitution. It gave us Parliament and a modern form of government. It gave us changes into the land tenure system. It gave us education, and established our religious system. It gave us our health care system. It gave us freedom from slavery, and established relationships based on Christian values. This reform transformed Tongan society, and matched us with the reformation movements of Europe that started in the 14th century through to the 17th, establishing such nations like Switzerland, England, France, and Scandinavia.

However, the 21st century reform that Tonga went through in 2010 was essentially a reform to make the system of governance “more democratic.” Most Tongans believe that it is a good thing and there is cautious hope that if accompanied by other reforms in social and economic spheres, we could be heading toward a more prosperous and peaceful Tonga.

But the failure of the 2010 reform has been in application and in poor leadership, and not necessarily in the Constitutional amendments made. This reform is supposed to be an upgrade to leverage the fact that Tongans are more educated and better informed today than they were in the 1840s.

Obviously the biggest disadvantage and inherent weaknesses of the 2010 reform was the apparent lack of spiritual awakening and emphasis. When an attempt to bring about structural reform (which is what took place in 2010) without accompanying spiritual and social reform, all that could take place is a system change without the fundamental change necessary in people’s belief systems and behavior patterns.

And it is more fatal to push change with secular ideas that are opposed to Christian morals and values, as we currently see the moral decline in our culture and society.

Taufa’ahau’s reformation movement still stands as the greatest impact on Tongan society, but unless we return to the principles enacted in that reform, we will continue to be like a ship lost without clear direction and purpose. We must trace back our steps to find our path foward.



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