by Ian C. Campbell
Tonga has been an independent constitutional monarchy since 1875. In traditional times, the various islands and lineages which make up the Tongan archipelago recognized the over-riding authority and status of a semi-divine chief, known by the title Tu'i Tonga.
In the late eighteenth century, political rivalries and personal jealousies amongst the highest chiefs led to the disruption of the traditional polity. A period of inter-tribal and inter-island warfare followed, and was not finally quelled until 1840. Peace and unity were re-imposed by a chief from the central group of islands (Ha'apai) whose personal name was Taufa'ahau, but was known to foreigners as King George since his conversion to Christianity in 1830. In 1845 Taufa'ahau succeeded to the senior title of Tu'i Kanokupolu, and was acknowledged as King throughout the archipelago. This date is regarded as the foundation date of the modern Kingdom of Tonga. At this time he took the additional name Tupou which has also been used by his successors.
Taufa'ahau's authority was based on traditional rank and prerogatives, backed up by his having conquered all dissident or separatist factions. He saw himself as restoring the former order and unity that Tonga had previously enjoyed, although with modifications to accommodate new circumstances. One of these was the almost universal adoption of Christianity during the 1830s. As early as 1838 Taufa'ahau asked the Wesleyan missionaries to advise him on matters of law, leading to the first law code being promulgated in 1839. The traditional tribal polity under the government of chiefs, however, continued, modified only by Christian principles of which some were given the status of law.
A second law code, elaborated in 1850, defined the authority of the King as absolute, and the source of all law. Over the next few years, Taufa'ahau continued to give thought to the requirements of his people for law and government, and in 1859 instituted a rudimentary parliament