As a Prescription to Rule: The Royal Tomb of Mala'e Lahi and 19th-Century Tongan Kingship

Article excerpt

The tangled dynastic history of Tonga, celebrated kingdom of western Polynesia, offers a rare chance to study the place of monumental burial-places in a chieftains' society. Disentangling the story, at a remove of not many centuries, is not a simple business.


Located on the western flank of the Polynesian triangle, the kingdom of Tonga includes 160 islands extending along an axis of over 300 km.(1) When first visited by European explorers, this expansive archipelago was under the centralized rule of a paramount chieftainship situated on the principal island of Tongatapu. Social and political structures of this chiefdom were among the most complex in Polynesia with these relationships visibly reified through sepulchral architecture and other features of the built environment (Kirch 1990; Burley 1993). By the late 1700s and lasting until 1852, Tongan chiefs became engaged in a series of wars out of which Tu'i Kanokupolu Taufa'ahau Tupou I, the first of the contemporary line of monarchs, emerged supreme. The supportive role of visible symbols to the reconfiguration of Tongan kingship under Taufa'ahau became obvious during a 1991 archaeological survey in the northern part of the Ha'apai island group of central Tonga. Here, on the island of 'Uiha, is the royal tomb of Mala'e Lahi, an imposing structure in which Taufa'ahau's father, son and other members of his extended lineage are buried. In its scale, template, construction style and petroglyphic markings, this tomb incorporates a symbolic claim for pre-eminent status and power. The following paper examines the archaeological and historical contexts of Mala'e Lahi within the realm of 19th-century Tongan culture and political machinations. In a more general sense, it serves to illustrate the role of monumental architecture for political legitimacy in chiefdom level societies.

Traditional polity and the transformation of Tongan kingship

The Tongan archipelago was colonized by Lapita peoples approximately 3300 years ago with archaeological evidence indicating an unbroken occupation sequence since that time (Davidson 1979; Kirch 1984; 1988). Proto-Polynesian lexical reconstructions for the concepts of chief (*'ariki), mana (supernatural power) and tapu (sacred) suggest the structural basis for chiefly society was in place with initial occupation (Kirch 1984: 63). However, it was not until approximately 1000 years ago or slightly earlier that evidence for intensification of chiefly polity appears on the landscape in the form of ancestral burial mound complexes and other features (Kirch 1988; Burley in press). At roughly the same time on the island of Tongatapu, oral traditions and genealogical accounts record the emergence of a critical paramount lineage, the Tu'i Tonga (Gifford 1929: 50).(2) Tracing this dynasty through a line of 39 individuals, Gifford (1929: 49-79) reports that the first Tu'i Tonga was claimed to be the son of a sky god, Tangaloa 'Eitumatupu'a, and a mortal woman. This ancestry provided the Tu'i Tonga with divine sanction and authority. In their lifetime, Tu'i Tonga were treated as gods; upon death, they were interred in elaborate stone-faced tombs known as langi, the Tongan word for sky or heaven. By the 12th century An, oral traditions indicate these rulers had extended their control or influence to all islands within the contemporary kingdom as well as to others in west Polynesia (Spenneman 1988: 20; Campbell 1992: 8-14).

Traditional Tongan history is characterized by political intrigue with the 19th, 22nd and 23rd Tu'i Tonga assassinated (Campbell 1989: 31-3). Consequently, the 24th Tu'i Tonga split the paramountship, giving his younger brother secular responsibilities for the chiefdom under the title Tu'i Ha'atakalaua. These chiefs formed the hau, a position subordinate to the Tu'i Tonga in rank but holding considerable power and authority (Marcus 1980: 6-7). The hau was itself split in the early 17th century with the creation of the Tu'i Kanokupolu title. …