From the villa a great white driveway descended the hill, sweeping past a fountain and a guardhouse. There it joined the road into Tonga’s capital, a hot and dusty town called Nuku‘alofa, home to a third of the country’s 100,000 inhabitants. At the base of the hill, on the road to town, a woman sat making brooms from palm fronds, hoping to trade them later on in this largely barter economy. Farther toward town, a little yellow food stand bore the slogan “Democracy, not Hypocrisy.” Farther still, the royal tombs stood vast and ageless, where workers prepared for the king’s imminent death. Farthest of all, beyond the prince’s hilltop view, squatters lived at the island’s garbage dump, scrounging for anything salvageable.
There’s a movement afoot among Tongan commoners. While the Western world struggles to plant democracy other places around the globe, in Tonga it’s sprouting from the soil. Its growth has been nurtured by the forces of modernity, which have crashed into Tonga in a relative instant: the ease of air travel and the improvement of technology. Geographic distance no longer means ideological isolation. So the country now finds itself at a moment of decision: stuck midway between the past and future, monarchy and democracy, isolation and global engagement.
The apologetic, pith-helmeted guard trotted away, and returned a few minutes later. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “His Royal Highness is asleep. Everyone is afraid to wake him.”
Tongan royals deserve a measure of fear. Starting about 900 years ago, a long lineage of kings used war and diplomacy to spread Tonga’s influence to other gentler island neighbors, including Samoa and perhaps Fiji. Even today Tonga remains the only country in the Pacific never to be governed by a foreign power.
The country’s history is one of relative isolation, and Tongans are among the most ethnically homogeneous people on the planet. But the culture has been buffeted by waves from afar—explorers, missionaries, swindlers, and suitors all leaving their mark. Captain James Cook arrived in the 1770s, and impressed by the hospitality of the locals (and unaware of their plans to try to kill him), dubbed it the Friendly Isles, a nickname that stuck. When swimming, many Tongans wear clothes, often black, instead of swimsuits, modesty that reflects the nation’s large and conservative Methodist and Mormon populations. Tonga has a literacy rate of 99 percent and claims to produce more Ph.D.’s per capita than other nations in the region, but the country’s largest source of income is money sent home by Tongans who have moved overseas. And Tonga has a 32-seat parliament, but only nine members are elected by the people. The others are selected by the king and the nobles, and all decisions are subject to the king’s approval.