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Saturday, June 1, 2013


A holiday is coming up here in Tonga.  June 4th is Emancipation Day.  This marks two important milestones in this country’s history, and most Tongans regard it with the same kind of attitude that Americans have for Independence Day.

Okay, to give you a feeling for the reason it’s called “Emancipation Day” I need to give you something of a history lesson.  This little tiny country is the ONLY country in the South Pacific never to have been colonized by any European power, although there was a treaty of protection between Tonga and Great Britain that was valid from 1900 through 1970.  Today, Tonga operates independently, but in partnership with other nations.  For example, there are Tongan soldiers serving in U.S. and British units in Afghanistan.  There are agreements in place with Australia and New Zealand for Tongans to pursue higher education there.  And so on…

Tonga's first King, who took the Christian name
of George, after King George III of England
The first modern king of Tonga, King George Tupou I (the current king is George Tupou VI) came to power after civil wars had split the islands in the 1780s.  He was crowned king of one island group, then fought wars to unite all the island groups, and reigned as  king of all Tonga from 1845 until his death in 1893 (reportedly at age 100!).  He did some remarkable things, and is still revered in this country.
King George Tupou I also had this modest
palace built. It is still used today.

Before he was king of a United Tonga, this warrior king abolished the system of serfdom that had defined Tonga for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years.  He emancipated the lowest echelons of Tongans from obliged servitude to those born into positions of nobility or royalty. It took until 1862 for this law to be in force in all 176 islands, but every Tongan “commoner” was emancipated.  Then he took the unprecedented step of writing into law the allowance for every Tongan male to have land to work.  Every Tongan male, at age 16, is entitled to rent-for-life a plot of bush land (away from the village, similar to the 18th century practice in the U.S.) for a nominal fee, in order to provide food for his family.  Each male Tongan was also given the right to a smaller plot of land for a village home.  Today, the land is limited, and plots of land are not as big as they used to be, but many families still work the land rented to them by the King:

A more mature King
 George Tupou I

George took this step because he had been baptized a Christian in 1831. And this Christian perspective caused him to take one more step that no other reigning king in recent history has done: he consecrated his land and people to God.  His words, translated into English, are “God, our Father, I give you my land and my people, and all generations of people who follow after me.”  He went on to beg the protection of God for his people, the waters, and the creatures of Tonga and its waters.  Is it any wonder that Tonga has received special protection?  Is it any wonder that this country is one of the few left on earth where all businesses are closed on Sunday, in honor of the Sabbath?  Is it any wonder that Tonga’s people love the Lord?  Their king consecrated them to God’s keeping, to God’s service. 

Tonga's Queen and Queen Mother
The reigning king of Tonga

The kings (and one queen) since George Tupou the first have used a royal seal, upon which is printed, “God and Tonga are my inheritance.”  Not “my God-given right”, not “my kingdom”, but “my inheritance.”  They are keenly aware that their position is a stewardship.  The current king and queen are working to bring a higher standard of living to Tonga through improved health and educational resources.  This tiny country, consecrated to God for more than a century and a half, has more than a few things to teach the rest of us. Call it Emancipation Day, call it Consecration Day, call it Tonga’s national day – I call it a lesson for the rest of us. 

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