Lesson 9: Tonga

Tonga is the only Pacific nation never to be formally colonized by Western or Japanese powers. The Kingdom of Tonga, an archipelago in the South Pacific consisting of 176 islands (52 are inhabited) that sit in about 270,000 square miles of ocean, had its share of Western visitors but no foreign power ever officially took charge.

Archaeologists date human settlement in Tonga to about 1500 B.C. By the 12th century A.D. the Tu’i Tonga line of chiefs had become known throughout the region. A smattering of Dutch and then British explorers visited from 1616 through the 19th century but few visitors stayed.

The seemingly ubiquitous Captain James Cook called Tonga “The Friendly Islands” because when he visited in the mid 1700s he received what he thought to be a warm welcome. (Or did the Tongan chiefs actually want to kill him, but just couldn’t decide how?)

In 1845 a warrior named Tāufaʻāhau transformed Tonga into a kingdom. His Tongan title was Tu’i Kanokupolu, but his baptismal name was King George Tupou I. According to Wikipedia’s entry on the history of Tonga, when Tāufaʻāhau became king, with the help of British missionaries, “he emancipated the ‘serfs’, enshrined a code of law, land tenure, and freedom of the press, and limited the power of the chiefs.” In 1900 British settlers and some Tongans who opposed the second king, Siaosi Tupou II, signed a “Treaty of Friendship” that also granted Tonga the status of “protected state.” In 1970 the third Tongan monarch, Queen Sālote, arranged for Tonga to become part of the Commonwealth of Nations. Tonga joined the United Nations in 1999.

In the 1990s the Tongan Pro-Democracy Movement (TPDM) began to gain popularity and pressed for popular elections. Tensions between the monarchy and the TPDM increased and in the early 2000s King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV began to scale back freedom of the press. After much economic and social unrest in 2005, including a strike of 3,000 civil servants, Tongans finally saw their first commoner elected prime minister. When the king died in 2006 his son, Siaosi Tupou V (George Tupou V), took charge. In 2008 King George gave most of the monarchy’s power to the people and in 2010 Tongans voted for their first democratically elected parliament.

THE INCREDIBLE TALE OF JESSE BOGDONOFF, TONGAN COURT JESTER (or, rather, former Tongan Court Jester)

In the early 1990s an American Bank of America investment advisor named Jesse Bodgonoff came upon a $20 million Tongan Trust Fund, which Tongan government had earned primarily by selling Tongan passports to Hong Kong residents who were afraid they would face travel and other restrictions when Hong King reverted to Chinese rule. Bodgonoff tried to give long-distance investment advice to the Tongan government about how to invest its windfall but decided a personal visit would be much more effective. In 1994 he arrived in Tonga and within three days was meeting with King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV. The King and Bodgonoff became fast friends and soon Bodgonoff was helping the Tongans make millions in investment profits. In 1999 when Bodgonoff left Bank of America the only way he was legally able to take the Tongan account with him was to become an employee of the Tongan government. Upon his suggestion King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV formally hired him as “court jester,” and informally as a key financial advisor, at a salary of $250,000 a year.

All seemed grand for a while for the world’s only official court jester/monarchical money manager until the investments he made turned sour. Bodgonoff unfortunately advised Tonga to invest most of its millions in one company that eventually disintegrated due to fraud and others whose stocks ultimately became worthless. According to Bodgonoff, when he tried to help the Tongans save their fund from total collapse he found himself enmeshed in Tongan politics–a bureaucratic and not-investment-savvy monarchy on one hand, facing a pro-democracy moment that reveled in the embarrassment the scandal brought the King. In 2004 Bodgonoff promised $1 million to settle a lawsuit with the Tongan government, asserting that while he may have made bad investments on the kingdom’s behalf he did so in good faith. Whatever the truth, the Jester saga had serious ramifications for Tongan monarchy. Tongan pro-Democracy activists, in part because of embarrassing scandals such as that of Bogdonoff, were able to successfully argue that the Tongan people would be better off popularly electing their own leaders rather than rely on the insular monarchy. And what happened to the jester? Today Bogdonoff, under the name Jesse Dean, composes and produces smooth jazz.

 

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