Monday, June 4, 2012

Tonga's 150 years of freedom

As we remember Emancipation Day with a public holiday, today 4 June 2013, we marvel the foresight of Tonga's King Siaosi Tupou I who initiated the Emancipation Edict, 150 years ago on 4 June 1862.

Today is a day to be celebrated by Tonga's people and to appreciate that great step forward in the quality of our lives. But it is also a day to reflect that in losing their connections with the precious land that was given to them by Tupou I, too many Tongans have lost the prosperity that they once held in their own strong and capable hands, as producers on that land.

So where has that freedom of 150 years ago left Tongans today?

The land is underdeveloped and the findings of last weeks' Royal Land Commission show that after the model for land distribution was set that the mapping and the actual settings of boundaries for distribution has not been completed.

The intent of the Emancipation of the Tongan people is clear.

In the time of Tupou I, the 1860 Code of Law was a response by the king to an urgent need to secure Tongan lands, and to structure an economic system for Tonga so that Tongans could develop and earn cash from the fruits of their labour.

The historian Noel Rutherford, editor of The Friendly Islands: A History of Tonga, stated that the edict was one of the most revolutionary clauses in the law. It reads:

"All chiefs and people are set … at liberty from serfdom and all vassalage … and it shall not be lawful for any chief or person to seize or take by force or beg authoritatively in Tonga fashion anything from anyone. Everyone has the entire control over everything that is his."

The Emancipation Edict abolished the obligations of those lower in the Tongan kinship ranking system to provide food and labour freely to those higher in the system. So instead of people relying on the kinship system for their daily livelihood, high-ranking Tongans, including the King and his government, would have to pay cash to get things done. It was an attempt to replace kinship with cash as the basis of the Tongan social system.

To make such a system work, government introduced the poll tax, and Tongans over sixteen years of age were to pay a tax of twelve shillings per annum, providing the king with a revenue to pay the salaries of officials, and pensions to chiefs to compensate them for the loss of the compulsory service of their people.

A land reform was also introduced and each chief was to make available to every adult male in his clan a piece of farming land over which the tenant, in return for a rent payment of two shillings per annum, would enjoy complete security of tenure. Sale of land to foreigners was forbidden.

The reforms were considered to be revolutionary. The independent authority of the chiefs began to break down and instead of them remaining independent war-lords, they became pensioners of the king and no threat to peace of an orderly government.

More interesting at this point of time was the formation of the base of the Tongan economy.

The combination of the need for cash to pay taxes, guaranteed tenure of farms and relief from the extortions of traditional obligation, gave a new impetus to Tongan agriculture. Tongans began to plant coconut groves on a scale unknown before that, and within a decade Tonga became one of the major Pacific producers of copra.

Prosperity in turn led to a rapid development in public works and church building and to an influx of foreign traders to take advantage of the new opportunities.

Rutherford points out that the 1862 reforms set the pattern and general direction of subsequent social, economic and political developments in Tonga during the reign of King George Tupou I, and for much of its subsequent history.

On the one hand, the processes of modernization were set firmly in motion, but on the other hand the land remained firmly under Tongans control, and was shared out among Tongans in a more equitable manner than probably anywhere else in the world at the time.

The onus to develop the land and the economy remain squarely in the hands of Tongans.

The irony of what happened 150 years ago, was that only three days ago, on 1 June 2012, the Royal Land Commission of Tupou V, presented its three volumes report. It contained 120 recommendations toward providing more effective and efficient land practices.

It stated an urgent need for Tonga's Ministry of Land to confirm estate boundaries, identify all registered allotments and update its land registry, and other things.

This morning the Tonga Defence Services raised the flag at the Nuku'alofa waterfront and played the national anthem, and they will do the same tonight to lower the flag.

Taking into consideration the significance of a day that the Tongans call "'Aho Tau'ataina" Freedom Day, there is no enthusiasm evident on this quiet public holiday, which upon reflection is an extraordinary day.

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