The Role of Literacy in the First Missionary Successes

Thus, in 1800, Tonga had been abandoned by the missionaries of the London Missionary Society. After an unfruitful effort in 1822, the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Sydney decided to send two missionaries to Tonga in 1826. At first, they had many difficulties and the mission was on the point of being abandoned. In 1827, however, the chapel built by them in Nuku`alofa was filled with people every Sunday. What had happened? Firstly, the Wesleyans from Sydney had sent help in the form of two more missionaries, and one of them, Turner, had a solid intellectual background, some medical skills and missionary experience among the Maori of New Zealand. Soon, Turner decided to organise the new converts in classes where they were prepared to become active members of the mission. In these classes, the missionaries used the Bible as the basis for instruction in reading. The missionaries also decided to open a public school in March 1828. In September, the school received 150 students, boys and girls. Turner asked their colleagues to write down everything they taught, and to write it down in Tongan. In 1829, the missionaries decided to translate the Bible into Tongan, each of them having to translate a part of the Bible. In 1831, the mission received a small printing press and the first Tongan book was published on April 14 of the same year.

As from 1831, the main role in the Christianisation process was played by a young and ambitious chief, Taufa`ahau, who was to become the first Christian king and the founding father of the Tongan nation. Before his conversion Taufa`ahau, as the governor of the central archipelago, paid several visits to the main island, where he met the missionaries and also some of his relatives who were already converted. Back again in Ha`apai, he decided to use an ungodly runaway sailor “to trace the letters of the alphabet upon the sand of the seashore, for the benefit of those who wanted to learn.” (West 1865, quoted by Latukefu, 1977, 126). He also obliged the sailor to celebrate the Christian god through prayers in a house which he reserved for this purpose.

After his conversion in 1831, Taufa`ahau waged long wars against the traditionalist chiefs, including the paramount chief, the Tu`i Tonga. Although these wars were mainly political, they were undertaken in the name of the Christian god, and with the active support of the missionaries. Meanwhile, education continued to receive high priority in the work of the mission. At a district meeting in May 1850, the members of the mission unanimously declared: “We must have schools in every place … thus elevating the rising race with the Bible in their hands, far above the darkness and baseness of heathenism and the wicked intrigues of Popery” (Latukefu 1974, 129–30). Taufa`ahau, then King George Tupou I, supported the missionaries’ efforts to build schools in every way possible.[10] The promotion of education culminated in the establishment, in 1866, of Tupou College, where chiefs and commoners were treated alike.[11] Many commoners proved themselves to be outstanding scholars and formed a new educated elite, the basis of the future middle class.

[10] In a memorable sermon, he exhorted his fellow countrymen with these words: “See what knowledge has done for the white man! See what ignorance has done for the men of this land! Is it that white men are born more wise? Is it that they are naturally more capable than the others? No: but they have obtained knowledge … This is the principal cause of the difference (Latukefu 1977, 130).

[11] As soon as the hostilities ceased, Taufa`ahau concerned himself with evangelisation as much as education, the two going together as far as he was concerned. Tupou College was intended to form an elite with the mission of enforcing the new laws. In this school it should be noted that while they evidently learned English, the Tongan language was used for religious instruction (from which stems the development of a body of religious – and also literary and scientific – studies in Tongan). Girls were admitted into the school from 1880.