Tonga – Emancipation Day

June 4

It would be hard to describe Tonga in a word, but you could do worse than  ‘exceptional’. Over the past two hundred years, the remote archipelago has stubbornly been the exception in the Pacific rather than the norm.

Though it was a British protectorate until 1970, Tonga is the only Pacific island nation never to have been formerly colonized. It’s the only nation in the region continuously governed by its indigenous population. And it’s the last Polynesian monarchy, making it one of only five members of the Commonwealth of Nations to have its own monarch.

Located about 3,000 kilometers east of Australia, Tonga consists of 171 islands.

Tonga is one of the smallest countries in the world, both in terms of area and population. At 747 sq. km, its landmass is roughly one-tenth the size of Los Angeles County and it has 1/100th the population.

Its life expectancy is 73–quite long for the region. And for our Moscow readers, the lowest temperature ever recorded in Tonga was 48 F/8.7 C.

That’s not to say Tonga is without problems. In addition to widespread poverty, public demands for reducing royal power have met stiff resistance. And its not hard to see why. Over the past two hundred years, Tonga’s monarchs have been the core force in maintaining its highly autonomous status and development.

Tonga has been inhabited since about 2500 BC. Oral history recalls the sovereign line dating back a thousand years. But there are no written records of Tongan history before Captain Cook’s landings in the 1770s. Cook called the place the “Friendly Islands” based on the population’s hospitality and his positive exchanges with the locals.

King George Tupou I

The first king of Tonga as we recognize it today was King George Tupou I. Tupou is believed to have been born in 1793. As a chieftain, he consolidated power over the disparate island groups.

“From a small, disputed inheritance in the Ha’apai group in 1820, his ambition to reunite Tonga after its civil wars which had begun in the 1780s led him first to the conquest of Ha’apai in 1826; he secured the inheritance of Vava’u in 1833, and the inheritance of the Tu’i Kanokupolu title which nominally gave him Tongatapu in 1845, and thus made him king of all Tonga.”

The Alleged Imperialism of George Tupou I. Campbell, I.C. Journal of Pacific History

He had abolished serfdom in Vava’u—part of Tonga—back in the 1830s. In 1862 he took two more extraordinary steps. Not only did he create a parliamentary system of government, he also…

“…abolished the system of semi-serfdom that had previously existed and established an entirely alien system of land tenure whereby every Tongan male, upon reaching the age of 16, was entitled to rent for life at a nominal fee a plot of bush land (api) of 8.25 acres, plus a village allotment of about three-eighths of an acre for his home.”

Landfalls of Paradise

For these and more sweeping changes, the first modern king is Tonga’s national hero. The anniversary of the Tupou’s coronation in 1875 is celebrated in December, but June 4 is Tonga’s National Day. It remembers both the anniversary of the the abolishment of serfdom in 1862 and the end of Tonga’s status as a British protectorate over a century later.

Mabo Day – Australia

On May 27, 1967, the Australian public voted to alter the language of the Constitution to remove discriminatory laws against the indigenous people.

One such Constitutional clause had previously declared:

“In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.”

Still, even decades after this sweeping reform, the Australian court held to a policy known as Terra Nullius. Terra Nullius was the doctrine that insisted that the occupation of the Australian continent did not occur until after European ‘discovery’ and colonialization. This historical whoops now generally estimated to be about 40,000 years off. It wasn’t overturned until the last decade of the 20th century, on June 3, 1992, in the extraordinary case of Eddie Mabo.

Eddie Mabo - Mabo Day

Born on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait in Queensland, Mabo was working as a gardener and groundskeeper at James Cook University when he was denied passage back to his birth island during a trip to visit his ailing father. Mabo took on the aged Australian albatross of indigenous landrights disputes. While pursuing a teaching degree (in his 40’s) Mabo waged a decade-long legal battle confronting the fallacy of Terra Nullius. He took his case all the way to the highest court in the land.

“The Mabo decision is arguably the most important decision that the High Court of Australia has made since Federation. It states Indigenous people have Legal Rights not just Symbolic Rights to all Crown Land in this country, as well as possible rights to pastoral leases. Mabo Day marked the beginning of a new era for Indigenous people. It changed Australian’s views of themselves and their rights to this land. It has forced mining companies and the corporate world to take stock of Indigenous peoples’ claims. It has radically altered the relationship between Indigenous and non Indigenous people in this country.”

Though Mabo Day is not an official holiday in Australia, the week from May 27 to June 3 is now known as Reconciliation Week. It is a week meant to encourage dialogue and help mend centuries of injustice against the nation’s indigenous people and to foster healing between Australia’s diverse communities.

Sorry Day – Australia

May 26

That’s the difference between the UN and Australia. The UN would have called it “Day of Remembrance and Apologies for Injustices committed upon Indigenous Peoples” or something longer. Australians cut to the bone.

There are a number of things to be sorry about with regards to treatment of Australia’s Aborigine population, but Sorry Day focuses mostly on one particularly terrifying aspect—the taking of Aboriginal children from their families in an ill-conceived ‘re-education’ project during the early-to-mid 20th century.

Between 1910 and 1970 an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children were removed from their homes, in what amounted to essentially legally-sanctioned kidnappings. The full scope of the project and its failure were the subject of a government investigation in the 1990s.

Accounts of the “Stolen Generations” have inspired numerous books, plays, and movies, including Doris Pilkington’s 1996 novel Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence and its 2002 film adaptation Rabbit-Proof Fence.

The results of the government investigation were released in the “Bringing Them Home” report, which was published on May 26, 1997.

The publication of “Bringing Them Home” coincided with another anniversary: the 30th anniversary of the Referendum of May 27, 1967, in which 90% of the Australian public voted to alter the language of the Constitution to remove discriminatory laws against indigenous people.

Henceforth, the week from May 27 to June 3 became Reconciliation Week in Australia.

Our friends Down Under tell us that Sorry Day is no longer an annual observance, but Reconciliation Week is. It is a week meant to encourage dialogue and help mend centuries of injustice against the nation’s indigenous population.


April 25

Last month the nation of Turkey remembered Victory of Canakkale, the World War I campaign that unified the Turkish spirt and brought together disparate elements that would form the Turkish nation.

But for every victor there’s the vanquished.

The Allies of World War I, including the French, British, Indian, Australian and New Zealanders, suffered a quarter million casualties in the Dardanelles (Canakkale) campaign. At the forefront of the battle, the soldiers of Australia and New Zealand took a disproportional brunt of the death and disease that characterized the fight.

ANZAC stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. ANZAC Day falls on the anniversary of the landing of the first Australian and New Zealand troops on April 25, 1915 on the Gallipoli Peninsula on Turkey’s Aegean coast. The assault was ill-planned and inadequately supplied.

The Turks entrenched themselves on the high ground pouring artillery and machine gun fire down upon the hapless Australian, New Zealand, Irish, French and British troops below.The battleground soon resembled that of the Western Front – both sides peering at each other from fortified trenches, forced to spill their precious blood in futile frontal attacks on well defended positions. —

In the aftermath of Gallipoli a rift widened between the two southern hemisphere countries and the British Empire they had been proud to be a part of. Resentment grew against Allied commanders for the ill-conceived attack that led Australians and New Zealanders like lambs to the slaughter, and for the motives involved in using Australian and New Zealand troops to invade the far-off lands.

About 40 per cent of all Australian males aged between 18 and 45 voluntarily enlisted to serve in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF), that is about 417,000 men, of whom about 60 000 died in all campaigns and another 160,000 were wounded or maimed. — Geoffrey Partington, Gallipoli – the Facts Behind the Myths

[Still, Partington clarifies, “the British, French and Indian causalities were far greater than those of the Anzacs,” and “the British bore the brunt of the fighting – and the losses.”]

ANZAC Day is one of the most important holidays in both Australia and New Zealand, observed as Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day.

“On Anzac Day, we remember not only the original Anzacs who died on April 25, 1915, but every one of our service men and women who have served and died in all wars, conflicts, peacekeeping, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions,” — Australia Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston

For the record, Victory of Canakkale is no celebration in Turkey. It’s also known as “Martyrs’ Day”. The Turks suffered even more casualties than the Allies, around 300,000, in the brutal Dardanelles campaign alone. Today, the monuments and memorials of Gallipoli serve as a grim reminder that in war even the winners pay the price.

ANZAC Memorial, Sydney. Photo by Matthew Lammers