External and Internal Moats of the Ancient Kolovai Fort, Tonga - looking south from NE Corner

Selected for Google Maps and Google Earth

Comments (5)

bdeh on December 2, 2011

Very nice picture Ian. Greetings Berend

Ian Stehbens on December 4, 2011

And here is my account of the history I have researched, Berend. It reads a bit like feudal European history, though the pre-iron age continued till the end of the 18th Century here:



Having the full use of a car in the last few months of our period of service in Tonga, allowed me opportunities to explore Tongatapu outside the village, the classroom and the library. With the help of Google Earth imagery, I identified a large circle in the midst of rectilinear patterns only 3km away, and inquiry of local leaders indicated that some had heard of this feature which was marked with a small asterisk and called Hule on my topographic map, but I could not find anyone that had seen it in the field. So I resolved to take a leading keeper-of-the-culture and one who had reason to be aware of Tongan history with me. The war-village (kolotau) that I located and showed him inspired him. It was an impressive piece of archaeology, but his surprise was probably the more remarkable to me.

Then I discovered another and another and another. And if the first kolotau was impressive, it was the Kolovai Kolotau at Teekiu that makes me believe that UNESCO should have these listed as World Heritage items, significant not only in Polynesian history but in world history, for the roots of Polynesian culture are in east Asia, and roots of the cultural transformation derive from missionary endeavour out of Western Europe and Australia.

Tuku’aho became the 14th king of Tongatapu , the large southern island of the Tongan archipelago, though his influence spread wider than that with tributary chiefs in Ha’apai and Vava’u, the central and northern sections of the archipelago, respectively. This king resided in the west of Tongatapu, that is, in the Hihifo District. He was a despotic ruler who was eventually assassinated, but he is renowned for his friendly contact with Captain James Cook during 1773, his protection and direction of the first Christian missionaries , and as the grandfather of the first King of all Tonga.

His god was the octopus , and the village in which he resided was a water-village in that he had constructed a canal large enough for large ocean-going canoes connecting the village to the sea, and providing spiritual access between the people and their god. The village was supplied with fresh water from the shallow ground water available on site. It was defended with the engineering of two concentric perimeter moats. Tuku’aho residence was at the centre of this fortified compound which required huge amounts of (no metal implements) labour and engineering ingenuity to create. It was located on near level land about a kilometre from the sea, where the watertable of fresh water was within a metre of the surface. Here the two concentric canals, overall 220M in diameter, surround the compound, with a palisade and matting wall built on the median land between these two moats. Each moat was about 2 metres deep and 7.5 metres wide, and only interconnected near the surface to allow flood flows to discharge. Two long ditches leading to the outer moat added run-off water from red clay area to the south and south-west.

There was no earth wall, as in other fortified villages elsewhere on Tongatapu, for the width and depth of the moats provided excellent defence, and the internal moat also served to supply water such that this village would withstand any siege. The artificial canal is a kilometre in length and terminates just outside the main entrance to the compound. But defeat didn’t come in a battle waged from the outside but from within.

Tuku’aho’s despotic authority and his abusive use of slaves may have accomplished both his authority and significant construction projects but it also led to his assassination, and what followed was a long period of violence that has been described as civil war.

During this period, William Mariner a survivor of the taking of the armed British whaler “Port au Prince” in 1806 and the massacre of most of its crew, lived under the protection of the Finau ‘Ulukalala II, the new principal chief in central and northern Tonga. Mariner lived to return to England and he describes the exploits of Finau ‘Ulukalala and the culture of Tonga in great detail in his Tonga Book published in 1817.

Tuku’aho was reported to “have been a man of a vindictive and cruel turn of mind” wrote Mariner. Tuku’aho was both cruel and wanton. His many acts of barbarity laid the foundation for insurrection, and out of it came a complete revolution in the political state of all of Tonga.

Tupouniua, a great chief on Tongatapu was “exceedingly oppressed by the tyranny of Tuku’aho till at length he determined to be free or die in an attempt ”. He his brother Finau ‘Ulukalala II was the tributary chief to Tuku’aho and ruler of the Ha’apai Islands (central part of the Tongan archipelago) and with him Tupouniua colluded. It is clear that Finau had his own power ambitions and this was the opportunity that suited him. Together, Tupouniua and Finau visited Tuku’aho at his fortress, Kolovai (literally = water village), in Hihifo. They paid their respects to Tuku’aho presenting him with kava roots, ngatu (tapa cloth), a pig and several baskets of yams. They retired remaining that night in the vicinity of King Tuku’aho’s house inside the Kolovai compound. During the night, creeping between the lines of sleeping women accompanying the King, Tupouniua approached the sleeping king while Finau posted his men around the exterior of the fale (house) to kill any who fled the house.

Tupouniua woke and axed the king to death hitting in the face. As the assassin fled, taking with him the King’s adopted 3 year old son, Finau and his men despatched the other residents in the King’s fale (house). Finau and Tuponiua and then men then took their canoes to Ha’akili 4kms away on the peninsula of NW Tongatapu. Assembling a “considerable number of adherents” they returned to the Kolovai compound in the morning and immediately destroyed the canoes there, then met with the assembled loyalists (of Tuku’aho) about a kilometre away.

There on open ground, a general battle ensued “which lasted till night with great slaughter on both sides. The attackers were eventually driven back and retreated to Ha’akili. Fortuitously for them they arrived as a two large canoes of warriors returned from exploits in Fiji under the command of another Tongan chief, Tu’ihalafatai. Tupouniua and Tu’ihalafatai led their men against the loyalists and both willing to die gloriously in battle having rid Tonga of a cruel despot, fought with fury and determination. Tu’ihalafatai died in the thick of battle having personally killed many enemy warriors. And while Finau and his men fought also, losing many men, Finau survived having become the decisive victor, though at the cost of many of his men.

As he returned to his base on Lifuka in the Ha’apai group of islands, he put down pockets of resistance by loyalists on Nomuka and Ha’ano islands, so returned to central Tonga as King of Ha’apai, no longer a tributary chief to Tuku'aho.

From this point on, Tongatapu was divided into several petty states, all at war with one another, whilst Finau ruled Ha’apai and Vava’u on his own right, without Tuku’aho over him. In the Hihifo district, the remains of several forts can be seen readily today, each with its own distinctive defence engineering.

On a an elevated ridge parallel to the western sea coast, there is a watch-tower fort that commands clear view of two fanga (bays with landing beaches) both 700M equidistant from the circular lookout which is surrounded by a deep ditch some 4M deep beneath the 3M slope of the perimeter of the viewing platform. This circular defensible lookout is 3.2 km due west of Kolovai fort.

Located 2 kms due west of Kolovai Fort is the remains of another circular fort. It is defended by a circular ditch, 4 metres deep. The area of this war village (kolotau) is about 1.2 Hectares, allowing for safety from arrows and other missiles within the centre of the protected area.

Another kolotau, called Nukunuku in the period of the civil war, but now known as Hule today, is located 3 kms ESE of the Kolovai kolotau. It too is circular, surrounded by a 3M earth wall and an external 4 M ditch. Like Kolovai kolotau it too is very much intact today. It is approximately 110M in diameter. On its southern side, there is a gate (partial gap) in the perimeter wall, which provided access to its water source, a conical excavation to the water table. This well is 18M in diameter and about 7 M deep. As the water table fluctuates on the Hihifo plains, I visited this site after a long dry period and found shallow water and permanent reeds and sedges growing in the water, and visited it again a week after some good rain. On the second occasion the watertable had risen almost 2 metres.

The civil war period drew to an end as Taufa'ahau emerged as the new king of all Tonga. He is the first of the current ruling dynasty. King Taufa'ahau George Tupou I is reputed to have defeated Nukunuku, killing all there save on small female child. Her descendants are well known today.

Another larger kolotau that relied on double ditches is located east of Utulau, about 8kms SE of Kolovai.

During the era of the civil war, the opportunities for cultivation of yams were limited, many men were lost in the battles, and destruction of plantation crops was a stratagem of the wars. And there was little time for cultivation because of the constancy of conflict or preparing for conflict. This was a time of serious famine.

William Mariner described an incident, reported to him, which occurred during the period of the civil war when each village was an enemy of its neighbours. In the kolotau at Nookoonookoo (Nukunuku), when Tuku'aho still ruled at Kolovai, two chiefly girls played a competitive game of lafo (a version of marbles whereby stones are used to drive other stones that are placed on a mat from the mat) intending to share the large yam they had in their possession with the boys if they won, but if the girls were to win the game, the boys would receive a share of the yam provided they went out killed a person and returned with the body to share it with the girls. Mariner is at pains to explain that such cannibalism was a recent introduction following the exploits of some of the Tongan warriors who had sailed to Fiji and joined in their wars, where cannibalism was commonplace. He also emphasises that this incident and others coincided with the period of war-induced famine.

Having lost the game, the two boys then went to an enemy village and waited outside under cover of darkness until dawn. When the first person came out of the fortifications with coconut shells to collect salt water, he was attacked and clubbed to death, then they hastened to carry his body the 3 kms back to the security of their kolotau at Nukunuku.

The key to identifying which enemy village they went to, is the mention of the "salt water" that was to be collected. This can only be Kolovai. And I have stood at the gate, walked the few metres to the sea-water canal, and expected to be surprised by a pair of young enemies from Nukunuku.

However the missionaries that the sadistic and brutal Tuku’aho had protected and their successors began an unstoppable transformation of all of Tonga and the conversion of both Finau Ulukalala and Tuku’aho’s grandson, King Taufa'ahau Tupou I to Christianity. This embracing of Christianity brought an end to such wanton and generational violence. A kingdom of peaceful civil society was created.

And the existence of the kolotau at Kolovai or Nukunuku passed into the legends of history.

© Ian Stehbens, 2011

bdeh on December 11, 2011

Thank you for the interesting information Ian. Greetings Berend

25011955 on February 16, 2014

Dear Ian Stehbens,

re: correction to the comment stated by you on the site known as Kolovai Fort at Te'ekiu, Western District of Tongatapu.

I would like to state herewith that the information you noted in conjuction with the picture of Kolovai Fort IS NOT correct....this place you took photo of is my property at Te'ekiu....and the place was not a Fort built by Tuku'aho but it was build by the Teekiu people and by the Motu'apuaka Clan.....Tuku'aho was not involved anytime on this plot of land....I owned this land and I have made the two moats for the cattle as water catchment....of course it was a fort but nothing at all to do with Tuku'aho.....he was slained on the Eastern District of Tongatapu but not at the West as you have described on the photo shown...lastly, I was suprised to see the photos were taken inside my property therefore I would like to know who authorised you and your coworkers to trespass my property at Te'ekiu.....I hope you can correct the information you stated as this may change our history from right to wrong in the future.....Regards....Sione Tukia, Kolomotua /Teekiu, Tongatapu,Tonga...email add: 25011955@gmail.com

Ian Stehbens on May 24, 2014

Dear Sione Tukia,

I appreciate your advice about the history of Kolovai Fort.

Thank you for the information that the Kolovai Fort was built by the Teekiu people and by the Motu'apuaka Clan.

The written authority which seems to me to confirm what I have written was William Mariner whose account of his years in Tonga are published in The Tonga Book. February 1805- June 1811. If I have misinterpreted anything, then I am fully responsible for that.

I would love to be able to sit in a kava circle with you and learn from you more about the death of Tuku'aho, especially to learn the associated locations and routes taken by Finau and Tupouniua at that time. The following quote from William Mariner makes it clear that Tuku'aho was killed in the West - in a fort, that had canoe access... and not too distant from Ha'akili (the western tip of Tongatapu), which is different from your understanding.

Tupouniau and Finau "and their followers betook themselves as quickly as possible to Ha'akili. Early in the morning confusion and dismay reigned in Tongatapu. Men and women ran they know not wither, unknowing whether to join this party or that. Old men were seen making speeches to the people, encouraging them to avenge the death of their chief. The numerous relations and friends of the deceased King ran about beating their breasts and weeping. Shells were heard blowing in every quarter as signals of war and disturbance to assemble the friends of the late Hau and to summon together the partizans of liberty. Finau and Tupouniua in the course of a few hours assembled together a considerable number of adherents. After launching their canoes in case their retreat from the island should be necessary, they proceeded to Hihifo, the place where the Hau was killed. When they arrived there, their first concern was to destroy the enemy's canoes; and they succeeded in doing it after some opposition. They next directed their march to the place where the loyalists were assembled, about three quarters of a mile distant from Hihifo. A general battle took place which lasted till night with great slaughter on both sides. Finau's party was at length repulsed and forced to fly back to Ha'akili wherre they remained till the evening of the ensuing day.."

I have very much appreciated learning Tongan history from Tongans, and at the same time reading the landscape as a geographer.

I would have liked to have met you and discussed the history when I was in Tekiu, Kolovai and Nukunuku.

I would welcome any further comment, or discussion.

Yours appreciatively,


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  • Uploaded on December 1, 2011
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    by Ian Stehbens