Volume 87 1978 > Memoir No. 42: The nobility and the chiefly tradition in the modern Kingdom of Tonga, by George E. Marcus, p 1-166 > Chapter 7: Conclusion, p 159-166
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The historical transformation of Tonga, as well as other Polynesian societies, can be broadly characterised as the overtaking of traditional chiefly privilege and control of the social order by Western-derived reforms. Controlled by a successfully imposed monarchical political system, the transformation of Tongan society appears on the surface to have stopped short of the collapse of chiefly influence. Indeed, the position of the chiefs seems to have been reinforced by the creation of a new nobility. However, the theme underlying the interpretations of this study is that the noble title system has been a mask for a vastly more complex interpenetration of (a) the levelling and homogenisation of traditional stratification and (b) a persisting diffuse 'eiki culture. The most powerful and significant chiefs of the old order were buffered by new noble status from the collapse of their traditionally defined prerogatives while at the same time their effective influence was limited by profound restraints on their privileges as they took part in the compromise culture institutions. A centralised state replaced the descent-based organisation of chiefs as the framework of the political system, and at the controlling centre of the state was the king. The nobles, as aristocrats and gentry, came to be more dependent upon the favour of the monarch, who determined their personal social standings of honour and authority within the state.

Although a distinctive status group, identified with the Tupou dynasty's legitimacy, the nobles, as separate members of compromise culture and contemporary Tongan society, merge into the mass of competing and co-operating family estate networks. Even though Tonga was reconstructed by conscious design on a European model, it makes little sense to speak of its present social organisation in terms of classes or horizontal social strata. The noble title system has in practice turned out to be a set of offices with accompanying special benefits. Among the titleholders themselves there has been as much diversity in social standing and variety of responses to change and reform as among those excluded from the nobility. It is little wonder, then, that this analysis of the historical development of the nobility and its contemporary position in society has, in fact, entailed a broader analysis of Tongan modernisation. The nobility is an appropriate unit of study, but it cannot be understood apart from the total condition of change, both because the nobility was thoroughly involved in the compromise culture reforms, and because values originating in chiefly culture are shared widely among the population. The nobles are most discriminated as a separate group in their ritual functions, in the legally - 160 defined and patterned ways in which they participate in contemporary social contexts, and in the way that they are perceived (for example, as anachronistic, parasitic, or exploitative) by members of the population who do not share their special advantages.

Unlike the landed aristocracies and gentries of Europe and Asia, the Tongan chiefs did not evolve over generations into a class of landlords, but instead had their legal status and conditions of nobility and estates thrust upon them as a reward for their support, and as a means of maintaining the new monarchy's traditional legitimacy. Titleholding and estate-holding have primarily been used by noble families to compete for the attention and favour of successive monarchs, rather than as a base from which to define their continued personal independence as chiefs. At the very least, titleholding and estate-holding have allowed nobles, secure in income and office, to opt out of the new arenas of social mobility; at most, it has given them special access to routes of mobility in the opportunity structures controlled by the monarchical state and the church organisations.

In my definition of contexts and presentation of case studies, two important features of the nobility became evident: (1) there is considerable diversity and flexibility among nobles themselves in coping with change, particularly the recent accelerated modernisation; and (2) although constrained by distinct modes of participation within their different social contexts, the nobles as a group do not necessarily all enjoy membership in a socio-economic elite. Broadly, nobles have either remained aloof from compromise culture institutions and current modernisation (adopting either the anachronistic insistence on traditional chiefship of Kaila'ā or the quietly detached stance of Kapatau), or they have competed for socio-economic elite status, using whatever special resources they personally possess (as in the case of the marginally aristocratic Vakalā).

The reactions of untitled Tongans to the nobility range from the negative evaluation of non-aristocratic nobles with too much chiefly pretension, to an equally negative evaluation of those with too little, to the positive evaluation of aristocratic or marginally aristocratic nobles whatever their personal pretensions. Although the nobility as a formal legal institution is generally and increasingly disliked and disparaged, individual nobles do not receive consistent responses to their traditionally defined 'eiki status. Individual titleholders do not necessarily (and perhaps rarely) fit the expectations that others have of them in filling their chiefly roles. Either they are judged as too pretentious, being criticised for their preference for cultural conservatism in the face of change, or as not careful enough of their vanity, being censured for their attempts to be like commoner elites. The nobility has been structurally opposed to reforms arising from church activity, lower level bureaucratic employment, economic enterprise, and education; these are the arenas from which a compromise culture, untitled elite has been developed. Although involved in these institutions in the past, the nobility refrained from full commitment to them in order to protect its chiefly privilege, already lessened by the original reforms, but none the less strongly supported by the favour of the culturally conservative monarch, Queen Sālote.

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This comfortable half-way participation in the compromising culture institutions has been rapidly undermined since the succession to the throne of the present monarch, who is once again using the power of the state as the generator of reform. The compromise culture nobles are responding to the new challenge by celebrating their former glories, by standing pat, or by moving actively towards fuller participation in modern institutions in competition with the new elite. For the “progressive” nobles, the traditional aloof stance of the nobility has been perhaps more of an obstacle than an advantage in adaptation. Consequently, upwardly mobile nobles display in their personal demeanour a reversal of sorts from the expected supercilious behaviour associated with their titleholding roles.

Ironically, the “progressive” stance of some nobles gains them a negative evaluation among many of the population for not being sufficiently proud as the modern counterparts of traditional chiefs, thus reflecting the ambivalent feelings Tongans have towards the nobility. This mixed popular reaction to the nobility derives from the ambiguous, if not contradictory, combination of a universally shared kinship system, modelled on concepts of chiefly honour and authority, and the segmentation of society into discrete family estate units, which developed through vigorous competition for limited resources and opportunities for mobility in the period before the current accelerated tempo of economic activity. This combination in the past produced a small commoner elite within the reform institutions, yet continuing widespread respect for a shared 'eiki culture, focused symbolically on the nobility.

In Tonga, the old elites were thoroughly transformed and caught up in the reforms that the Tupou dynasty initiated. During each reign, the culturally most conservative and stubborn nobles have also been the least influential and powerful within the state. Flexibility and a capacity to accommodate and tolerate the reforms have been important characteristics of elite gentry and aristocratic nobles of past and present compromise culture generations. Unlike ancien régime Europe, where upwardly mobile commoners would seek to acquire eventual noble status, 1 in Tonga the predominant trend has been for upwardly mobile nobles to seek to acquire the lifestyles of elite commoners, who both epitomise achievement within the reform institutions and retain in their family organisation elements of an 'eiki culture.

In short, the compromise culture has produced a mixed noble/commoner elite, who acquired social standings through a combination of ascribed and achieved attributes and positions within the hierarchies of church, state, and education, and, at the highest levels, through the personal favour of the monarch. This elite, formerly quite “modern” in its development, is in the present situation of accelerated modernisation the most culturally conservative (in terms of the compromise culture) and the most influential political force in Tongan society. Their acquired positions and control of resources are threatened because the rules for achieving individual social mobility are changing. Elite commoners and nobles face the possibility - 162 of having to make room or provide for the landless, the better educated, and those with improved material conditions and higher aspirations. The important division between the privileged and unprivileged was perhaps best illustrated on a large scale in the discussion (Chapter 5) of the ideological context of land tenure. Tonga's limited land resources are divided among those with permanent hereditary interests in tofi'a and 'api tukuhau. Those who have no land, but who are legally entitled to it, are excluded.

The modern nobles straddle this division between “haves” and “have-nots”. There are those who have long been “in”, that is, among the compromise culture bureaucratic and social elite; there are those who want in, that is, the newly forming elite, including those gentry nobles who appear increasingly “progressive”; and there are those who are “out”, among whom are the culturally anachronistic and unambitious nobles, satisfied and sustained by their sinecures.

I would not venture a prediction regarding the future of the Tongan monarchy. It is only now on the way to a level of political and economic modernisation which fallen Third World monarchies had and surviving ones have long experienced. There are a number of possible moves that could expand political participation before any abrupt change in the office of monarch itself would appear likely, such as the formation of political parties, the increase in the political influence of parliament (which may now be occurring), the readjustment of parliamentary representation, and, perhaps most radically, the abolition of part or all of the former legal elements of noble definition. A reluctance to tamper with any of the basic reforms which were initiated with the establishment of the present dynasty has characterised the reigns of the Tupou monarchs, including the present king. This reluctance suggests the attitude that, were any radical public modifications of these founding and legitimising reforms made, there might be no end to such change until the monarchy itself was destroyed. Thus, the outright abolition of formal noble privilege, introduced with the present dynasty, is probably unlikely.

Just as the nobility was the creation of the Tupou monarchy, its fate is at least partly intertwined with that of the kingship. Elite nobles may privately be somewhat critical of the present modernisation policies, but, dependent on the monarch for their personal prestige, they all are his overt supporters, whatever his policies, and cannot be considered even a loyal opposition. This dependence does not, however, work as strongly the other way, and a decline of the nobility would not signal the end of 'eiki values and respect for sino'i'eiki which support the kingship. In fact, as suggested in Chapter 2, the prestige of the king and people of sino'i'eiki status may be enhanced by the decline in social standing of gentry nobles. Whatever its fate, the nobility has shown a wide range of responses to the changing worlds that its reigning reformist monarchs have made for it. In each generation, some nobles have been upwardly mobile and others unambitious or culturally conservative; successors do not necessarily perpetuate the social standings of their predecessors. The salvation of the nobility, or at least the fortunes of those holding noble titles who have not considered themselves locked into preserving a strong “noble” - 163 tradition, may lie in this flexibility in dealing with change. The formation of the nobility was a critical and necessary factor in the transformation of the traditional Tongan polity. The changing fortunes and social positions of the nobles continue to be crucial indicators of how the monarch may cope with the need for continuing reform. Furthermore, the changing aspirations of the whole population are reflected in their mixed attitudes toward the nobility, seen as a distinctive segment of society, whose members nevertheless have displayed considerable variation among themselves in responding to different periods of change.

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1   See, for example, Goubert's analysis (1973) of ancien régime French society.