"I directed my Course to the West inclining to the South... to get into the Latitude of Amsterdam Island discovered by Tasman in 1643, my intention being to run as far west as that Island and even to touch there if I found it convenient", wrote Captain Cook on 18 September 1773.1
The notion of Tonga being "discovered" by the 17th century navigator Abel Janszoon Tasman may be slightly far-fetched, given that the island cluster has been inhabited by the people of Polynesia for around 3000 years. However, Tasman was the first recorded European to land here, and his reports and charts of the region brought the islands to the attention of the rest of the world.
In fact, the island of Tongatapu (named "Amsterdam" by Tasman due to its abundance of supplies) had been considered by the Royal Society as a possible location for viewing the 1769 transit of Venus.2 Had Wallis not returned to England with news of the newly charted King George's Island (Tahiti) a mere three months before Cook set off in Endeavour, the history of South Pacific exploration may have turned out very differently.
As it was, Cook did not encounter the Tongan islands until his Second Voyage, when he stopped at both 'Eua and Tongatapu (or, by Tasman's nomenclature, Middleburg and Amsterdam respectively) in October of 1773. Here he was "welcomed a shore by acclamations from an immence [sic] crowd of Men and Women not one of which had so much as a stick in their hands".3
Indeed, Cook found the islanders to be so accommodating that he returned to the archipelago in 1774 on his way back from New Zealand. Stopping at the island of Nomuka, Cook was sought out by name, and with this "proof that these people have a communication with Amsterdam ", the cultural unity of the islands was established.
It was at this time that he famously named the island group the Friendly Archipelago, "as a lasting friendship seems to subsist among the Inhabitants and their Courtesy to Strangers intitles [sic] them to that Name." 4
Cook's Third Voyage also included a visit to Tonga, this time for a stay of several months. Cook first dropped anchor at Nomuka in May, and then, at the invitation of the great chief Finau, travelled to another island, Lifuka. Here, Cook and his men were treated to such entertainments as "whould [sic] have met with universal applause on a European Theatre "