Home > A Cook's Tour of Tonga

2 December, 1770


"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 ".

The site of  Cook's landing at Tongatapu in 1777
The site of Cook's landing at Tongatapu in 1777
Click any image on web page for a larger version

Unbeknownst to Cook, Finau was plotting to murder Cook and his men, and then loot his ships. The plan was to lure the crew to a convenient location and then kill them. However, due to fortuitous timing and in-fighting among the local chiefs the plot was never executed, and Resolution and Discovery escaped unmolested.

It is perhaps one of the great ironies of history that the land which had inspired such warmth in Cook as to bestow on it the moniker of the Friendly Islands was also the site of a plot to kill him!

The truth was only revealed upon the publication of William Mariner's account of his years spent in Tonga;5 Mariner himself was on board Port au Prince when it was treated in just the manner that was once planned for Cook's ships.

Finau also perpetrated another great lie when he dissuaded Cook from accompanying him to Vava'u in the north, telling him there was no suitable anchorage or harbour. In fact, the island of Vava'u is host to one of the world's greatest harbours, the Port of Refuge, and today proves a popular destination for yachties and sailors the world over.

However Cook was never to discover the waters of Vava'u, for he sailed southwards, arriving in Tongatapu in June. The ships remained in Tongatapu for a further month, and during that time Cook described many of his interactions with the Polynesians. Cook's journals, along with the account of William Mariner, provide the best documentation of pre-Christian life in the region, and as such are a valuable record.

How the  landing site looked until recently
How the landing site looked until recently
Cook's time in Tonga is commemorated by a plaque at the site of his landing at Tongatapu in 1777, where it is said that he rested under a great banyan tree before journeying to the capital, Mu'a, to see the King. The banyan tree of yesteryear is no longer there, however a younger tree, said to be a descendant of the original, stands at the site. The name of the tree, Malumalu 'o Fulilangi, means "shading under the sky".

The plaque reads:

Here stood formerly the great banyan "Malumalu 'o Fulilangi" or Captain Cook's tree under the branches of which the celebrated navigator came ashore on his way to visit Pau, the Tu'i Tonga (sacred king of Tonga) on the occasion of the 'Inasi (presentation of the first fruits) in the year 1777.
Plaque at  landing site
Plaque at landing site
The site was recently overhauled and interpretive signage was put up, and a small souvenir and craft shop has been established. Visitors can now gaze out into the lagoon from a cement platform and imagine Cook's ships sailing into the waterway more than 230 years ago.

As for Cook, as he "took leave of the Friendly Islands and their Inhabitants after a stay of between two and three Months, during which time we lived together in the most cordial friendship", he concluded that "the advantages we received by touching here was very great ".


Isa Menzies
I work as the volunteer Heritage and Project Interpretation Officer for the Ministry of Tourism in Tonga through the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program, an Australian Government AusAID initiative.


  1. See Cook's Log, page 1538, vol. 21, no. 3 (1998).
  2. See Cook's Log, page 25, vol. 27, no. 3 (2004).
  3. See Cook's Log, page 1563, vol. 21, no. 4 (1998).
  4. See Cook's Log, page 1630, vol. 22, no. 2 (1999).
  5. See Cook's Log, page 1952, vol. 25, no. 2 (2002).

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 30, volume 32, number 1 (2009).

Sort by:
profile photo
thanks very much for this info about the legendary Capt James Cook discovery of Tonga. Would very much appreciate a copy of these in my possession. Am historian and engaging in writing a comprehensive History of Tonga in vernacular language (in fact bi-lingual) and from a community perspective. Capt James Cook's visit and notes about Tonga is of great significance for this project. Would very much appreciate any help you would render for this project for Tonga and the global community.
By Paula Onoafe Latu on 4/1/2020 6:06:19 PM Like:2 DisLike:0
profile photo
Anne, what a fascinating discovery. The first Polynesian to come to the UK was Omai in 1774. He was in the country for several years before returning to the Society Islands. It was some years before other Polynesians came to the UK, usually taken on by ships who needed crew.
By Cliff Thornton on 8/10/2017 10:15:49 AM Like:2 DisLike:1
profile photo
I've recently discovered that I have Polynesian DNA, most likely because some of my ancestors lived in Plymouth at the time of Captain Cook's excursion to Tonga. I want to know, is there any evidence for the ships bringing back Polynesians to England?
By Anne Rayment on 8/5/2017 12:50:01 PM Like:6 DisLike:0
profile photo
Gilbert, Captain Cook wrote in his journal that he anchored in a bay which lay between the South end of Lifuka and the North end of Uoleva. This was on the west side of the islands. This gives the anchorage a location of approximately 19 degrees 49' 18'' S and 174 degrees 23' 09'' W.
By Cliff Thornton on 6/27/2017 7:55:25 AM Like:1 DisLike:0
profile photo
During Capt. Cook's 3rd visit, he visited Lifuka, would you have the coordinates of where he docked in Lifuka? Thank you.
By Gilbert Gallahar on 6/26/2017 9:39:44 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
profile photo
I'm looking for Cook's quotation about the women of Tonga and Tongan warriors and about there physical physiques.
By Sione L Toki on 5/26/2017 3:00:08 PM Like:2 DisLike:0
profile photo
Here is a reference which I believe meets your requirements -
"The Journals of Captain James Cook,
Vol. II The voyage of the Resolution and the Adventure 1772-73"
J.C.Beaglehole (Editor)
Hakluyt Society, 1961.
This is the published account of Cook's own journal, as opposed to one of the books written about his 2nd voyage. Whenever Cook was about to leave an island which he had encountered, he took some time to write up in his journal an account of the land, its vegetation, its inhabitants, their culture etc. In early October 1773, Cook visited the islands first discovered by Captain Tasman in January 1643. Tasman had called the islands Amsterdam and Middleburg, although the former was called by the inhabitants "Tonga-tabu". In writing about the fruits growing on the island, Cook lists Coconuts, Breadfruit, Plantains or bananas, Shaddocks.....and "a fruit like an Apple called by them Feghega..." This fruit is now known as the Mountain (or Malay) Apple, and on Tonga it is now called "fekika". Please let me know should you require any further information.
By Cliff Thornton on 6/25/2016 8:50:31 PM Like:3 DisLike:0
profile photo
QUESTION: The Marquis de Sade made frequent references to Captain Cook's diaries in his novel ALINE AND VALCOUR (1795), which includes a section that takes place on an imaginary South Seas island. He specifically mentions Cook and the Amsterdam Islands and makes reference to a sort of nectarine that the inhabitants call "figheha." I'd like to provide a citation for the reference in English texts. The French text cited translates as Cook's VOYAGE IN THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE AND AROUND THE WORLD, volume 2. Any help would be appreciated.
By John Galbraith Simmons on 6/25/2016 5:15:36 PM Like:3 DisLike:0
profile photo
thanks for the article. i'm interested in the claim by Mariner regarding the plot against Cook's life.

In most literature - proof is verified from several sources. Can you please point me to other literature articles that support Mariner's claims on this matter?

The fact that Mariner was a youngster at the time and not an expert in Tongan language and insinuative lingo (not to mention being held against his will in a foreign land) would argue there is some doubt in what he recollected (given - it was quite some time after returning home that his accounts were 'written'). If the book was for profitable causes - then the second argument would be that something extremely controversial would be of some benefit to the launching of the book?

If there has been research taken in this particular matter - please pass the links to me for further reading.

Thank you for your article and your assistance in this request.
S. A.
By scurious on 6/5/2015 3:29:39 AM Like:4 DisLike:0
profile photo
Isa, can you please if you may, send me further links/reading concerning these histories, I have a deep interest in pre-European Pacific history and would appreciate a person of your positions knowledge on these matters.


Malo Aupito via Aus
By FungaFaaUa on 2/14/2015 1:23:51 PM Like:1 DisLike:0

Unsolicited e-mail warning

It has come to our attention that spam mailers (senders of bulk unsolicited e-mail) have been forging their mail with this domain as the point of origin. As a matter of policy, we do not send out e-mail from our domain name. If you have received an email that appears to be from "@CaptainCookSociety.com" it was forged and sent without our consent, knowledge, or the use of our servers.