How A Misjudged Act Of Piracy (And A Pig’s Snout) Give The Currency Of Tonga Its Name

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Many of the world’s currencies take their names from fairly predictable origins, like the names of weights and measures (the pound); precious metals (the Indian rupee literally means “silver”); royal seals or stamps (the Scandinavian krone means “crown”); or the names of locally-important people (as in the Venezuelan bolívar) or places (dollar comes from Joachimsthal, a silver mining town in the Czech Republic). But the name of the currency of Tonga, the pa‘anga, has a fairly lengthy history that involves an ill-informed act of piracy by a 19th century king, the Tongan word for a pig’s nose, and the seeds of a local bean vine native to the Tongan archipelago. But the entire story begins with the capture of a ship in the Caribbean in the late 1700s.

In 1793, the British Navy seized a French galleon off the coast of Haiti. On its return to England early the following year, the ship was officially logged in Lloyd’s Register of Ships in London as a “French prize” by its new captain, Henry Hayne, who renamed the ship in honor of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Hayne promptly sold the Port-au-Prince to a local shipping company, and over the next decade she operated under various owners, captains, and crews as a slave ship, traveling between West Africa and British colonies in America and the West Indies. 

All that changed in 1805, when the Port-au-Prince’s new owner, a London shipping magnate named Robert Bent, reassigned the ship from transporting slaves across the Atlantic to hunting whales in the Pacific. Bent had the Port-au-Prince repaired and refurbished, and doubled the size of her crew.

There were now many more men on board than any ordinary whaling ship would ever need, but Bent had an ulterior motive: He hired a captain named Isaac Duck, and commissioned him and his crew to sail the Port-au-Prince to the Pacific. Ostensibly, they were there to hunt whales, but in reality, their intention was to raid the coastal towns of Spain’s South American colonies. The Port-au-Prince was now part-whaler, part-privateer—with the extra crew being required to man any other ships that they might capture on their way.

Duck and the Port-au-Prince set sail from Gravesend in Kent, England, on February 12, 1805. Having already captured and looted a number of Spanish ports and smaller vessels en route, she rounded Cape Horn in June and, once in the Pacific, teamed up with another of Bent’s acquisitions, a second privateer named the Lucy. Together, the two ships carried out a series of devastatingly successful raids all along the Pacific coast throughout the summer of 1805. Towns and ports from as far north as Mexico to Chile in the south were attacked. Ships were captured and plundered, and a considerable amount of loot was accumulated before the two went their separate ways in October. 

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The Port-au-Prince continued operating alone well into 1806, during which time two prized Spanish cargo ships—the Santa Isidora and the Santa Anna—were also seized and plundered. Alongside it all, Captain Duck still managed to maintain the whaling side of the Port-au-Prince’s business, hunting more than a dozen whales (including four in one day) and several thousands seals off the South American coast during its travels. But on August 11, 1806, Captain Duck suddenly took ill and died. The ship’s whaling-master, Mr. Brown, assumed the captaincy, but recognizing that the ship was by now in a state of disrepair—and that her crew were massively disheartened by the captain’s unexpected death—Brown decided that the time had come to head home. He plotted a route west across the Pacific, via Hawaii and Tahiti, to Port Jackson in Sydney, where the Port-au-Prince could be repaired ahead of its long journey back to Europe. Brown’s plan, however, was to prove fatal.

The Port-au-Prince arrived in Hawaii at the end of September, where supplies were replenished and eight Hawaiian men volunteered to join the ship’s crew. A week later she set sail again, heading for Tahiti. But once at sea, a leak in the ship’s side quickly worsened. In the race to repair it, the Port-au-Prince missed Tahiti and was forced to push further south towards Tonga. She arrived there on November 29, 1806, anchoring off the central island of Lifuka

A group of native Tongans—including several local chiefs—canoed out to meet the crew of the Port-au-Prince, and brought with them a whole barbequed hog as a welcome gift. Despite the friendly greeting, however, the Hawaiians on the ship’s crew were cautious and warned Captain Brown not to trust them. Noticing too that the islanders were armed with clubs, several other crewmembers requested that an armed watch be maintained on the ship’s deck at all times. Brown ignored all their concerns.

The Port-au-Prince remained in harbor for a further two days until, on December 1, 1806, a party of 300 natives—including another local chief—canoed out from Lifuka and climbed aboard, curiously taking up positions all over the deck of the ship. The chief innocently offered Captain Brown a tour of the island, which he accepted. Brown headed off, unarmed, back to the shore, but once there he was led to an isolated beach on the opposite side of the island and clubbed to death. Back on deck, the other islanders likewise set about murdering the ship’s crew and taking control of the Port-au-Prince

Below deck, in steerage, the ship’s 16-year-old clerk William Mariner heard the commotion above and hid in the Port-au-Prince’s munitions store with the ship’s cooper. Together, the pair hatched a plan to blow up the ship’s magazine from the inside, undoubtedly killing themselves yet aiming to take as many of their attackers with them as possible. But as Mariner left to fetch a flint to light a fire, he quickly realized that he would be unable to get one without causing too much noise; the pair decided to surrender.

By now, however, the islanders had killed enough of the crew to secure control of the ship, and seemingly with little reason to kill Mariner and the cooper, the pair were led up onto the deck—where the bodies of all the rest of the crew were being laid out—and transported back to shore. Presuming that he was still going to be killed, Mariner was surprised to find that the island’s king, Fīnau Feletoa, had requested to see him. So while the cooper and the only two other survivors of the Port-au-Prince crew were taken to a local village, Mariner was instead led through the jungle to a hut at the opposite end of the island. Inside, Fīnau greeted Mariner warmly and—speaking through an Hawaiian interpreter who had learned English from the crew of an American ship he had served on several years earlier—he soon discovered that Fīnau had seen him the day the Port-au-Prince had arrived and, believing him to be the captain’s son or else a man of great consequence back in England, ordered that if it ever became necessary to kill the ship’s crew then Mariner’s life should be spared. The boy also apparently reminded Fīnau of his son, who had died several years earlier; as a result, Fīnau all but adopted Mariner as his own son, renaming him Toki ’Ukamea, or “Iron Axe.” 

Mariner went on to spend the next four years living among the Tongan people. He became fluent in the Tongan language, learned and played their sports and games, trained with their army and fought in several local conflicts. He also took an interest in their politics, and eventually became the owner of his own plantation on the island. Despite clearly taking to his adopted country, however, after Fīnau’s death in 1809, Mariner opted to return home to England when another European ship, the Favourite, visited Tonga the following year. Back home, he published two successful volumes of his memoir, An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands, in 1827.

So what does all this have to do with the Tongan currency? Well, in his account Mariner recalled that after the crew of the Port-au-Prince had been killed, Fīnau plundered all of the ship’s cannon and weaponry and then ordered the boat be hauled to the shore and burnt, so that any remaining iron or metal items could be recovered and collected. Among what remained were $12,000 that the Port-au-Prince and the Lucy had taken from the Spanish back in South America. But Fīnau didn’t see the coins as valuable, and presumed instead that they were merely a European equivalent of pa‘anga—a local word for a type of vine whose bean-like fruits were dried and used as beads in gambling games or as worthless decorations or adornments. Ultimately, Fīnau ordered the treasure to be hauled out to sea and sunk with the rest of what remained of the ship.

Several months later, while Mariner, Fīnau, and some of the island’s other elders sat talking in the king’s hut, the topic of money came up in conversation. At the time, the Tongans still used a bartering system in place of currency despite Mariner having repeatedly tried to get Fīnau to understand the Western idea of money

[Fīnau] expressed his astonishment at the perseverance with which white people worked from morning till night, to get money; nor could he conceive how they were able to endure so much labour…            …After a pause of some length, Finow [Fīnau] replied that the explanation did not satisfy him; he still thought it a foolish thing that people should place a value on money, when they could not or would not apply it to any useful (physical) purpose. “If,” said he, “it were made of iron, and could be converted into knives, axes, and chisels, there would be some sense in placing a value on it; but as it is, I see none.”

When Mariner then pointed out that the dollars Fīnau had found on the Port-au-Prince and since disposed of were money:

… he was greatly surprised, having always taken them for páänga and things of little value; and he was exceedingly sorry he had not secured all the dollars out of the Port au Prince, before he had ordered her to be burnt. “I had always thought,” said he, “that your ship belonged to some poor fellow, perhaps King George’s cook; for Captain Cook’s ship [which had landed in Tonga in 1773] had plenty of beads, axes, and looking-glasses on board, whilst yours had nothing but iron hoops, oils, skins, and twelve thousand páänga, as I thought: but if every one of these was money, your ship must have belonged to a very great chief indeed.

Despite Fīnau’s reservations, when Tonga became a British protectorate in 1900, the British pound was introduced as the island’s chief unit of currency, before the Tongan pound was introduced in 1921. That remained in place until 1967, when Tonga’s status as a protectorate began to diminish ahead of independence in 1970, and a new national currency was sought. 

Initially, this new monetary system was simply to be called the Tongan dollar, but when it was pointed out that “dollar” sounded almost identical to “tola,” a Tongan word for a pig’s snout, it became clear that a new name had to be found. In the end—and in light of the tale of Fīnau and the thousands of dollars he naïvely destroyed—the name pa‘anga was chosen and remains in use today.