In celebration of Uike Kātoanga‘i ‘o e Lea Faka-Tonga - Tongan Language Week 2020, we highlight our first edition of a well known memoir by William Mariner, recounting his time in Tonga during the years 1806-1810. Stranded in the Haʻapai group, Mariner would eventually be adopted as a son by the chief Finau ʻUlukālala II, who would give him the name Toki Ukamea ("Iron Axe"). In the second half of this blog, guest writer and digital storyteller Richard Wolfgramm reflects on the enduring significance of Mariner’s memoir and his desire to create a podcast that could bring the account of Toki Ukamea to a new and global diasporic audience.

An account of the natives of the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific Ocean, written by William Charles Mariner (b.1791 in London, d.1853), is an incredibly important documentation of Tongan language and culture, ceremonies and healing practices prior to the arrival of missionaries and their subsequent influence on Tongan culture and beliefs. It also describes the politics and events at the time as Mariner was able to observe through his close association with the historical figure, Finau ʻUlukālala II. Mariner’s account is indeed a captivating, adventure-filled yarn but as a treasure trove of knowledge that continues to inspire and inform, it is no wonder that there have been several efforts over the years to increase each new generation’s accessibility to it through translation and adaptation into new forms of media.

Mariner, was a 14 year-old ship’s clerk on the privateer ‘Port au Prince’ when the ship was intentionally wrecked off the coast of Lifuka, in the Haʻapai Group. His life spared by the formidable chief Finau ʻUlukālala II, Mariner was protected and cared for by one of Finau’s wives, Mafihape (Statham, 2008). He would spend the next four years living mostly in the northern group of Vavaʻu islands, even introducing the concept of writing to Finau whilst part of his household. With the help of his prior education and skill set as a ship’s clerk, Mariner quickly mastered the language, developing a strong understanding of Tongan grammar and vocabulary which would come in handy a few years later. 

When Mariner left Tonga and returned to Britain, he related his story to John Martin, MD. Mariner, already fluent in French and able to translate between English and French successfully, also had an exceptional memory, enabling him to recall and write down traditions and language readily for John Martin’s edits and preparation. Martin then worked with the prominent publisher John Murray to have the book printed and published in 1817. French and German translations followed shortly thereafter.


Image: Title page of An account of the natives of the Tonga Islands, in the South Pacific Ocean. With an original grammar and vocabulary of their language; AWMM DU880 MAR

Held in Auckland Museum’s heritage book collection are several sets of this two-volume memoir, a large section of which comprises a mix of notes on grammar and an extensive vocabulary listed in both English to Tongan and Tongan to English. We are fortunate that one of our first edition 1817 sets has a notable community connection in that it was previously owned by Gustav Kronfeld, a prominent trader in the Pacific. Born in Prussia to a German Jewish family in 1856, Gustav Kronfeld arrived in Tonga via Australia in the 1870s, where he became manager of Deutsche Handels-und Plantagen-Gesellschaft in Vavaʻu. By 1893 he was a naturalised citizen of New Zealand, living in Auckland with his Samoan wife Louisa Silveira and their ten children. The Kronfelds lived in a house Gustav had built in Eden Crescent called ‘Oli Ula’ (now demolished).

The Kronfeld family hosted Tonga’s beloved Queen Salote for several years in their home while she prepared to enter Diocesan Girls High School in 1913. While there she developed a lifelong friendship with Minna Kronfeld, who was just four years older. Given that Mariner’s book was already nearly 100 years old by the time Queen Salote came to stay with the Kronfeld family, we might imagine the family’s carefully stored possession of it and even Queen Salote borrowing the treasured volumes to read from time to time.

Image: From An account of the natives of the Tonga Islands, in the South Pacific Ocean. With an original grammar and vocabulary of their language; AWMM DU880 MAR

Over time there have been many reprints and new issues, such is the enduring popularity and significance of Mariner’s memoir. In 1981, the Vavaʻu Press, based in Tonga issued an edition that included a biographical essay about Mariner, written by Denis McCulloch, one of Mariner's great-great-grandsons. In an undertaking that took several decades to complete the linguist Dr. Nigel Statham and his wife Melenaite produced the first translation of Mariner’s account in the Tongan language entitled Ko ʻUlukālala ʻi Feletoa, ko e talanoa ʻa Toki Ukamea : William Mariner's Story in Tongan’. This publication included a foreword by Her Royal Highness Princess Angelika Lātūfuipeka Tukuʻaho and extensive historical and genealogical footnotes written by the Pacific historian Dorothy Crozier in consultation with Her Royal Highness Queen Salote. Today, you can access a digitised copy of Mariner’s two-volume memoir which has been posted on the Internet Archive here and here.

Earlier this year, a podcast was produced by Utah-based educator Richard Wolfgramm which breathes new life into Mariner’s account and introduces the work to a new audience, one that is digitally-savvy and global. Here, Richard reflects on the podcast and what it achieved.


Image: Pictorial collection image of historical faikava session, Thomas Andrew; AWMM PH-1992-6-81 

Si‘oto‘ofa, Richard. What did it mean for you to retell this story in a digital format, and who were you trying to reach? 

I have this vivid memory from childhood. I grew up in Vavaʻu and much of the events in Mariner’s account takes place there, especially in the villages of Feletoa and Mataika where remnants of the Feletoa fortress still stands today. Mataika is my maternal grandmother’s village. Her sister lived in Feletoa. There was an area in the Feletoa we were told as kids to avoid because, according to locals, it was haunted. So I would just stare at this forested area and thought it didn’t look so bad. I was a naturally curious kid, the kind who when told not to do something, my curiosity would go into overdrive and I would do the opposite. And yes, this got me in trouble many times. But I didn’t go in that area but occasionally would think about it. It wasn’t until I read Mariner’s account as an adult that I finally realized why that area in Feletoa was tapu: the soil was stained with blood, restless spirits, cracked bones, instruments of war buried deep in the land. I’m relieved I didn’t wander into the area and disturb them. Mariner’s account has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster: a white kid from England who was a cabin boy on a ship with a dark history, stranded in Tonga after the crew was slaughtered and the ship stripped and burnt to the ground in Haʻapai, Tonga, who played a pivotal role and a front row seat to the biggest civil war in Tongan history at the time—I mean, why isn’t this a HBO special already? 

Vavaʻu Press printed the first [modern] runs of Mariner’s account back in the 1980’s but it was rarely available. Thankfully, now with the internet, the book is accessible in terms of availability and cost. You no longer have to wait for Vavaʻu Press to issue another reprint because now you can read it on digital devices. So I felt doing a podcast was a natural progression, especially because of the pandemic. I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands working from home. I took advantage of that available time to do something creative while being confined, so it was also a much welcomed distraction and a way for me to cope with the strangeness and isolation caused by the pandemic. 

The podcast really started out as a love letter to my childhood in Vavaʻu, to my Vavaʻu connections, to memories of growing up in Vavaʻu. Those were my personal reasons. I honestly didn’t expect I would get over ten thousand listeners. Then the feedback started coming in, the audience started to grow and the podcast began to evolve. 

What feedback have you received from listeners? 

The feedback has been overwhelmingly supportive and positive. There’s not one that particularly stands out but I did learn through this journey that I love the process of discovery with the audience, so I’ve had listeners fill in the gaps via feedback where my knowledge falls short. I love that aspect of interactivity, which happens mostly on social media, I love the spirit of collaboration. Traditionally, knowledge is co-created and shared, what Palangis today call crowdsourcing, and we’ve been doing it for centuries because of the communal and collective aspect of our respective Pasifika cultures. I’m not one to claim I know everything, I don’t believe in gatekeeping (to a certain degree, because there are shady people out there who exploit our cultural assets for selfish reasons whom I’ve had to check), so co-creating and discovering knowledge excites me! 

Other feedback I’ve been enjoying immensely are the genealogy connections. People hear names mentioned in the podcast, the villages associated with those names, and then they start to make connections and share their genealogy to me. This has prompted me to also to look at my own and sure enough, I discovered my connections to pivotal figures in Tonga such as the main protagonist in Mariner’s account, Fīnau ʻUlukālala II, the Vavaʻu chieftess Toeʻumu, and many others through my 8th great grandfather Ngalumoetutulu. 

I love hearing from faikava clubs who listen to the podcast. These are mostly young men instead of the older established kalapu, and they would send pictures of themselves sitting around the kumete listening to the podcast through a bluetooth speaker.


What does this positive reception of the podcast indicate to you about Tongan audiences worldwide and what they are searching for or hope to connect to?

I’m a Gen-X Tongan in the USA and I work in secondary education with a heavy Pasifika student population. Even before the creation of the podcast, I was already aware these young kids yearn for meaningful connections to their respective cultures, and I see this also in tertiary education, young adults, even in that advanced stage of their education, who feel empty and disconnected. In my line of work, I often find myself in a cultural mediator role, drawing on my own experiences as a transnational Tongan living in the USA to contextualize and translate cultural meaning and practices in a contemporary language they understand, and helping them to sift through all the noise and distractions so they can discover those connections and make it work for themselves. I really try to instill the idea that culture is dynamic, fluid, and adaptive, because too many of our young people beat themselves up over not feeling adequate when it comes to their cultural identity. I felt Mariner’s account would appeal to this demographic because it contains many themes that are relatable–the clash of two different cultures and values, pre-Christian Tonga compared to Tonga today, class and privilege, war and peace, cruelty and mercy, matriarchy and patriarchy. I figured if I can tell this story right, the audience would come. And I was right. My audience are mostly millennial, Gen-Y and fellow Gen-X listeners from all over the world and it has been a beautiful journey. 

Richard Wolfgramm is an administrator and co-founder of Mana Academy Charter School in West Valley City, Utah, USA as well as the host of the Toki Ukamea podcast, which you can listen to here.

Library citation

DU880 MAR An account of the natives of the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific Ocean : with an original grammar and vocabulary of their language / compiled and arranged from the extensive communications of William Mariner, several years resident in those islands, by John Martin. / Mariner, William, 1791-1853, author. -- London: Printed for the author and sold by John Murray, 1817. 


Author unknown. (2017). ‘Castaway Mariner’s story translated into Tongan’. Cook Islands News. February 16, 2017. Accessed 31st August 2020

Statham, N. (2008). Manuscript XIX: Mafihape's Letter to William Mariner (1832). The Journal of Pacific History. Vol. 43, No. 3 (Dec 2008). pp 341-366. 

Tonga, N. (2018). Kie (Fine Mat). Te Papa Collections Online. Accessed 31st August 2020.