In 1616 the vessels of Jacob Lemaire and Willem Cornelis Schouten reached the island of Niuatobutabu, and had a hostile encounter with the natives. In 1643 Abel Tasman arrived at Tongatabu and was more fortunate. The next visit was that of Samuel Wallis in 1767, followed in 1773 by that of Captain Cook. In 1777 Cook returned, and stayed seven weeks among the islands. In 1799 a revolution, having its origin in jealousy between two natives of high rank, broke out. Civil war dragged on for many years, long after the deaths of the first leaders, but Taufaahau, who became king in 1845 under the name of George Tubou I, proved a strong ruler. In 1822 a Methodist missionary had arrived in the island, and others followed. The attempt to introduce a new faith led to renewed strife, this time between converts and traditionalists, but King George supported the missionaries, and by 1852 the rebels were subdued. The missionaries, finding their position secure, began to take action in political affairs, and persuaded the king to grant a constitution to the Tongans, who welcomed it. A triennial parliament, a cabinet, a privy council, and an elaborate judicial system were established, and the cumbrous machinery was placed in the hands of a prime minister, a retired Wesleyan missionary, Mr Shirley Baker. Treaties of friendship were concluded with Germany, Great Britain, and the United States of America. Baker induced the king to break off his connection with the Wesleyan body in Sydney, and to set up a state church. Persecution of members of the old church followed, and in 1890 the missionary-premier had to be removed from the group by the high commissioner. He afterwards returned to initiate a new sect called the Free Church of England, which for a time created further divisions among the people.
King George Tubou died in 1893 at the age of ninety-six, and was succeeded by his great-grandson under the same title. In May 1900 the group became a British protectorate under the native flag, the appointment of the consul and agent being transferred to the government of New Zealand. In 1904 the financial and legal administration was put into the hands of the British High Commissioner for the Western Pacific.
Tonga attained independence in 1970.