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Ruins of Talietumu fort on ʻUvea.

Talietumu Fort, Wallis and Futuna: The Fortress for a King Whose Feet Could Never Touch the Ground

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The islands of the South Pacific are best known as tropical paradises and many of them also have long histories and fascinating cultures. Talietumu is an archaeological site in the Polynesian islands of Wallis and Futuna. It is the site of a ruined medieval Tongan fort that has been restored and offers a fascinating insight into the unique history of Polynesia.

Ruins of Talietumu

Talietumu, also known as Kolo Nui, is considered both a fortress and a ceremonial center.  The archaeological site is surrounded by strong walls of volcanic black basalt rocks.

The volcanic basalt rocks found on Wallis and Futuna. (Fotolia)

The volcanic basalt rocks found on Wallis and Futuna. (Fotolia)

There are several entrances in the walls which now are about 5-6 feet (1.5-2 meters) high. The basalt stones are fitted together without mortar and yet are remarkably sturdy. There are several basalt paved paths in and around the fortress. Inside the defensive walls, there are structures and some buildings which have been restored, as well as several lawns. The fort contains structural foundations which are comparable in size and shape to traditional Tongan houses. At the heart of the fortress is a ceremonial platform also made from basalt stone, where a monarch or chieftain performed rites and rituals. Around the site are several raised walkways that were reserved for the monarch alone - as the semi-divine nature of kingship in Polynesia meant that his feet could not touch the ground like his subjects.

Tonga College students performing a Kailao dance in 1988. (Public Domain)

Tonga College students performing a Kailao dance in 1988. ( Public Domain )

The site had been neglected for many years and it was restored in the 1990s by a team of French archaeologists. The fortress is located six miles (10 kilometers) southwest of the islands capital of Mata-Utu on Wallis Island.

The History of Wallis and Futuna Stretches Back 2000 Years or More

Wallis and Futuna is located between Fiji to the south, Samoa to the east, and Tonga to the south-east, and in the north lies Tuvalu. It is three volcanic islands surrounded by mainly uninhabited smaller islets. Talietumu and the volcanic crater lake of Lalolalo is the most famous attraction in the islands.

The first people to inhabit the islands were Polynesians who settled around 100 AD, but there are claims that they arrived there even earlier and some of their forts can still be seen. Centuries later, the island was occupied by the Tongans who had built a maritime Empire in the South West Pacific.  

Dutch mariners mapped the island in the early 17th century.  Wallis, which is known in the local language as ʻUvea, is the largest island in the group and is named after an English explorer Samuel Wallis, who also discovered the island of Tahiti. However, it was the French who colonized the island.

Captain Samuel Wallis. (Public Domain)

Captain Samuel Wallis. ( Public Domain )

Today, the islands are an overseas dependency of France, but it is separate from French Polynesia.  Wallis and Futuna are very traditional societies, local villages all have their own Catholic saints and there are still three chiefdoms on the archipelago.

History of Talietumu Fort - The Last Strongholds of the First Tongan Dynasty

The fortress is believed to have been founded by Tongans in the 1400s AD. They had built up a powerful navy of large canoes that made them the chief power in the south-west Pacific. Wallis was part of the Tongan Empire and the fort was part of an international trade network. Futuna, however, was able to repulse Tongan invasion forces launched from Talietumu fort.

The king who controlled the fort was probably a tributary of the Tongan monarchy. The fortress played a very important part in the history of the Tongan Empire. In 1535, King Takalaua, the last powerful monarch, was assassinated in Mu’a, the ancient capital of Tonga, and this led to the fragmentation of the maritime Empire. It is believed that Talietumu was one of the last strongholds of the first Tongan dynasty. At some point either in the 17th or the 18th century, the fort was abandoned and fell into ruin.

Finally, Tourists are Discovering the Wonders of Wallis and Futuna

The islands are very remote. There is only one airline serving the island and it flies from New Caledonia to Wallis and Futuna. However, the islands are becoming very popular with tourists and there is plenty of accommodation near the historic fort.

The colorful culture of Wallis and Futuna. (Fotolia)

The colorful culture of Wallis and Futuna. ( Fotolia)

Top image: Ruins of Talietumu fort on ʻUvea. Source: Tauólunga / CC BY 2.5

By Ed Whelan

References

Kirch, P.V., 2017. On the road of the winds: an archaeological history of the Pacific Islands before European contact. Univ of California Press. Available at: https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520292819/on-the-road-of-the-winds

Pollock, N.J., 1996. Rethinking western Polynesia: ʻUvea in the early Tongan empire. Oceanic Culture History: Essays in Honour of Roger Green. New Zealand Archaeological Association, Dunedin, pp.433-444.

Sand, C., 2006. A View from the West: Samoa in the Culture History of Uvea (Wallis) and Futuna (Western Polynesia). Available at: http://journal.samoanstudies.ws/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/A-view-from-the-West-Samoa-in-the-Culture-History-of-Uvea-_Wallis_-and-Futuna-_West-Polynesia_.pdf

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