Kasivaki: An Ancient Tongan Game That Was More Than Underwater Rugby
When most people think of the sport rugby, Tonga is not at the top of the list of competitors. But the island nation of the south Pacific appears to have had its own ancient version of the game with a twist. Tongan rugby was played underwater. The game was called kasivaki and, according to Tongan tradition, it was played before kings and chiefs. Some Tongans are very interested in reviving a modern version of the game to celebrate and preserve the cultural traditions of this remote South Pacific island nation.
This large stone was used in the traditional underwater game of kasivaki, a dangerous, ancient Tongan sport very similar to rugby. This sport was played in the ocean under the water and was local to an area called Fanga-Ko-Palukí in Tongoleleka, Ha’apai.(Frederica Tuita / Cody Nemet Tuivaiti)
How The Underwater Rugby Game of Kasivaki Was And Is Played
According to Tongan sources, kasivaki was played underwater between two soft coral rocks. The players were all male and the sport was often played in front of chiefs or the ancient kings of Tonga. The goal of the game was to get a rock across the underwater playing field to the other side while fending off the opposing team. The team that accomplished this goal scored a “try.”
One of the social functions of the game appears to have been to impress the chief or the king. In some cases, winners of the game would be awarded land or titles. One example is a chief by the name of Tokemoana.
The game was reportedly very dangerous. Many men drowned while playing it. It was even banned by King Taufa’ahau I (also known as George Tupou I) because he apparently felt it wrong that his subjects were getting killed in the game for the entertainment of chiefs.
Because of the danger involved, participating in and winning the game of kasivaki in ancient Tonga was probably seen as a sign of being brave and strong which would have fit into the Tongan martial tradition. The Tongans were historically fierce warriors and master voyagers. Both professions, like kasivaki, require bravery as well as strength and skill.
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Tongans and non-Tongans alike appear to associate the game with entertainment and sports, a Tongan parallel to the modern game of rugby, but as with many ancient indigenous cultural activities, there may have originally been more to the game than just entertainment.
Kasivaki could have been culturally analogous to the Mesoamerican ballgame or the ancient Olympics which were both just as much religious festivals and ceremonies as they were sporting events. In a similar way, kasivaki could also have had deeper social, political, and perhaps spiritual connections to the Tongan way of life beyond its role as entertainment for the elites.
The arrival of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in Tongatapu in 1643 AD, when Tonga already had kings and kasivaki underwater rugby, in a drawing by Isaack Gilsemans. (Isaack Gilsemans / Public domain)
The History and Inhabitants of South Pacific Tonga
Tonga was first settled perhaps 3,000 years ago during the expansion of the Lapita culture, a culture known for its distinctive pottery and early settlement of the islands of the western Pacific. The first kings of Tonga had established themselves by 1,000 AD. It was not long before the political and economic influence of the Tongan kings grew beyond the Tongan archipelago itself.
When Tonga was at its peak of influence, sometime after 1200 AD, lithic stone tools were being imported from as far away as the Society Islands which are 2,500 km (1,553 miles) away from Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu. During that time, the Tongan archipelago was already unified under a single polity ruled by a monarch with the title Tu’i Tonga, meaning “Lord of Tonga.”
The Tu’i Tonga received tribute from the islands of the Tongan archipelago as well as from other islands beyond Tonga in the South Pacific, including the Fiji Islands, Samoa, and Tahiti. The Tongan proto-state is unique in that it was the only indigenous polity in pre-historic Oceania that was able to gain political control over an entire archipelago.
It is probably during this time that Tongan society became socially stratified. Historically, there were five classes in Tongan society. The kings, the chiefs, the talking chiefs, the would-be talking chiefs, and commoners. Furthermore, there are three social dialects of the Tongan language, one for commoners, one for chiefs and nobles, and one for talking to the king.
This level of social stratification suggests a high degree of political centralization, which the rulers of Tonga were able to support through tribute. One important festival that emerged during this time was the festival of Inasi, where the people of Tonga would give tribute to the Tu’i Tonga and, by proxy, to the gods.
During this period Tonga could be considered a proto-empire, because of the influence it was able to exert. Furthermore, there is archaeological evidence of monumental stone architecture on some of the islands of Tonga that provide further evidence for social complexity if not stratification and political centralization.
It is arguable that the Tu’i Tonga represent the, albeit interrupted, development of an indigenous South Pacific imperialism. Western Eurasia produced Roman emperors, great Persian kings, and Islamic caliphs. Eastern Eurasia produced the Chinese emperors. The Andes produced the Inca. Mesoamerica produced the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec rulers. In the same way, the people of the South Pacific could be said to have produced the Tu’i Tonga king position or role.
By the time the first Europeans came into regular contact with Tonga in the late 18th century, the Tu’i Tonga had significantly declined and lost their influence beyond Tonga. The office of the Tu’i Tonga also developed into more of a religious role.
Nonetheless, because of the quasi-imperial nature of ancient Tonga, the Tongans probably developed a strong tradition of both warfare and of voyaging since both would be required for maintaining ancient Tongan hegemony. The values inherent in ocean-voyaging and warrior traditions may also be important in understanding the historical development and cultural meaning of the underwater game of kasivaki, which was a tough sport just like rugby.
Palm fringed white sand beach on the Ha'apai islands, Tonga, where the underwater rugby game was first played for Tongan kings. (Michael Runkel/Danita Delimont / Adobe Stock)
The Game of Kasivaki and Tongan History
It has been argued that the ancient inhabitants of Oceania defined themselves in terms of the whole Pacific Ocean. In the same way that the desert cultures of the Sahara defined themselves by the whole desert and not individual oases, the peoples of Oceania defined themselves as being of the whole Pacific Ocean, or Moana Nui, not just the individual islands. The ancient Tongans were likely no exception.
It could be argued that both this connection to the ocean and the connection to the historical legacy of Tongans being warriors are expressed in the game of kasivaki.
The connection to the ocean is obvious. The game is played underwater. Playing it in the ocean could have been an important way of reinforcing the idea that the people of Tonga were connected to the ocean and that their survival depended on them being able to survive in its perilous waters.
Thus, it would make sense that being able to win and survive an underwater game would be important for a Tongan man and give him greater social prestige. And likely for this reason some winners of the game were rewarded with land and titles. In a society dominated by a large body of water, being able to survive and navigate that environment would be a prerequisite for having any sort of prestige or power.
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The connection to a martial tradition is also perceptible. The men playing the game had to fight off the other players to make a score or a “try.” This would require not just agility and bravery underwater, but also the strength to fight through, and the ability to fight in an unfamiliar environment. Ancient Tongan chiefs probably did not gain their influence over the greater South Pacific without strong warriors.
It is also interesting that the game was played with the goal of pleasing the king of Tonga. The position of Tu’i Tonga in ancient Tonga was as much a religious role as it was a political role. It is possible that the game could also have originally been played to gain divine favor. In this way, the game that might have been similar to the ancient Olympic games in the Mediterranean world and the ballgame of Mesoamerica. The dangerous nature of the game as well as the fact that it was played before the king or chiefs also bears resemblance to the ancient Roman gladiatorial contests which would be presided over by the emperor himself.
The game kasivaki, thus, was a form of entertainment but also an event with considerable social, political and religious significance. There is, however, also another way that kasivaki may be an aspect of a way of thinking that is more uniquely Tongan. It is arguably also form of faiva or traditional Tongan performing arts.
Tonga students dancing the traditional Tongan kailao dance, which, like kasivaki, is one of Tonga’s faiva performing arts. (Tauʻolunga / Public domain)
Kasivaki, Faiva, and the Tongan Way
The term “faiva” is normally used within and outside of Tonga to refer to Tongan performance arts, including dance, music, and poetry. Scholars studying faiva also sometimes describe it as any sort of activity requiring skill or cleverness. Activities as different as making clothing and ocean-voyaging have at various times been considered faiva in Tonga.
Faiva is also used to describe indigenous Tongan forms of entertainment, which likely also included sports like kasivaki. This definition, however, is only based on the way it is currently defined by Westerners. Other scholars dispute the way that faiva has been defined in terms of Western categories, such as music, dance, poetry, or entertainment.
They argue that it should instead be understood primarily in terms of more holistic indigenous concepts. Otherwise, they fear, the authentic Tongan tradition will be misrepresented and distorted. Therefore, whether kasivaki counts as faiva according to its original definition requires knowing the traditional definition and concept of faiva.
Indigenous sources have informed scholars that, among other things, faiva refers to activities that are body-centered, as opposed to object-centered. In other words, faiva involves someone performing an activity by bringing it out of themselves through bodily performance. Thus, dancing or poetry might be considered faiva because they both involve the body or what proceeds out of it. Certain other activities, such as house-building, might not be considered faiva because the focus is on an object the person is shaping instead of a focus on the human body.
The original meaning of the term faiva appears to have been activities with a socially important role performed in a Tongan way, which also reflected Tongan values.
According to the above definition of faiva, is kasivaki a form of faiva? Whether this is true would depend on whether kasivaki embodies the values of Tongan society. The values of ancient Tongan society probably included strength, bravery, and a connection the ocean, all of which are embodied by the game kasivaki.
Another important aspect of the Tongan way is that it is holistic and non-materialist. Thus, what matters is not just the physical activity but what it means in relation to a larger social, spiritual, and political context. In light of this reality, is kasivaki an activity performed in a social space that conforms to the Tongan way? The Tongans seem to think that is the case.
King George Tupou I of Tonga at the royal palace at Neiafu, 1884 AD. (Burton Brothers / Public domain)
The Legacy of Kasivaki and the Future of Tongan Culture
In addition to having been the site of a proto-empire in pre-historic Oceania, Tonga is also notable for being the only south Pacific country that was not a European colony at some point. It was a British protectorate from 1900 to 1970, but the island nation never lost its sovereignty. This is partly due to the reforms of King George Tupou I (ruled 1845-1893).
King George Tupou I was able to unify the islands and adopt enough Western ideas, such as converting to Christianity and giving the nation a modern constitution, that Western leaders treated him as an equal. On the other hand, his reign preserved the distinctiveness of Tongan culture and the autonomy of the Tongan people.
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Thus, Tonga’s story is similar to Japan, where it adopted key Western practices so that it would be taken seriously by the West, thus escaping the worst of European colonialism.
Modern Tongans continue to take an active interest in preserving their culture and avoiding having their traditions become lost due to Westernization.
Reviving the underwater game of kasivaki in a more professional, and likely less dangerous form, is one way that Tongans have thought of preserving or reviving their ancient traditions. Reviving kasivaki as a global professional sport alongside sports like rugby or soccer would allow Tongans to preserve their cultural traditions while offering something to the world that people of all cultures could appreciate.
Top image: Tongan warriors or Tongan athletes getting ready to play kasivaki underwater rugby in Tonga. Source: Tonga Rugby Union
By Caleb Strom
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