Islanders of the South is an ethnography of the kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific. This is the first book to examine the interplay of Polynesian and Western ideas within contemporary social and economic practices, not from the point of view of Tongan aristocracy, but from that of the common people.
The first describes contemporary Tongan society and the main means of subsistence: agriculture, fishing, and manufacturing. An analysis of the kinship system, with its economic, political, and ideological dimensions, is intertwined with a discussion of Tongan attitudes on life and death, marriage and divorce, social rights and obligations, migration and remittances. Later chapters deal with the crucial questions of land ownership and the circulation of gifts. A large number of genealogies, biographies, and case studies help convey how Tongans live together and how they experience their relationship to nature.
Effects on Tonga of global developments—predominantly capitalist in nature—are expressed in the commercialization of the means of subsistence, bringing about changes often regarded as progress. The author raises doubts about this ideology of progress by referring to aspects of nature and culture in Tonga which are disappearing. Up to now Tongans have largely been able to preserve the circulation of gifts and economic self-sufficiency.