Tokelau is a territory of New Zealand that consists of three tropical coral atolls in the South Pacific Ocean. The United Nations General Assembly designated Tokelau a Non-Self-Governing Territory Until 1976 the official name was Tokelau Islands. Tokelau is sometimes referred to by Westerners by the older, olonial name of The Union Islands.

The name Tokelau is a Polynesian word meaning "north wind". The islands were officially named the Union Islands and Union Group at unknown times. Tokelau Islands was adopted in 1946, which was contracted to Tokelau on 9 December 1976.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the atolls of Tokelau - Atafu, Nukunonu, and Fakaofo - were settled about 1,000 years ago, probably by voyages from Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tuvalu. Oral history traces local traditions and genealogies back several hundred years. Inhabitants followed Polynesian mythology with the local god Tui Tokelau; and developed forms of music (see Music of Tokelau) and art. The three atolls functioned largely independently while maintaining social and linguistic cohesion. Tokelauan society was governed by chiefly clans and there were occasional inter-atoll skirmishes and wars as well as inter-marriage Fakaofo, the "chiefly island, held some dominance over Atafu and Nukunonu. Life on the atolls was subsistence-based, with reliance on fish and coconut

The head of state is Elizabeth II. the Queen in right of New Zealand, who also reigns over the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms. The Queen is represented in the territory by Administrator David Payton. The current head of government is Kuresa Nasau, who presides over the Council for the Ongoing Governance of Tokelau, which functions as a cabinet. The Council consists of the Faipule (leader) and Pulenuku (village mayor) of each of the three atolls. The monarch is hereditary, the administrator appointed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade in New Zealand, and the office of head of government rotates between the three Faipule for a one-year term




Atafu or Duke of York Island is the north-western atoll of the Tokelau or Union group. It lies 513 nautical miles south of the equator, 260 miles S.S.E. of Gardner Island, and 310 miles north of Savaii, western island of Samoa. The Ellice Islands (now called Tuvalu) are 500 miles to the west. Between Atafu and Gardner, and about 60 miles S.E. of the latter, is a horseshoe-shaped shoal, about 1500 yards across, known as Carondelet Reef, after the vessel which reported it.

Atafu is a low coral atoll, triangular in outline, about three miles north and south by two and a half wide. The land reaches a height of 12 to 15 feet, but it is covered with trees and coconut palms, and has an area of about 550 acres. The eastern side is nearly continuous land, about an eighth mile wide. It does not appear to have a name, but is divided by the native inhabitants into thirty sections, each of which has its own name. A partial break nearly divides this into two islets. The village is on the north-western islet, Atafu. An L-shaped islet, Fenualoa ("long-island") marks the southeast corner. Two islets run out into the lagoon from the west reef. The south reef is dotted with 35 very small islets; and others are scattered along the west reef.

The reef is continuous around the atoll, from a quarter to half a mile wide, awash at low tide, so that it is possible to walk from one islet to another, and there is no boat passage into the lagoon. The natives use a small canoe passage just south of Atafu islet, or else drag their canoes across the reef. The lagoon contains numerous shoals and coral heads.

The sea drops away to great depth just off the reef, against much of which waves break with violence. With the prevailing southeast trades good anchorage may be had in sixty feet of water, 400 yards west of the northwest point of Atafu islet. Landing, opposite the south end of this islet, is best near high water.  Most of the islets are thickly covered with groves of coconut palms, among which are Tournefortia, Pisonia, Pandanus, Morinda, Ficus, and other trees, and the usual undergrowth found on moderately moist central Pacific islands. Rats, lizards, and the usual sea birds have been reported as common.

Atafu is in the hurricane belt. In January, 1914, an unusually severe storm demolished the church and most of the houses, and levelled many of the coconut palms. The island is inhabited by 380 persons (1932), all natives of the Tokelau islands. Concerning them and their culture Gordon Macgregor, a Yale-Bishop Museum fellow, who spent two months on the island, has written an interesting and informative bulletin. He believes that the island was inhabited by a fine race of Polynesian people, all of whom were killed or driven from the island by an invasion from Fakaofo in legendary times (about 1600). Some settled in Samoa, and others on islands to the west. Later Atafu was used periodically as a fishing base for expeditions from Fakaofo; and finally drought, hurricane, and over-population on the latter island brought about a new permanent settlement.

European contact came with the discovery of the island by Commodore John Byron, in the British ship Dolphin, June 24, 1765. He named it Duke of York Island, and reported no sign of inhabitants. When Captain Edwards reached it in H.M.S. Pandora June 6, 1791, in search for mutineers of the Bounty, he stated that, while there did not seem to be permanent inhabitants, there were signs of visits by fishing parties. Lieutenant Paulding, in command of the American ship Dolphin, arriving October 30, 1825, found the island inhabited.

The island was mapped and much information about it recorded by the U.S. Exploring Expedition, which visited it in the U.S.S. Peacock and Flying Fish, January 25, 1841. Horatio Hale, ethnologist with the expedition, describes the inhabitants and their culture, and gives a vocabulary and grammar. He found that Atafu was under the King of Fakaofo. The natives did little or no cultivation, but lived on fish and coconuts. Water was scarce and bad, rainwater being collected at the base of coconut palms. The natives were eager to trade them, even as we found them to be when we passed by the island on the Taney in July, 1938.  All of the natives on Atafu are Protestants, although all on the next island, Nukunonu, are Catholics. This was due to the arrival of native teachers from Samoa on the London Missionary Society's ship John Williams, in 1858.

The Tokelau Islands suffered greatly between 1850 and 1870 from raids by South Americans in search of labourers. Many were kidnapped from Atafu, although not as many as from the other islands of the group. (See Depopulating the Tokelaus Web site for further information). In 1880 there was one European resident, employed by a New Zealand firm to collect copra. Copra and native products, such as mats, fans, and carved wooden boxes (tuluma) have been their only industry. In 1877 the Tokelau Islands were nominally included under the protectorate of Great Britain, by an Order in Council which claimed jurisdiction over all islands in the Pacific not previously ceded or claimed by other powers. The British flag was hoisted June 22, 1889, by Commander Oldham, R. N. landing from H.M.S. Egeria. A survey of the island was made by the British vessel Goldfinch in 1896.

In 1916 the Tokelau Islands, called officially the Union Islands were made a part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu). In 1925 jurisdiction was transferred to the Administrative of Western Samoa, a New Zealand mandate. This was more acceptable to the natives as they felt a bond of kinship with Samoa. All government is administered on Atafu by native officials, the details of which will be discussed under the next island of Nukunonu.



Nukunono (now called Nukunonu) or Duke of Clarence Island is the center atoll of the Tokelau or Union group. According to the charts it lies 546 to 554 nautical miles north of the equator, 45 miles southeast of Atafu, and 35 miles W.N.W. of Fakaofu (now called Fakaofo). Gordon Macgregor states that it is 60 miles N.W. of Fakaofu, and that local ship captains say the map position is from 14 to 16 miles too far east, as they have to make a correction accordingly when laying a course for the island. However, this may be due to the swift and variable ocean currents in the vicinity, it being thought that the charts are correct.

The island is a low coral atoll, the reef of which shaped like a conventional shield, measuring 8 miles north and south by 7 miles greatest width. Along this reef are scattered 24 islets. Nine of these, including the largest, which is nearly 4 miles long by 1/4 to 1/3 mile wide, are on the eastern side; another 9 are on the west, and the remaining 6, all small, are on the south. There are no islets on the north, which is a bare reef, awash at low tide.

The atoll is said to have a land area of 1,350 acres. Most of the islets are covered with groves of coconut palms and low trees and shrubs, of kinds listed for Atafu. The sea birds, hermit crabs, rats, and insects are thought to be about the same as on other similar central Pacific islands; and there is abundant marine life about the fringing reef, and in the shallow lagoon, which contains reefs and coral heads.

In 1932 Macgregor obtained 92 place names on the atoll, 60 of which were on the largest islet, which does not have an individual name. The names on the above map are from his list.

The village of Nukunono is on the southwest side, on the south end of the second largest islet of the atoll. There is only one well, and because of this lack of adequate water supply, the population has always been relatively small, in 1925 numbering 227. When the well dries up and there is no rain, the natives must rely on coconuts to drink. All of the inhabitants are Roman Catholics, and their church is a conspicuous structure just northwest of the village.

There is no anchorage, and no passage leads through the reef to the village. The sea here is not so rough, and the native canoes jump the reef. Formerly there was a passage through to the lagoon, but this was filled by a hurricane. In 1914 another hurricane made a deep cut through the southern end of Nukunono islet, forming the little islet of Motusanga.

The southeast trade winds blow over the Tokelau Islands for more than half the year, from March to October, keeping the temperature from becoming too high, despite the direct rays of the tropical sun. During the balance of the year, which is their summer, the winds are from the north or variable, with calms, during which it is hot. The rainfall may exceed 100 inches some years, but is usually less. It comes from daily showers, during the trade wind season, and occasional tropical storms. From the end of November to March the rainfall may be light, with periods of drought; but this is the hurricane season, and there may be torrential downpours in these months.

The ocean currents change with the seasonal winds. During the trade wind period the set is from east to west, with a drift which may reach several knots. In midsummer (December or January) the current changes, coming from the north, running southeastward, about parallel to the line of the three islands, turning eastward of Fakaofu.

Nukunono was inhabited at an early date by a Polynesian people of fine physique, according to tradition, which states that they furnished the first settler of Fakaofu with a wife. All but a few of these early people were destroyed or driven away by conquerors from Fakaofu, under a chief named Te Vaka, about 1650. The rest became subject to Fakaofu, and were gradually absorbed by its people.

The first account of European contact was the discovery, June 12, 1791, by Captain Edward Edwards, of H.M.S. Pandora, British naval frigate in search of mutineers of the Bounty. He called the atoll Duke of Clarence Island. Lieutenant Paulding visited it on the American ship Dolphin, October 29, 1825. The Peacock and Flying Fish, of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, visited the atoll January 28, 1841; surveyed the coast, but did not land. All three of the Tokelau islands were claimed by American guano companies, but there is no record of their having made use of them.

The Roman Catholic religion was taken to Nukunono, before 1858, by a native convert, named Justin, who had been for some years with the Mission in Samoa. His simple teaching so inspired the natives that many went to Samoa to learn more and to be baptised. When the ship John Williams, of the London Missionary Society, visited the island in 1858, they found the people already converted to Catholicism, and went on to Atafu. In 1863, Father Ellory of Samoa visited Nukunono and found Justin virtually a chief, and the inhabitants Christians, but in great fear of raids by South American vessels, kidnapping natives as labourers. So many were taken that by 1868 only 80 of the inhabitants were left, most of them women.

The British flag was hoisted and protectorate proclaimed June 21, 1889, by Commander Oldham, of H.M.S. Egeria. The island was mapped by the British vessel Goldfinch in 1896. From 1916 to 1925 it was administered from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now Kiribati and Tuvalu). Since 1925 the Administration of Western Samoa, a New Zealand mandate, has had charge.

All of the government in the Tokelau Islands is handled by native officials. Each island has a magistrate (faipule), a mayor (pulenu'u), a chief of police and one or two policemen (leoleo). About once a year a member of the Native Office of Samoa visits the islands to attend to the most important matters. Each village has a native council (fono), of which the magistrate is head. These men determine all matters of village government and policy. The women have a committee, presided over by the pastor's wife, which inspects daily the sanitation of the houses and the health of small children. Each village has a nurse, and there is a native medical practitioner for the group, with hospital at Atafu.



Fakaofu (also called Fakaofo) or Bowditch Island is southeasternmost of the three atolls of the Tokelau or Union group. It lies between 560 and 566 nautical miles south of the equator, 35 (60?) miles E.S.E. of Nukunono (now called Nukunonu), 100 miles north of Swains Island, and 270 miles north and a little east of Apia, Samoa.

It is a coral atoll, consisting of a continuous flat reef, awash at low tide, along which are scattered about fifty small islets and five of somewhat larger size; the largest (Matang), shaped like a hockey stick, is 2 miles long (including the bend) by less than 1/4 mile wide.

The reef rim has the outline of a kite or arrowhead, and measures 7.12/4 miles north and south by 5.1/2 miles greatest width. The islets are thickly strewn along the east side; fewer and more scattered along the west; and there are none on the northwest side, which is flat bare reef. The lagoon contains numerous reefs and coral heads. On its east side, the water is very clear, and one can look down into deep, jade and pale blue caverns, lined with coral formation of fantastic shape, among which flit schools of brilliantly coloured, tropical fishes.

The islets average about ten feet high. Most of them are thickly covered with groves of coconut palms and low trees and shrubs, which give the islets a total height of 70 or 80 feet. Some beaches are gradual and sandy, others steep, with broken coral and sandstone slabs.

The village of Fakaofu is located on a small islet on the west side, scarcely large enough to house its population, which varies between 450 and 500 persons. The reason all of the inhabitants live crowded together on this one islet goes back to mutual protection against South American kidnappers; but it is also caused by the presence here of fresh water wells, lee-side shelter, and fairly good landing. The island has become so crowded that walls of coral sandstone, built to protect houses from high waves, have been pushed out into the lagoon, and the space behind them filled in to provide more land.

Visiting Fakaofu, April 2 to 5, 1924, one was impressed by the neatness and orderliness of the village, with gravel walks, edged with stones, between the substantial thatched houses, enclosing attractive but closely packed gardens of breadfruit, pandanus, banana, and fragrant-flowered trees and coconut palms. Their condition was the more remarkable in that houses are periodically demolished and trees stripped of branches by hurricanes.

Some of the islets are privately owned, such as Fenua fala, the N.W. islet, which is owned by the Pedro family. It has luxuriant vegetation, patches of bananas in banked terraces of rich humus, taro patches, and colourful gardens. The next islet is the Catholic cemetery, appropriately named Afua (God). Two islets south of Fakaofu is the Protestant cemetery, and the next is occupied by its caretaker. In 1924 there were 350 Protestants and 80 Catholics.

Fenua loa, at the S.W. corner is about the most luxuriant of the atoll. Within a marginal fringe of Scaevola and Tournefortia is a tall stand of such trees as Pisonia, Guettarda, Hermandia, Cordia, Ficus, Pipturus, and Pandanus, beneath which are thickets of shrubs, herbs, giant taro, and vines. In the center is a brackish lake, with narrow, winding channel leading to the sea. Some islets are cultivated, with huts in which the natives rest. A few persons, such as Willi, the salt-maker, who boils down sea water to salt, and some aged natives, live on the east side; but nearly everyone lies on the one small islet. Transportation is by canoes across the lagoon, but one can walk between islets along the flat reef.

Bird life is not abundant, perhaps because of the many persons. Land and hermit crabs are plentiful. There are many small green-tailed lizards, and a few of larger size which change colour from cream to black, according to their background. Insects are abundant, with such large species as dragonflies, two kinds of butterflies, reddish-brown sphinx moth, grasshoppers, crickets, long-horned beetles, ants, craneflies, spiders, and, sad to relate, day mosquitoes.

Although the last of the group to become inhabited, Fakaofu became the dominant island, due to conquests of Te Vaka, son of the powerful chief, Kava Vasefanua, in the 17th century. The earlier inhabitants on the other islands were destroyed, driven away, or absorbed, and the islands recolonised by the later comers. White men discovered Fakaofu in January, 1841, with the arrival of the French ship Adolphe, Captain Morvan. Immediately after, on January 28, 1841, the Peacock and Flying Fish, of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, arrived, and named the atoll Bowditch Island. They considered it a new discovery until they found parts of a wrecked ship, which the natives said had been cast up two or three years earlier, and from which two men with Polynesian names had escaped, but had later died.

The British flag was hoisted and protectorate declared, June 20, 1889, by Captain Oldham of H.M.S. Egeria, whose officers surveyed the island. In 1916 the Tokelau Islands, under the name Union Group, were incorporated in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. In 1925 they were transferred to the Administration of Western Samoa



Swains Island lies 663 nautical miles south of the equator, 100 miles south of Fakaofu (now Fakaofo), 170 miles north and a little east of Apia, Samoa, 200 miles north and a little west of Pago Pago, and 310 miles west of Pukapuka (Danger Islands).

The island is a ring of sand and coral, a mile and a half east and west, a mile wide, and nowhere more than 20 feet high, surrounding a shallow lagoon, which is only slightly brackish, with no surface connection with the sea. Most of the land, from the crest of the narrow ocean beach to the very edge of the lagoon, is thickly covered with vegetation, about 800 acres of coconut palms and various trees and shrubs found widespread in the Pacific.

Besides the present official name of Swains Island, the island is also known by its native Tokelau name of Olosenga (or Olohega), and as Quiros Island, Gente Hermosa, and Jennings Island. These names outline its long and varied history. Its earliest history is a mixture of Tokelau legend and the sketchy account of the famous Portuguese navigator of Spanish vessels, Pedro Fernandes de Quiros, who discovered what is supposed to be this island, March 2, 1606. He describes a people so attractive that he named the place Isle de la Gente Hermosa, "the island of handsome people."

Shortly after this, Olosenga was conquered by an expedition from Fakaofu; the brave and handsome men were killed or driven from the island, and some of the beautiful, fair-skinned women were taken back to Fakaofu as wives. But the chief of Olosenga left a curse on the island, so it is said. When colonists came from Fakaofu, a drought struck the island, famine followed, fishing near shore became poor, and the people died of starvation.

Captain Hudson, of the U.S. Exploring Expedition's ship Peacock, learning of the island in Samoa from a whaling captain named Swain, visited it and surveyed the outer edge, February 1 to 4, 1841, but was unable to land because of stormy weather. He reported no inhabitants on the island; and finding the position quite different from that given by Quiros, he named it Swains Island. Shortly after this a new colony was founded from Fakaofu; but they were scarcely established before three Frenchmen landed, as agents for a French company, to make coconut oil.

On October 13, 1856, Eli Hutchinson Jennings, an American, born November 14, 1814, at Southampton, Long Island, N.Y. landed and he founded a unique little community, now in its third generation. In Samoa he had married Malia, a native woman of rank. He claimed to have acquired title to the island from Captain Turnbull, an Englishman, who said he had discovered the island.

Eli, Jr. was born on the island, January 1, 1863, and inherited it after the death of his father, December 4, 1878, and his mother, October 25, 1891. Under his management the coconut plantation prospered. So much so, that in September, 1909, the Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu) visited Swains Island and demanded $85.00 tax. Jennings paid the money, but appealed to the American Consul at Apia, who in turn took the matter up with the U.S. State Department. The tax money was returned. This was the first of several international episodes involving Swains Island.

Upon the death of Eli, Jr., October 24, 1920, the island was left jointly to his daughter Ann Eliza and son Alexander. The daughter had married a British subject, Irving H. Carruthers, who had been named executor and trustee, and they lived in Apia. In 1921, Mr. Carruthers was unable to probate the will, as Apia no longer had an American Consul, and the British court would not handle the matter. The situation was further complicated by the death of his wife in August, 1921.

In order to settle the matter of ownership, Alexander Jennings appealed to the Naval government of Pago Pago, and later through them to the U.S. Secretary of State and the President of the United States. On March 4, 1925, by Joint Resolution of the U.S. Congress, American sovereignty was officially extended the island, and it was placed under jurisdiction of the government of American Samoa.

Alexander Jennings, the then managing owner, was a robust, kindly man of middle age, quite well educated and capable. He was half Caucasian and half Samoan. He married Margaret Pedro, a quiet, attractive, intelligent woman, part Spanish and Portuguese and part Tokelau, born on Fakaofu. Through the relationship with American Samoa, Mr. Jennings had been able to market his copra in Pago Pago, where a fair price was paid for it. His chief worry was over transportation, for there was no safe anchorage at Swains Island for a vessel.

The native population of the island was limited to about 100, although many more would have liked to come there from Tokelau group. It consisted of plantation workmen and their families. They lived in a neat little village at the west end, called Taulanga, where copra was dried and shipped, a meeting house, and a church, the pastor also being the school teacher. The men worked five days a week, went fishing or tended their own gardens, or played cricket on Saturday; and there were two church services on Sunday. There were about 500 pigs and numerous chickens at large on the island, but these were killed only by permission of Mr. Jennings.

A belt road circles the island, about half way between sea and lagoon. Along this ran an ancient Ford truck, collecting coconuts and carrying workmen and supplies. The Jennings family lived in a frame house about 3/4 mile down the road from the village, on the south side. The spot was called "Etena" (Eden), but it was more generally referred to as "The Residency." A power-driven generator supplied electricity for lights and radio. Swimming in the lagoon was available from a short pier. The edge of the lagoon is shallow, but parts of it reach a depth of 8 fathoms (48 feet).

Periodic visits are paid by the station ship from Pago Pago; and of recent years U.S. coast guard and naval vessels have stopped on their routine trips south. The lagoon may be too small for seaplanes; but the island is certainly one of the most beautiful and picturesque under the American flag. Were it not for the mosquitoes and small flies, it would be quite an island paradise.



The Peruvian blackbirders caused  a catastrophic loss of young men from the islands of Tokelau.  It was a loss that changed forever the character of this Island Group.  The three permanently inhabited atolls of this isolated group lie in a line running south-east to north-west, Fakaofo, the most easterly island, being 270 miles north of Upolu in Samoa, with Nukunonu, the central island, about thirty-five miles to the north-west and Atafu, the western island, at least another forty-five miles away. The land area of each atoll is small, and consists of a number of islets surrounding a lagoon without any reliable boat passage: Atafu, the smallest, having a total area of about 502 acres; Fakaofo has about 612 acres of land, and Nukunonu about 650 acres. The best estimate of the population in 1863, immediately before the Peruvian raids, is 261 for Fakaofo, and 140 each for Nukunonu and Atafu.

Approximately half-way between Samoa and the three atolls is a fourth island, Olosenga (also called Olohega, Quiros or Swains Island), which geographically, though no longer politically, forms part of the Tokelau Group. Although regarded by the Tokelau people as under the suzerainty of Fakaofo an American, Eli Hutchinson Jennings, settled there in 1856 and developed the existing coconut plantations for his own benefit. Known as Ilae, or Ilai, by the islanders he is described in a Fakaofo account as 'cruel' and 'exceedingly brutal'.

The people traditionally live together in a single village on each atoll, probably to facilitate control over their limited food resources. The proximity of the three atolls to each other resulted in a good deal of inter-island canoe sailing. Not all voyages were successful due to sudden storms or changes of wind. When the London Missionary Ship John Williams visited all four Tokelau Islands between the 19th and the 31st January just prior to the arrival of the recruiting vessel from Peru, it also returns the passengers of six canoes who had drifted to Apia after starting out on an inter-island voyage in the Tokelaus.


On the 9th February 1863, both the Missionary vessel John Williams and the blackbirding vessel Rosa Patricia left Apia with the Peruvian vessel being seen making for the Tokelaus. The Rosa Patricia called at Olosenga where her supercargo Pitman signed on Eli Hutchinson Jennings as a recruiter. According to Tokelau tradition Jennings was accompanied by a Fakaofo labourer on Olosenga who helped to persuade his fellow islanders to recruit.  It seems likely that Pitman was advised in Apia to try and secure the services of Jennings as he spoke the Tokelau dialect and he was known to and trusted by the people. In all probability, Pitman offered Jennings ten dollars a head for recruits.


The Rosa Patricia arrived at Fakaofo from Olosenga on the 12th February 1863. Her crew landed armed with guns and swords, and selected sixteen of the strongest men to add to the 40 Niueans and 5 from Atiu already on board; as soon as these were safely in the hole, she sailed off.  Not long after this the Rosa y Carmen arrived from Atafu and chose a further 44 men for embarkation. Several were ill with dysentery, which soon spread among the other overcrowded and underfed passengers. Captain Marutani evidently changed his mind about taking only men from Fakaofo as he sent his tender the brig Micaela Miranda back to the island to pick up the women. She returned with four men and 76 women and children who were all transferred to the Rosa y Carmen before the latter finally left the group.

Samoan mission teacher Mafala who, with his colleague Sakaio, was resident on the island throughout the period mentions that four other recruiting vessels called later, and these could have been the Guillermo in February, and the Dolores Carolina, Polynesia and Honorio on their way to the southern Tuvalu Islands. No other Peruvian ships are known to have been in the locality at this time.`

The Rosa y Carmen called at Tutuila and landed six Fakaofoans with dysentery, of whom three died almost immediately from the disease. The brother of the chief of Fakaofo and his son were two of the three who survived the return home. It appears that only sixty people (9 men, 30 women and 21 children) were left on the island out of the 261 alive when the John Williams arrived on the 23rd January 1863. Due to the paucity of young adult males, those who were capable fathered numerous children, the chief's brother by five different women. As a result, the missionary A.W. Murray was able to report in 1868 that although the population was still under 200 and the total of adult males comparatively small, the number of children and young people gave the impression of "quite a thriving community".


A knowledge of the activities of the Peruvian recruiters on Nukunonu is dependent on the fact that the Reverend P.G. Bird of Savai'i was visiting Nukunonu when five men, five women and some children arrived from Nukunonu in two or three canoes lashed together to form a raft including Ulua, the chief.
They reported that five Peruvian vessels had called at the island. The first arrival took sixty people, the second six and the third ten. Although the evidence is not conclusive, it seemed most probable that the first ship was the Guillermo, the second the Rosa Patricia and the third the Rosa y Carmen. The total taken from Nukunonu to Peru would appear to have been 76 with 80 people left on the island.


Atafu was a wholly Protestant island, the people having been converted by Maka and another Samoan teacher left by the London Missionary Society, Samuel Ella of Samoa in 1861. By far the most detailed account of the Peruvian visits are to be found in letters written by Maka himself to the Reverends H. Gee, P.G. Bird and H. Nisbet.

The Rosa Patricia arrived at Atafu on 16th February and Eli Jennings the recruiter embarked at Olosenga showing those who came on board samples of cloth, shirts and trousers, inviting the islanders to bring their coconuts and fowls to the ship to barter for them. The chief Foli (called Oli by the Rarotongan Maka) and 36 other men went on board; only two of them reached the shores again discharged as being too old and weak. After questioning the two men, Maka wrote the letter below to Henry Gee the same evening:

Sir, all the people of this land are carried off. They have taken the chief Oli, who was in Samoa, and 34 other men. All that now remain here are women and children and six male adults...Such, Sir, has been the cruelty of the ship to the people of this land. The good work which had begun on this island is now destroyed. Had we known the character of this vessel, no-one would have gone aboard. We are startled that such a thing should be done to these people. Two men who were returned to the shore by the captain, told us that when the people reached the ship with their things for sale, one of the crew collected these things together. Then the captain said to the men, "Go and look at the cloth for your purchases". But this was the contrivance of the captain: he placed some things in the hold of the vessel - the best of the cloth, red cloth, and shirts, and trousers, and white and blue calico; and some things he kept on deck. Then the captain said to the men, "look for the cloth on deck and that in the hold, and see which to choose". Some of the people were looking at the cloth in the hold, then all went below.

 The captain told them to go below, and all went down. Then one of the crew gave them wrappers and shirts, and trousers and hats to put on. So the men rejoiced that they had got some clothing to attend worship in. But some of the crew were hidden in the hold armed with cutlasses. They were hidden so that the people did not know that they were there. All these things the captain had arranged. None remained on deck except the chief; he continued on deck. He called down to his people to return to the deck, and not remain below lest they should injure anything in the vessel. The chief was standing over the hatchway, when some of the crew seized him and threw him down into the hold and he fell into the middle of the hold. Then the hatchway was immediately closed down upon them all. These two men also told me they saw one of the people struck down by the crew with a sword. They saw the blood flow like water. They do not know if he was killed for the ship hastened off.

Sir, there is nothing that we do now but mourn and weep for our island is destroyed. But we think now that they had taken all the strong people of this land, they will return with the ship to fetch the women and children. This is my enquiry, what shall we do if the ship comes again? Tell us what to do, lest the vessel quickly returns.
This is the end of my letter.

The evidence indicates that 37 people, all men, were taken from Atafu and six males left, through age and infirmity, to look after their families. This is in substantial agreement with the total of about 30 given to the Reverend A.W. Murray in 1868.

As the four blackbirding ships left the Tokelaus, their captains could congratulate themselves on having carried off the best of the able-bodied population of the three atolls within a few days and with very little trouble: Fakaofo had lost 140 people, Nukunonu 76, and Atafu 37 (all men), a total of 253. This figure represents 47 per cent of the estimated population when the raiders arrived, but probably close to a 100 per cent of the able-bodied male.

On the four atolls of the Tokelaus, the nature and extent of the catastrophe was immediately apparent. It was in the three Tokelaus (as well as the two Tuvalu Islands, Funafuti and Nukulaelae) that the shock was most severe. The effect was summarised in the words of Maka, the Samoan pastor on Atafu, written immediately after the able-bodied men on the island had been taken away.

It is most piteous to witness the grief of these women and children. They are weeping night and day; they do not eat, there is none left to provide food for them or to climb the coconut trees. They will perish with hunger...Another event occurred to the wife of the chief; in her misery she prematurely gave birth to a child. She felt no pain from the intensity of her grief for the loss of her husband, her son and her people.

Hehe a Afora of Fakaofo:
The last surviving slave photographed in 1921.

In the Tokelaus, where all three atolls had been depleted of their population, the overall pattern is characterised by immigration, very little emigration and a high rate of growth. The immigrants, many of them capable begetters, were expatriates: Portuguese, German, Scottish and French, as well as islanders from Samoa, New Zealand, Uvea, Tuvalu and Ontong Java, combining to make an improbable bizarre genetic mixture.

Presented by Jane Resture




The people may be Christian, but Faka Tokelau - the Tokelauan way of life - is Polynesian culture at its most untouched, thanks to the atolls' isolation and NZ's hand's-off approach to administration. The strength of village community and its system of sharing are the defining characteristics, along with the enormous respect afforded elders. Daily life is ordered in each village by a council of elders and family representatives (taupulega), with most men joining the fishing, harvesting and construction workforce, and women responsible for village cleanliness and health.

Each atoll has one village, squeezed onto its highest island (motu). The three villages are divided territorially into two faitu, which compete against each other in fishing, action songs, dancing, sports and kilikiti (village cricket with up to 50 players per side). Despite increasing incursions made by the outside world, all resources are shared between families according to need. The most obvious features of the three villages are their churches and village hall (fale fono).

The atolls are cramped beyond belief, so individualism and a need for privacy aren't a real virtue in Tokelau. Visitors should dress conservatively, keeping those bikinis and skimpy outfits for another time and place. Resources are scarce, so don't help yourself to fallen coconuts. If you're invited into the home of a local, remember to remove your shoes on entering and to sit cross-legged, rather than with your legs stretched out.

Tokelau is staunchly Christian, and Sunday is devoted almost entirely to church-going. As many activities (including work) are forbidden on Sunday, it's a good idea for visitors to delay their arrival until Monday. The religious distribution amongst the atolls reflects the staggered arrival of Samoan missionaries in the 19th century: Atafu is almost completely Protestant; Nukunonu is largely Catholic; and Fakaofo is split between the two faiths, due to the simultaneous arrival of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Interdenominational conflict is rare as it runs contrary to the overriding concept of village unity (maopoopo). Prior to the arrival of Christianity, Tokelauans worshipped a god called Tui Tokelau, along with the usual pantheon of Polynesian gods. The coral slab personifying Tui Tokelau still stands in the village of Fakaofo.

Tokelauans are Polynesian, closely related to Tuvaluans, Samoans and Cook Islanders. The sprinkling of European surnames is the legacy of the whalers and beachcombers who visited in the late 19th century; their subsequent intermarriage has led to today's Tokelauans being described as 'an improbably bizarre genetic mixture'. Today's local population of around 1500 is far outstripped by the number of Tokelauans living away from home; New Zealand's Tokelaun population is 5000 or so.

Tokelauan is a Polynesian language, closely related to Tuvaluan and Samoan. Most people speak some English, thanks to their frequent contact with NZ, and it's taught as a second language in Tokelau's schools.

Traditional foods such as fish, kumala (sweet potato), breadfuit, taro, pork and poultry are cooked on both kerosene stoves and the ubiquitous earth oven (umu). This traditional diet is increasingly being supplemented with imported processed foods, and the islanders' general health is suffering as a consequence; obesity is on the rise. Fresh water is scarce and tank-collected rainwater tastes brackish, so no wonder 'cold stuff' (ie beer) is popular (but strictly rationed on more-traditional Atafu). Kaleva, made from fermented coconut sap, is drunk in lieu of imported spirits. Its alternative name, sour toddy, gives you an idea of the taste.



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