Tokelau Islands

History

Tokelau Islands

Archaeological evidence indicates that the atolls of Tokelau – Atafu, Nukunonu, and Fakaofo – were settled about 1,000 years ago and may have been a "nexus" into Eastern Polynesia. 

Inhabitants followed Polynesian mythology with the local god Tui Tokelau; and developed forms of music 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 after the dispersal of Atafu. Life on the atolls was subsistence-based, with reliance on fish and coconut.

Commodore John Byron discovered Atafu on 24 June 1765 and named it "Duke of York's Island". Parties onshore reported that there were no signs of current or previous inhabitants.

Captain Edward Edwards, knowing of Byron's discovery, visited Atafu on 6 June 1791 in search of the Bounty mutineers. There were no permanent inhabitants, but houses contained canoes and fishing gear, suggesting the island was used as a temporary residence by fishing parties.

On 12 June 1791, Edwards sailed southward and discovered Nukunonu, naming it "Duke of Clarence's Island".

A landing party could not make contact with the people but saw "morais", burying places, and canoes with "stages in their middle" sailing across the lagoons.

On 29 October 1825 August R. Strong of the USS Dolphin (1821) ship wrote of his crew's arrival at the atoll Nukunonu:

Upon examination, we found they had removed all the women and children from the settlement, which was quite small, and put them in canoes lying off a rock in the lagoon. They would frequently come near the shore, but when we approached they would pull off with great noise and precipitation

On 14 February 1835 Captain Smith of the United States whaler General Jackson records discovering Fakaofo, calling it "D'Wolf's Island".

On 25 January 1841, the United States Exploring Expedition visited Atafu and discovered a small population living on the island. The residents appeared to be temporary, evidenced by the lack of a chief and the possession of double canoes (used for inter-island travel). They desired to barter, and possessed blue beads and a plane-iron, indicating previous interaction with foreigners. The expedition reached Nukunonu on 28 January 1841 but did not record any information about inhabitants. On 29 January 1841, the expedition discovered Fakaofo and named it "Bowditch".

The islanders were found to be similar in appearance and nature to those in Atafu.

Missionaries preached Christianity in Tokelau from 1845 to the 1860s. French Catholic missionaries on Wallis Island (also known as 'Uvea) and missionaries of the Protestant London Missionary Society in Samoa used native teachers to convert the Tokelauans. Atafu was converted to Protestantism by the London Missionary Society, Nukunonu was converted to Catholicism and Fakaofo was converted to both denominations.

Helped by Swains Island-based Eli Jennings senior, Peruvian "blackbird" slave traders arrived in 1863 and kidnapped nearly all (253) of the able-bodied men to work as labourers, depopulating the atolls. The Tokelauan men died of dysentery and smallpox, and very few returned. With this loss, the system of governance became based on the "Taupulega", or "Councils of Elders", where individual families on each atoll were represented.

During this time, Polynesian immigrants and American, Scottish, French, Portuguese and German beachcombers settled, marrying local women and repopulating the atolls.

Between 1856 and 1979, the United States claimed that it held sovereignty over the island and the other Tokelauan atolls. In 1979, the U.S. conceded that Tokelau was under New Zealand sovereignty, and a maritime boundary between Tokelau and American Samoa was established by the Treaty of Tokehega.

Cyclone Percy struck and severely damaged Tokelau in late February and early March 2005. Forecasters underestimated the cyclone's strength and the length of time it would be in vicinity to Tokelau. It coincided with a spring tide which put most of the area of the two villages on Fakaofo and Nukunonu under a metre of seawater. The cyclone also caused major erosion on several islets of all three atolls, damaging roads and bridges and disrupting electric power and telecommunications systems. The cyclone did significant and widespread damage to food crops including bananas, coconuts and pandanus. It did not seriously injure anyone but villagers lost significant amounts of property. The geographic future of Tokelau depends on the height of sea level.

No significant land is more than two metres (6.6 feet) above high water of ordinary tides. This means Tokelau is particularly vulnerable to any possible sea level rises.

Geography

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Tokelau Islands includes three atolls in the South Pacific Ocean between longitudes 171° and 173° W and between latitudes 8° and 10° S, about midway between Hawaii and New Zealand. From Atafu in the north to Fakaofo in the south, Tokelau extends for less than 200km. The atolls lie about 500 kilometres (311 miles) north of Samoa. The atolls are Atafu, Nukunonu, both in a group of islands once called the Duke of Clarence Group, and Fakaofo, once Bowditch Island. Their combined land area is 10.8 km2 (4.2 sq mi). The atolls each have a number of coral islands, where the villages are situated. The highest point of Tokelau is just 5 metres (16 feet) above sea level.

There are no ports or harbours for large vessels, however, all three atolls have a jetty to and from which supplies and passengers are shipped.

Tokelau lies in the Pacific tropical cyclone belt. A fourth island that is culturally, historically, and geographically, but not politically, part of the Tokelau chain is Swains Island (Olohega), under United States control since about 1900 and administered as part of American Samoa since 1925.

Swains Island was claimed by the United States pursuant to the Guano Islands Act, as were the other three islands of Tokelau; these claims were ceded to Tokelau by treaty in 1979. In the draft constitution of Tokelau subject to the Tokelauan self-determination referendum in 2006, Olohega was also claimed as a part of Tokelau, though the claim was surrendered in the same 1979 treaty. This established a clearly defined boundary between American Samoa and Tokelau.

Tokelau's claim to Swains is generally comparable to the Marshall Islands' claim to US-administered Wake Island, but the re-emergence of this somewhat dormant issue has been an unintended result of the United Nations' recent efforts to promote decolonisation in Tokelau. Tokelauans have proved somewhat reluctant to push their national identity in the political realm: recent decolonisation moves have mainly been driven from outside for ideological reasons. But at the same time, Tokelauans are reluctant to disown their common cultural identity with Swains Islanders who speak their language.

Enviroment

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Tokelau is located in the Western Polynesian tropical moist forests ecoregion. Most of the original vegetation has been replaced by coconut plantations some of which have been abandoned and became scrubby forests. The atolls of Tokelau provide habitat for 38 indigenous plant species, over 150 insect species and 10 land crab species. One of the greatest threats to biodiversity is posed by introduced mammalian predators such as the Polynesian Rat.

In 2011 Tokelau declared its entire exclusive economic zone of 319,031 km2 (123,179 sq mi) a shark sanctuary.

Local time at Tokelau Island: