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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Historical Period

Historical Period

Conquests by Fakaofu

Although the Nukunono people gave the first settler of Fakaofu a wife, the later generations did not fare well with the earlier people, and by the time the actual historical period began, Fakaofu was already embroiled in conflicts with the neighboring islands, particularly Atafu.

The first of the historical chiefs of Fakaofu was Kava Vasefanua (Kava, Definer of Boundaries), who was notable for dividing the land among the heads of families. This act was made necessary by a great increase in population due either to natural expansion of the original population or to immigration. Much in the Tokelau culture, as well as definite traditions, points to Samoa as a homeland of at least part of the people. Burrows (5) states that in very early times the young men of Fakaofu made a trip to Samoa to obtain wives.

Kava Vasefanua had two sons, Pio who became the high chief of Fakaofu after his father, and Te Vaka who became the leading warrior and conqueror of both Nukunono and Atafu. The actual cause and the beginning of the war with Nukunono are obscure, but all accounts agree that Fakaofu had attacked Nukunono first and had been defeated. Nukunono informants stated that in the time of Talafao, Pio and Tengafalua of Fakaofu came to Nukunono and conspired with Letele. Later Fafie, the son of Pio, made war on Nukunono and was defeated. Turner (32, p. 274) attributes the cause of the fighting to an exiled Nukunono chief who sought revenge for his banishment to Fakaofu and gathered partizans there for a war with Nukunono in which his party was defeated.

Many stories are told of the successful attack led by Te Vaka. Turner (32) relates the following tale told him by a Fakaofu boy who went to the mission school in Samoa. While much of it disagrees with information given at Nukunono and Atafu and must be considered unreliable, his account of the episode of the king smearing his people with his child's blood is the most acceptable one.

When preparing for another fight he [the Nukunono chief, Feuku] asked his son to give up his body to be put to death, so as to get enough blood with which to smear all the remaining people, so that the enemy might pass over them and stop fighting. It was the custom there in war that if any one was found lying down and with marks of blood on his body, he was not touched but passed over, and not killed or beheaded as in Samoa.

When the expected day for another battle came, the son of the king Feuku, out of love to his father and the people, consented to be killed. His body was divided in two, and the blood smeared on all the people. All were much-excited and touched with this wonderful love of their king and his son. After some speechifying they determined to show their love in return and, when the enemy came, to rise and fight to the death rather than seek life by lying down and showing the stains of blood. This was done; the war party came from Fakaofo; Feuku's people stood up, fought bravely, defended their chief, and drove the enemy to sea and back to Fakaofo.

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The next onslaught, led by Te Vaka, was made suddenly. The Fakaofu warriors attacked immediately, not even stopping on a nearby islet to make the usual challenge (p. 158). The fight took place on the beach and the reef. Some of the Fakaofu warriors outflanked the defense and ran into the village, killing everyone there and finally attacking the Nukunono warriors from the rear. They then circled the entire island, making claim to all the land over which they walked. When they came to the eastern islets, a Nukunono warrior, Feuku (said by Turner to be the king), swam across the lagoon with the aid of a belt of coconuts. Several women and children were hiding in the hollow of a puka tree at Tenifu on the islet Tokelau. Feuku killed one of the children, smeared himself with the blood, and lay on the ground so that he would be spared by the enemy. When the Fakaofu people had passed by, Feuku stood up.

The Fakaofu party continued until they came to Ngataulanga where a woman's titi skirt, hanging up as a tapu sign, stopped their progress. This titi belonged either to a Nukunono woman, Matua, who was related to the people of Fakaofu (according to a Nukunono informant) or to Nau, a Fakaofu woman, who had previously been captured by Nukunono (5). The Fakaofu men recognized the pattern of the skirt and would not pass it. Thus this spot marked the boundary of the land owned by Fakaofu until all the conquered land was returned to Nukunono in 1911.

The account of the conquest told at Nukunono contains no record of a battle. The Fakaofu men marched down the eastern side of the atoll and were not seen from the village until they reached a spot now called Fakanaitinu (Surprised). A dispute arose among the Nukunono men over fighting their enemy. Those who did not wish to fight opposed with spears those who did. The Fakaofu men proceeded unhindered until they came to the woman's skirt hanging across their path. Te Vaka turned back and sailed for Fakaofu, leaving a few men to keep the land which they had won. (It was a recognized custom that any undefeated war party marching over an island laid claim to the land they had covered.)

Pio, a Fakaofu chief, came to rule the conquered territory of Nukunono. A famine followed the war and this, combined with the tax of coconuts taken by Fakaofu, left little food for the surviving original inhabitants. They were forced to steal food at night from the plantations of their overlords and finally, in despair, most of them sailed for Fakaofu or the Ellice Islands. A few of the present inhabitants trace their ancestry to Fakaofu men and aboriginal women.

After he had subdued Nukunono, Te Vaka made preparation to attack Atafu. Atafu warriors had made several raids on Fakaofu and were about to make another when Te Vaka sailed off to attack them. Burrows (5) gives as the immediate cause of the war the visit at Fakaofu of eight large double page 21 canoes from Atafu. The visit was made while the Fakaofu men were away, “some in Fiji, some in Samoa, and some in Tonga”. (This may have been at the time when the Fakaofu men were at Nukunono.) The women of Fakaofu rebelled at feeding the Atafu men and tried to drive them away by starvation. When this did not prove immediately effective, they frightened them away. A large number of the women went out at night in canoes, one woman in each canoe, and at dawn each put up her sail. The men of Atafu believed the great fleet of Fakaofu men was approaching and made haste to escape. As they went over the reef they took the daughter of the chief of Fakaofu and towed her behind one of their canoes to show their contempt. She was devoured by sharks. When the men of Fakaofu returned they immediately prepared for war with Atafu. The Atafuans, realizing that they would be overpowered by the Fakaofuans, fled in their canoes during the night. The warriors of Fakaofu slaughtered all those who had been unable to escape except a few who were taken back as prisoners. One was towed behind a canoe and killed to avenge the death of the chief's daughter.

The story told at Atafu by an informant gives no account of fighting. Lefotu, the great Atafu warrior, had sailed to the islet Nukumatau near Fakaofu, where he hid and watched the Fakaofu fleet set out. He then raced back to Atafu and awaited Te Vaka on the beach. In order to impress Lefotu with his force, Te Vaka had mustered every canoe at Fakaofu and manned it with as few men as possible. In past raids, Te Vaka had used only eight or nine canoes; this time there were so many that the Atafuans thought Nukunono and Olosenga had joined forces with Fakaofu and prepared to flee. Lefotu remarked to his followers, “He lava taku mama” (That is not one mouthful for me). Lefotu felt he was no match for this great force and he made a speech which tradition has preserved. Since many of the words are archaic, the translation is rather free.

Tatou ka sola, Atafu ka sola.
Kua he luta kau
E koutou iloa te lakau ko Hue.
E fano te la ma te la.
Kai sakili lava te tafito o te fue ke maua.

We shall not run away, Atafu shall not run away.
It is not equal on both sides.
You know the tree of Hue (a vine)
There are many branches.
There is one root4 which they like to find.

Then Lefotu expressed his fear for his people in a lament. The general meaning, as given by a native interpreter, is as follows:

Ala ilukaa ala ilukua kita moe,
ma lota tuatua ko te momoenga te fai
nei ma lote manava e savini nei kai
lava sota. Kei na kaitalia lava kita
kei na fai mata avanga.

I am not quite asleep, but am frightened.
The people are lying asleep with their
stomachs open (are asleep but frightened).
If a man has a sister, he can lie with her.
It is allowed to take a sister to wife.

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Te Vaka, with his fleet, camped on one of the windward islands of Atafu for the night. The next morning he went to the village to challenge Lefotu but found that the entire population had fled. He set out with his own canoe to pursue Lefotu and sent the remainder of the fleet back to Fakaofu. Te Vaka and Lefotu were never heard of afterward. It is believed today that they arrived in Samoa, Tikopia, Sikaiana, or Ontong Java (Leuaniua). Except in Samoa, this statement is founded on stories told by native sailors who have found Polynesians on these islands who have claimed to be descendants of the Atafu people and Te Vaka. The landing in Samoa is discussed by Newell (19):

Two of these boats made good their escape and were afterwards heard of in Samoa, having landed at Sangana and Malie on the island of Upolu.

The tradition is confirmed in all its details in Samoa itself. At Malie the “failunga”, or village orator, bears the name of Tuiatahu, and his title is Auimatangi. In the Atafu tradition which I received from the king of Atafu, the party who drifted to Malie on Upolu were met by the then-reigning Malietoa, with whom they drank kava and by whom they were received as guests. In the conversation which then took place Malietoa asked whence they had come, to which they replied, “Ua au i matangi” (driven by the winds).

Several generations after the time of Te Vaka, the high chief sent Tonuia from Fakaofu to establish a settlement on abandoned Atafu. His five married sons and two married daughters with their families and followers accompanied him and established a small village on the southern tip of Atafu Islet just below the site of the village of the early population. The descendants of this group now compose the population of Atafu.

It is most probable that Fakaofu conquered Olosenga as well as Atafu and Nukunono, for annual offerings were sent to Tui Tokelau on Fakaofu from all three islands. Olosenga showed resentment to this ascendancy of Fakaofu for in the time of their chief, Tuitea, a large crew of hostile young men set sail in a double canoe to present the annual offering. The Fakaofuans were suspicious of such a large canoe and allowed it to come close to the passage of the reef without any sign of greeting. Normally it was the custom of the people to go out in their canoes and hail any traveling canoe, to inquire where it had come from, and to guide it over the reef.

The Olosenga men became cautious when they saw the Fakaofu people remaining in their houses. Fakaso, leader of the canoe, crawled along the beach to the house of the high chief, completely submissive and respectful. The chief displayed his suspicions, saying, “If you have come to make war upon Fakaofu, you will return in this direction,” pointing toward the setting sun, the direction away from Olosenga, “But if you come upon a friendly visit, peacefully bearing offerings to the god Tui Tokelau, you will return in this direction,” pointing toward Olosenga. Fakaso and his followers page 23 brought the offerings of their people before the stone of Tui Tokelau, and sailed away.

The Olosenga canoe was driven from its course, and appeared weeks later off the coast of Savai'i in Samoa, with only two men remaining alive. They were hurled by the surf against a lava cliff which they attempted to climb. One fell off into the sea and was drowned. The second, Moko, reached a nearby village where he lived until he joined the crew of a Samoan canoe sailing for Olosenga. He told of the fate of the Olosengan canoe only after a group of Fakaofu men had landed in Olosenga and told of their chief's curse.

Soon after this a drought struck Olosenga, taro and coconuts failed to grow, and famine followed. Fishing near the island became poor. Many families had no men to fish for them since the loss of the big canoe, and the fishermen could not catch enough to supply the entire population. So each day when they had finished fishing, they landed on the opposite side of the island from the beach and cooked their fish for themselves; then they returned to their people, reporting that the fish had all left the sea around Olosenga. When the villagers discovered what the fishermen were doing, they made plans to kill them. The chief ordered the fishermen to go to the god house which was being repaired. When the fishermen had gone on the roof of the house to tie the new thatch as it was passed up from below, the old men, women and older children rushed on them and killed them with weapons they had hidden under piles of thatch.

The drought continued and the famine grew worse. People died from starvation, and no strong men were left to handle the heavy canoes and to fish. When the next canoe arrived from Fakaofu the entire population had been dead for some time, though a few may have survived or gone to Fakaofu. Later Masanga took a party of men and women from Fakaofu to Olosenga to start a colony. Others were brought by Kolo, Kava te Mafanga, and Lehokoala. The Fakaofuan colony was just becoming firmly established when three Frenchmen landed on the island to make coconut oil, and soon the island was ruled by Europeans.

Succession of island chiefs

Much confusion and contradiction exists in the order of succession of Fakaofu chiefs. In table 2, four varying lists of chiefs are given, divided into mythical and historical periods. In Nikotemo's list, a long time elapsed between Kava te Mafanga, the first man created, and Kava Vasefanua, the first chief of the historical period. Mika's list includes four created men, the first three of whom may all be the same character in the natives' accounts of man's creation, for they mean the rain, the maggot, Kava the old one, and page 24 Kava the originator. Smith (26) lists the legendary descendants of Kava and Tikitiki. Lister (19) presents only chiefs of the historical period.

Table 2. Chiefs of Fakaofu
Legendary Period
List Given by Nikotemo List Given by Mika List Given by Smith
Kava te mafanga Leua te ilo Tikitiki and Talanga
Kava te matua Kava
Kava te mafanga Singano
Kava Vasefanua Fiu
Te Ilo
Historical Period
List Given by Lister
Kava Vasefanua Kava Vasefanua (One of the first four created men) Kava
Pio and Te Vaka Tai
Fafie Te Mafanga
Leua Leua
Foua Foua Foua
Te Laufue
Amatanga Amatanga
Avafatu Avafatu Pofou
Leitaiolo Taupe
Poufau Avafatu
Taupe Taupe Savaike
Savaiki Savaiki Letaiolo
Lika Lika Lika
Longotasi Longotasi Langitasi
Vaopuka Vaopuka Vaopuka
Te Taulu Kava Taulu Te Taulu
Te Fuli Te Fuli
Savaiki Savaiki

The dates when three high chiefs of Fakaofu were living can be definitely established: Taupe was chief in 1841 when the United States Exploring Expedition visited the island; Te Taulu, in 1889 when Lister visited the island; and Savaiki, in 1916 when the last chief went out of official position. Between 1841 and 1916, a period of seventy-five years, seven high chiefs held office, each high chief reigning on an average of 10 to 11 years. This short period appears reasonable, for it was the practice at Fakaofu to elect an old man from the chiefly families to succeed the chief who had died.

The Fakaofuan chiefs who were sent to rule Nukunono after its conquest did not make a permanent residence there until four generations after the time of Te Vaka. The first ruler was Pio, but Sunga was the first chief to settle there permanently. From him were descended all the chiefs of Nukunono who ruled until the abolition of the office in 1916.

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Table 3. Genealogy of Nukunono high chiefs*

Table 3. Genealogy of Nukunono high chiefs*

The high chieftainship passed from father to son except for Ulua who succeeded his uncle. One generation has lived on the island since Takua's generation. Allowing 25 years for each generation beginning with Sunga, the line of Nukunono chiefs began between 1783 and 1808.

The chiefly line of Atafu came from Fakaofu and was a branch of the family which established the chiefs of Nukunono. Tonuia, the first chief and also supreme priest, came to Atafu two generations later. The village was so small that no chief was immediately elected to succeed him, but when the population increased, Tonuia's grandson, Foli, was chosen. Foli's brother succeeded him and then the son and grandson of two of his paternal uncles. Since then the village has been ruled by an officer appointed by the British Colonial Administration.

The genealogy of Tonuia commences seven generations before him with Kava of Fakaofu. Since Tonuia five generations have lived on Atafu. But because the first generation—Tonuia's married children—and the last—the present children—have lived only half a generation on the island, the time since Tonuia is estimated at 100 years, 25 years for each generation, according to the accepted period of a Polynesian generation established by the Polynesian Society of New Zealand. Thus Tonuia came to Atafu some years before 1833, reckoning the generations from 1933.

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The longest list of Fakaofu chiefs contains 19 names. Estimated on a basis of 11 years to each ruler, the list as given by Nikotemo would put Kava Vasefanua, the first historical chief, as reigning in 1717. But according to the genealogy of Nukunono and Atafu kings, this line began in 1633. The names of the first five historical chiefs of Fakaofu (Kava Vasefanua, Pio, Fafie, Leua, and Pio) and the first five ancestors of the Nukunono chiefs (Kava, Pio, Kolo, Fafie, and Pio) in the lists given by Nikotemo, are identical except for one name. If we assume that these two lists are in reality one, the chieftainship at Fakaofu must have passed from father to son during the first five generations of the historical period as indicated in the Nukunono genealogy, and have been held by each chief for 25 years. This would put the rule of Kava Vasefanua at about 1647, closely checking with the time of Kava, the head of the line of Nukunono and Atafu chiefs. Nikotemo's statement that Kava, the first ancestor of the Nukunono chiefs, was not Kava Vasefanua, was contradicted by a Nukunono informant. It seems probable that these two chiefs were one person. If this is true, the Atafu and Nukunono chiefs were appointed from the family of the high chief of Fakaofu, a very likely thing to have occurred.

Nikotemo said that Kava married a woman belonging to the early people of Nukunono. Thus Kava may be the first man of Fakaofu, whose name we have accepted as Kava or the unnamed Rarotongan who first settled Fakaofu and took a wife from Nukunono. (See. p. 19.) It is a possibility which leads us to the point that all the stories of Kava and the first chief of Fakaofu may refer to one individual, who first settled on Fakaofu. If he is Kava Vasefanua, he appears to have lived about the middle of the seventeenth century. The history of the Fakaofu people of the Tokelau Islands then becomes a very recent event in the annals of the Polynesian peoples.

Contacts with Other Islands

The Tokelau records are filled with references to visits to other islands of Polynesia; evidence from these islands of the arrival of Tokelau people corroborates these tales. At present, unauthenticated claims are made of fabulous voyages by the early Tokelau sailors. Natives who sailed on European ships to New Zealand, Tahiti, and Hawaii returned and told of the Polynesians on these islands; and in a short time names from these distant islands were incorporated in the old stories. The Cook Islands, Borabora, Hawaii, and even Rapa are mentioned now when one inquires about the lands which the ancient Tokelau navigators visited. Newell (19) says there is independent evidence, besides the tales of voyages, of direct contact with Hawaii, but he does not give the source of his information. The natives knew stars by which they say they sailed to Hawaii.

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Although two survivors of a wreck lived on Fakaofu and Captain Morvan visited the island before Hale came to it in 1841, it is not probable that from either of these sources the natives first learned the names of the outside islands, which they gave to Hale (11, p. 166). Their history independently confirms that they visited or were visited by people from the places which Hale mentioned to them. On Atafu Hale (11) found that they knew no island but their own. “They repeated after me the names Fanua Samoa, Fanua Tongatabu, Fanua Viti [Fiji], and asked in what direction they lay, and if we came from them.” At Fakaofu, however, the natives knew of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, but did not know where these islands were located. They also spoke of Pukapuka (Danger Island, unknown to Hale) but did not mention any of the Ellice Islands.

At Atafu, Newell heard an old song in which are narrated the exploits of Tokelau navigators who voyaged to Fiji and Tonga under the guidance of the god, Tui Tokelau. Burrows (5) states that marauding expeditions to Fiji were quite common, and one story tells of a victory won at a place called Atu Lau, which was preserved afterwards as a safe haven for canoes from the Tokelau Islands.

There were attacks by Tongans on Fakaofu, but no details are remembered. A canoe with eight Tongan women was blown from its course to Nukunono. When it arrived the men of the village were working in their coconut plantations across the lagoon. The women of Nukunono went down to the beach and killed the Tongans because they knew that their men would take them.

At one time a great war canoe from Samoa appeared at Fakaofu and landed at Fenua Loa Islet. It was under the command of a chief named Lekena. He launched an outrigger canoe from his double canoe and sent two men to Fakaofu. At that time there were many men fishing for bonito off shore near the village. They gave chase to the two Samoans, and after some trouble caught them and took them to the village. They were afraid to attack the men in the double canoe, however. The Samoans sailed away, leaving the two men, Folinga and Latu, at Fakaofu. Samoa seems to have been well known to the Tokelau people, and voyages between the islands were not uncommon. Atafu is also frequently mentioned in many Samoan legends of their voyages.

Storms blew many canoes traveling within the group to the islands to the southwest. On a voyage from Fakaofu to Atafu, Te Fou, the brother of Te Laufue, the chief, was carried by a storm to Futuna, where he was killed by the Futunans. In 1826 and 1827 two Tokelau canoes, driven by a hurricane, arrived at Rotuma, where the castaways settled (15). Storms brought Tokelau canoes to Uvea several times, as reported by early Uvean missionaries and by Burrows (4). Among the earliest Tokelau arrivals page 28 were Tua and Fafie, who came four or five generations before the arrival of the mission in 1837. Fafie returned to the Tokelau Islands, but Tua remained at Uvea. In 1832 Kiva and Singano, two more Tokelau men, were driven off their course and landed at Uvea (4).

In about 1846 a hurricane devastated Fakaofu, uprooting all the coconut trees and forcing the natives to leave the island to avoid starvation. Attempting to go to a neighboring island, north winds arose and dispersed the fleet. After six weeks at sea two of the canoes eventually arrived off Uvea. The missionaries there say that the wanderers knew the island and feared to land because of the reputed cruelty of the Uveans. However, due to the influence of the Catholic missionaries, the reception was peaceful and hospitable. It is certain that other voyagers from Fakaofu had landed there not long before, for a Tokelau girl on shore recognized the shipwrecked chief as her uncle.

Hale and Wilkes mention no evidence of early knowledge of the Ellice or Gilbert Islands, and it is likely that few canoes from the Ellice group ever reached Tokelau which lies directly into the wind for most of the year. However, there is a tale of one Ellice islander, Te Foe of Nukulaelae, who, while traveling between two of the Ellice Islands, was blown to Fakaofu. He and his family were looked upon as foreigners and were not allowed full social privileges of the island; they were called alatafatafa, which is said to mean people who had to keep at a distance from the council house while the chief's meetings were in order.

The Wilkes Expedition found that the people of Nukufetai in the Ellice Islands were well acquainted with the Tokelau Islands and named all four islands including Olosenga (Swains Island).

There is direct evidence that the Tokelau people knew of Manihiki, Tongareva, and the other atolls east of Pukapuka. Just at the beginning of European contacts 11 inhabitants of Manihiki departed to visit the other islands “to the west”. After five weeks at sea they arrived at Olosenga, and were later transported to one of the northern Tokelau Islands by a whaling ship. One of the party reached Samoa where Turner (32), who reports the story, found him. Tongareva is known by the Tokelau islanders as Manga-loalo, an islet of the atoll. Rarotonga of the Cook Islands is mentioned in a single reference in Tokelau legends (32, p. 21).

4 Root refers to Lefotu.

* The Atafu chiefs are descended from Tepine; the Nukunono chiefs are descendede from Sunga.