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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



Olosenga was the first island in the Tokelau group to be seen by Europeans. Quiros, leading a Spanish expedition across the Pacific in 1606, landed there in search of water for his ships. The natives then inhabiting page 29 the island doubtless regarded the strange and magnificent craft as arrivals from the world of the gods. Quiros describes the men in the ten canoes which came out to meet him, as “… singing to the sound of their paddles, one of them leading, to whom the rest replied.” Some stood erect in the canoes, making gestures, dancing and singing “to show themselves joyful before our ships.” This joy and awe is the same attitude with which many other Polynesians received the first white men to their islands. The Spaniards, however, looked upon this with suspicion and fighting arose before a landing party could go ashore. Later in their stay, when the ships moved because a change of wind made their position close to the reef dangerous, the natives believed that the ships were departing and attempted in small boats to hold the oars of the crews. They slipped a rope about the line to the launch and tried to bring it over the reef as they did their own canoes, an action which the Spaniards interpreted as wholly hostile.

Some of the natives were apparently defiant, for Quiros (23) states:

At this time a very audacious old man came in one of the canoes to the Capitana with a very long and thick lance of palm wood, well-balanced. He had on a sort of cloak or hood made of a leaf dyed crimson and a hat they had given him from the launch … He made faces with his eyes and mouth. In a very loud voice he seemed to order us to surrender. With his lance brandished menacingly he made as many thrusts as he could. With the intention of making him quiet, two muskets were fired off. The others cried out and threw up their arms, but he made light of it. With great pride he showed more signs of his anger; and finding he could do nothing, he quickly passed both ships and went to where the launch was following the other canoes.

This may have been a challenge to fight or, possibly, the contortions of a priest who was making a show of bravado before the gods to impress his companions and the community.

Torres, who was captain of one of Quiros' ships, was sent with a party to get wood and water and to capture four boys, if possible. The natives ranged themselves on the beach against the party of whose landing Torres (23) gives the following account:

All with one voice gave a pabori, which I understood to be a kind of intoned shout or war cry; and they closed with a noise very brief but terrible. They came against us, and it was necessary to attack them with vigor, owing to their being so close. The arquebuses, which are a terror to those who do not know them but see their effects, terrified them; and they fled, carrying, as they had brought, the king or chief in a litter on their shoulders, holding palm leaves to shade him.

Several old men remained and welcomed the Spaniards, humbly requesting them to sit in the shade and offering them coconuts to drink. On the island the Spaniards found a village with a population numbering between 100 and 200 persons, never seen again by Europeans.

Mendaña, with whom Quiros sailed at the end of the sixteenth century, passed close to the island of Atafu, though he did not see it. Two hundred page 30 years later, on June 21, 1765, Byron discovered Atafu and named it “Duke of York Island”. He sent two boat parties ashore, but they found no sign of inhabitants. On June 6, 1791, Captain Edwards, knowing of Byron's discovery, came here in search of the mutineers of the Bounty. There were no permanent inhabitants, but the crew which went ashore discovered houses containing fishing gear and canoes, indicating that the island was used as a temporary residence for fishing parties. These probably came from the other islands of the group before the island was permanently colonized from Fakaofu. Hamilton (8), who accompanied Edwards as surgeon on the Pandora, adds:

Stages and wharfs were likewise discovered in different parts of the creek … The skeleton of a very large fish supposed to be a whale was found near the beach; and a place of venerable aspect formed entirely by the hand of Nature and resembling a Druidical temple commanded their attention. The falling of a very large tree formed an arch through which the interior part of the temple was seen, which heightened the perspective … At the extreme end of the temple three altars were placed, the center one higher than the other two, on which some white shells were piled in regular order.

Captain Edwards left mirrors and trinkets in the empty houses on the beach. Three days later, he sailed southward and discovered Nukunono which he named “Duke of Clarence Island”. He could not make contact with the people but saw “morais and burying places” and canoes sailing across the lagoons with “stages in their middle”. No stone structures resembling marae or quays now stand on the island.

In 1841, Captain Hudson of the United States Exploring Expedition visited Byron's “Duke of York Island” with two ships and discovered a small population living on the island. Horatio Hale (11), ethnologist and philologist of the Wilkes Expedition, rightly believed that the people of Atafu belonged to Fakaofu.

They were temporary residents at Atafu. This declaration proceeds partly from their own statement that they had no chief with them and partly from the circumstance that they had none but double canoes with them, which are best adapted for a sea voyage.

Hale also assumed that they had had previous intercourse with foreigners, probably at Fakaofu, because of their desire to barter, and because of the fact that they had blue beads and a plane-iron in their possession. He estimated that there were 20 men with women and children. Wilkes gives an estimate of 40, as counted by Hudson. Possibly the overpopulation of Fakaofu, between 500 and 600 as counted by Hale, accounts for the establishment of a permanent settlement on Atafu.

Captain Morvan in command of the Adolphe, a French ship from Morlaix, discovered Fakaofu in 1841. Shortly afterward the two ships of the United States Exploring Expedition came upon the island independently page 31 (33). The men of these two ships believed Fakaofu to be a new discovery. The natives visited them in canoes, and a small party from the ships went ashore on the largest islet, Fenua Fala. On the second day Captain Hudson led a group ashore on the village islet. The chiefs and people were arranged to meet them on the shore, the old chief and his council of older men sitting before the rest. The natives were greatly alarmed, thrust presents upon the white men, wrapped their officers in mats, pressed noses with them, and begged them to be seated. When the fears of the natives had been allayed, the party walked into the village and inspected the houses and the temple of the supreme deity, Tui Tokelau. From an examination of this temple. Hale learned that a European ship had been previously wrecked on the atoll:

At the foot of this pile of benches lay a piece of timber which was recognized as the windlass of a vessel. It was about four feet long by one foot in diameter and was much worn, as though it had been exposed to the action of the waves. When we asked from whence it came, they replied, from the sea. And in answer to further inquiries, they related that a few years ago, three or four, a vessel was lost in the surf, and that two men got ashore, Fakaaukamea, (the other's name we omitted to write) and that both have since died. On examining closer, it appeared that the windlass was not the only relic of the wreck. Three crossbeams, about twenty feet long and six inches thick, which were fastened to the center posts about ten feet from the ground had evidently beeen cut and planed by regular tools; and we found on inquiring that they were also from the vessel. As the names of two survivors had both Polynesian characters, it occurred to us that they might possibly have been Sandwich islanders and from them the natives may have obtained the word Debolo, which so much puzzled us. The Hawaiians, being Christians, would naturally apply the word to the native gods as a term of contempt; and the islanders not understanding, of course, its precise force, might adopt it as synonymous with their word atua, deity.

This ship wrecked upon the reef of Fakaofu or the visit of Captain Morvan probably brought the European beads and articles which Hale and Hudson found in the possession of the natives at both Fakaofu and Atafu. There are no other records of visiting ships before 1841. The first-hand account of Hale is a picture of the Tokelau people in the virgin state of their culture when Fakaofu had become supreme in the group.

In 1841 Captain Hudson sailed southward from Fakaofu to find Quiros Island, the location of which he had learned in Samoa from a whaling captain named Swain. He ran down Olosenga, and seeing no inhabitants on it, sailed around to make a running survey. He gave the atoll the name “Swains Island”, after his informant in Samoa, by which name it is now generally known.

Not long after the arrival of Hudson, three Frenchmen settled on Olosenga as agents of a French company to procure oil. Natives from Fakaofu were living on the island at the time of their arrival. In 1856 an American, Eli Jennings from New Bedford, who had lived and married in Samoa, came to the island. Jennings took over the island and the native laborers from the page 32 Frenchmen, who departed for Samoa. Jennings became master and sole owner of the island, and it has remained in the hands of his family since his death.