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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Western Contact

Western Contact


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.


Since the latter half of the nineteenth century the atolls of Atafu, Nukunono, and Fakaofu have been in contact with the outside world through the vessels of missionaries and traders; and the history of the people is fairly well known.

In 1846 a hurricane devastated Fakaofu. To escape starvation, many of the natives set out in their canoes to go, presumably, to Nukunono which had escaped the storm (p. 28). But winds dispersed the canoes and only two survived. These landed eventually at Uvea (Wallis Island) and found there the Catholic missionaries who had been converting the Wallis islanders since 1837. The discovery of Fakaofu had been known to the missionaries for only five years, and this was their first contact with the natives. In 1852 another hurricane swept over Fakaofu, and news of the subsequent havoc and starvation finally reached Samoa. Mgr. Bataillon, head of the Samoan Catholic mission, sent a ship from Samoa to Wallis, where the natives loaded 16,000 coconuts on board for the starving Tokelau people; and the ship sailed to their rescue under the leadership of Father Padel (1). South Americans had raided the island for laborers not many years before, and the Fakaofu people, in spite of their plight, refused to go on board the ship, as they feared some ruse to carry them away. Only by long hours of argument, by defying the natives' god, and by burning his temple and the mats which were bound about his stone did Father Padel finally convince the people to leave their island. However, several of the old people would not leave, and the priest was forced to send back some of the younger people to care for their elders.

In 1861 Mgr. Bataillon and Father Poupinel took back to Tokelau a party of 16 men and women who had gone to Wallis in 1852. During their sojourn at Wallis they had been converted to Christianity. The people who had remained at Fakaofu would not accept the missionaries or allow the converts to preach in the island, although they would allow the latter to return to their former homes. But the missionaries would not permit this and set sail again with all their natives on board. The chief's son was among those who were to be carried away from the island for the second time. His old father, too grieved to lose his son again, at the last moment rushed out to the ship and granted permission for the missionaries to land and preach Christianity.

In 1863 Father Elloy of Samoa visited Fakaofu but found that paganism still reigned. His visit was ill received by the natives. He continued to the page 33 island of Nukunono, where Christianity had been brought by a native, Justin, who had been for some years with the mission in Samoa. Upon Father Elloy's arrival no natives appeared on the beach. All had fled, fearing that his ship signified another raid of the South Americans, who had carried away a great portion of the population during the interval of 1861–1863. Finally Justin came out when he saw the soutane of a Catholic priest on deck. Justin had virtually become chief of the island and had attempted to instruct his people in the Christian religion. His simple knowledge and enthusiasm had so fired the natives that in 1863 many of them sailed for Samoa to find a priest to baptize them. They arrived at Savai'i and were piloted to Apia on Upolu, where they were instructed. Later they returned to Nukunono in a European ship. In 1868 two Samoan catechists were left on the islands of Fakaofu and Nukunono. At this time only 80 people were left on Nukunono by the slave raiders.

In the same years that the Catholics were introducing their faith among the Tokelau people, the London Missionary Society was sending trained native teachers from Samoa to convert the Tokelau people to Protestantism. In 1858 the mission ship John Williams had visited Fakaofu with the Rev. Murray, but the natives were not receptive to the idea of having two mission-trained Rarotongans among them, saying that there was no place for them to live and nothing to eat. Two Tokelau men aboard the ship, who had found their way to Samoa some years before, were left with the hope that they would introduce Christianity. The Reverend Murray (18) reports tersely: “We did not accomplish all that we desired.”

The ship sailed to Atafu where they left the two native teachers intended for Fakaofu. The new teaching was immediately successful and the next year two canoes set out with one of the Samoan missionaries to carry Christianity to the other islands. At Nukunono they found the people already converted to Catholicism, and after spending five days there they went to Fakaofu, where the chief and his counselor opposed Christianity. The chief ruled that all those who wished to become Christians must go to Atafu to live under the leadership of Mafala, the Samoan teacher. Mafala's party got as far as Nukunono safely, but on the way to Atafu they were driven by head winds to Samoa, nearly 300 miles away. The same year they were returned to Atafu by a mission ship. The mission ships returned again in 1865 and 1868.

Atafu has always been entirely Protestant, and Nukunono, Catholic, but Fakaofu has members of both churches. At Fakaofu the Catholics were molested for many years, and twice there have been fights between the two religious groups. In the fight which occurred about 1880 the high chief was killed.

page 34

The full account of the raids of South Americans upon these isolated and unprotected atolls can never be made. According to the reports of missionaries, the capturing of natives from the Tokelau Islands began before 1852 and lasted as late as 1867 or 1870. Both Nukunono and Fakaofu suffered much. According to the Reverend Newell (19) 247 people were taken from Fakaofu in 1863. Probably it was at this same time that Nukunono was raided, leaving only 80 inhabitants. Just before the arrival of the missionary ship in 1868 the Peruvians had taken 116 men from Fakaofu and 30 men from Atafu.

Present Government

In 1877 the Tokelau Islands were nominally included under the protection of Great Britain by an Order in Council which claimed jurisdiction over all islands of the Pacific not previously ceded or claimed by other powers. In 1889 Commander Oldham on H.M.S Egeria landed at each of the three northern atolls and officially raised the Union Jack, declaring the group under the protectorate of Great Britain. In 1916 the Tokelau Islands, called officially the Union Islands, were incorporated into the Colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. In 1925 the Union Islands were transferred to the Administration of Western Samoa, a New Zealand mandate. This was most acceptable to the natives who feel they have some bonds of kindship with Samoa and regard her with affection as the source of their missionaries. At this time Swains Island, Olosenga, was placed by request of the Jennings family under the jurisdiction of American Samoa.

At present all government is administered by native officials. Each island has a magistrate (faipule) who combines the duties of judge and head of the village council, a mayor (pulenu'u), a chief of police and one or two policemen (leoleo), all of whom are appointed and paid by the administration at Samoa. Annually a member of the Native Office in Samoa visits the islands to judge cases outside the jurisdiction of the native official and to settle any local difficulties.

Each village has a native council (fono) of men who 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 the small children.

One native medical practitioner is the health officer for all the islands, though each village has a dresser and a nurse to do the superficial medical work. At Atafu there is a hospital to which the serious cases of sickness are sent from all the islands.

Fakaofu has a wireless station operated by a native boy who communicates daily with Apia, Samoa.