History of Tokelau

Atafu atoll

Tokelau is a territory of New Zealand in the Pacific Ocean. It comprises three tropical coral atolls (Nukunonu, Atafu, and Fakaofo), with a combined land area of 4 sq mi. Tokelau has the smallest economy globally, although it is a pilot in renewable energy, being the first hundred percent solar-powered country in the world. 

Let’s explore the history of this island.

Prehistory- Tokelau

Archaeological proof shows that the atolls of Tokelau – Nukunonu, Atafu, and Fakaofo – were inhabited around a thousand years ago. Residents followed Polynesian faith with the local god Tui Tokelau; and developed forms of art and music. The music instruments included pokihi (wooden box), log drums (pate), and apa (biscuit tin).

The three atolls mainly operated independently while maintaining a linguistic and social union. Chiefly clans administered Tokelauan society, and there were rare inter-atoll conflicts and hostilities as well as inter-marriage. Fakaofo, the “chiefly island, ” held some hold over Atafu and Nukunonu after Atafu’s dispersal. Life on the islands was subsistence-based, with reliance on coconut and fish.

First Contact

John Byron was the very first European to discover Atafu in June 1765 and named the island “Duke of York’s Island.” Parties onshore stated that there were no signs of previous or current inhabitants. By knowing of Byron’s discovery, Captain Edward Edwards explored Atafu on 6 June 1791[20] in search of the Bounty mutineers. There were no continual inhabitants, but houses contained boats and fishing gear, implying that the island was a makeshift home by fishing parties. 

On 12 June 1791, Edwards traveled southward and found Nukunonu, naming it “Duke of Clarence’s Island.” A landing party could not meet the local people but saw “Morais”, burying places, and boats with “stages in their middle” sailing across the lakes.

On 29 October 1825, August R. Strong of the USS Dolphin recorded his crew’s arrival at Nukunonu:

Upon inspection, we found they had transferred all the children and women from the settlement, which was quite small, and put them in boats lying off a rock in the lagoon. They would come near the shore, but they would pull off with high noise and precipitation when we tried to approach.

On 14 February 1835, Captain Smith of the U.S. whaler General Jackson notes discovering Fakaofo, calling it “D’Wolf’s Island.” 

Fakaofo islanders, drawn in 1841 by the United States Exploring Expedition

On 25 January 1841, the U.S. Exploring Expedition toured Atafu and noticed a small population living on it. The residents appeared temporary, evidenced by the lack of a leader and the ownership of a double boat. They desired to trade, and maintained blue beads and a plane-iron, showing early interaction with Europeans. The expedition explored Nukunonu on 28 January 1841 but did not report any data about inhabitants. On 29 January 1841, the team discovered Fakaofo and named it “Bowditch.” The islanders were observed to be similar in nature and appearance to those in Atafu.


Missionaries forced Christianity in Tokelau in the mid-1800s. French Catholic missionaries on Wallis Island and preachers of the Protestant London Missionary Society in Samoa used indigenous teachers to convert the Tokelauans. Often forceful and manipulative, these conversions are a matter of controversy. Nukunonu was converted to Catholicism, Atafu was converted to Protestantism by the London Missionary Society, and Fakaofo was converted to both categories. The Rev. Samuel James Whitmee, of the London Missionary Society, toured Tokelau in 1870.

Slave Trade

Supported by Swains Island-based Eli Jennings senior, Peruvian “blackbird” slave traders appeared in 1863 and captured nearly all (250) non-disabled men to work as laborers, banishing the atolls. They kidnapped everyone. The Tokelauan men died of smallpox and dysentery, and very few came back. With this loss, the governance method became based on the Councils of Elders (Taupulega), where individual families on each atoll were represented. During this period, Polynesian immigrants followed by American, French, Scottish, German, and Portuguese wanderers settled, marrying native women and repopulating the atolls.

Between 1856 and 1979, the U.S. claimed sovereignty over the island and the other Tokelauan atolls. In 1979, the U.S. admitted that Tokelau was under New Zealand sovereignty, and the Treaty of Tokehega installed a maritime boundary between Tokelau and American Samoa.

Modern Era

Over the past three thirty years, Tokelau has moved towards its current exceptional level of political self-reliance. It has its unprecedented political institutions, including the Executive Council and a national legislative body. It runs its public services and judicial system. It has its telecommunications and shipping systems. It has complete control over its budget. It plays a vital role in regional affairs and is a member of several local and international organizations.

Was it worth reading? Let us know.