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Tokelau - History

Tokelau History

Tokelau's atolls have been populated for around 1000 years, with traditional tales linking the original Polynesian settlers with Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tuvalu. The three atolls were reputed to have something of a fierce aversion to domination from outsiders until the Tokelau wars of the 18th century, when Fakaofo conquered Atafu and Nukunonu to create the first united entity of Tokelau.

The first Europeans to visit the islands were Commodore John Byron in 1765 (Atafu) and the sailors of the US American whaler General Jackson in 1835 (Fakaofo). As is the custom, missionaries soon followed, with Catholic Samoans converting the people of Nukunonu in the 1840s, Protestant Samoans converting Atafu in 1858 and the two groups later battling for the souls of Fakaofo. The atolls' already-minuscule populations were drastically reduced to a mere 200 in the 1850s and 60s when Peruvian slave traders seized around 250 people, 500 islanders were removed by missionaries, and diseases such as dysentery took hold.

The islands were annexed by Britain in 1889, and incorporated into the new crown colony of Gilbert & Ellice Islands (today's Kiribati and Tuvalu) in 1916, by which time they were known as the Union Group, which probably didn't take because it sounds like a name better suited to a bank than an island paradise. Many Tokelauans headed off to work the phosphate mines of Banaba (Ocean Island). The islands have been administered by New Zealand since 1925, and were included within its territorial boundaries in 1948, much to the displeasure of New Zealand's cartographic community. The name Tokelau Islands was given in 1946, and contracted to Tokelau in 1976; it's a Polynesian word meaning 'north wind'.

To this day, Tokelau's administrator is still appointed by New Zealand's minister for foreign affairs, with an official secretary based in Apia, Samoa. The country remains dependent on foreign aid, largely from NZ, but calls for independence are increasing, encouraged by both New Zealand and the United Nations.

The public service has been relocated to Tokelau from Samoa, and since 1996 the general fono council has held legislative power. Improvements such as the inter-atoll ferry and satellite telecommunications system are easing Tokelau's isolation. With acreage at a premium, chronic overcrowding remains a huge problem, especially as global warming potentially threatens the tiny islands' very survival.

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