Tokelau – a historical ethnography by J Huntsman & A Hooper

The Following extract is from ‘Tokelau – a historical ethnography’ by J Huntsman & A Hooper

tokelau bookThere are very few written records of events and conditions in Nukunonu before 1863, but what documentary fragments do exist substantiate the traditional accounts related by the people of the island today.

Very shortly after the Christian missions were established, the atolls were visited by ships engaged in the Peruvian slave trade. GILL and BIRD, P. Gould, MS describes their visits to Fakaofo in the following terms:

Only ten days after the “John Williams” left Fakaofo (2nd Febry) the first slavers arrived. The crew went ashore armed with guns and swords and frightened the people to death. They took off 16 of the finest men in the island and shortly after a second vessel arrived and took off 44 men. A third slaver arrived and took off 4 men and 76 women and children. Only six men and thirty women and a few children are left. Left because not worth taking being diseased or old and infirm.

Nukunonu was also raided at about the same time. Bird’s brief account of the raids was gathered from a party “3 men, 5 women and some children” which had escaped to Samoa in two canoes. They reported that “Five slavers had been there . . . The first took off 60 people, the second six and the third ten, leaving about 20 people in the land . . . the foreigners inspected them like animals casting aside the old diseased and bundling off all the others on board ship.”

Bird’s account of the visit of the blackbirders to Atafu is based upon three obviously disjointed and frantic letters from the Rarotongan teacher there. The first vessel took away the “king” and 13 other men. Two further vessels arrived shortly afterwards and took away more. It seems that either 34 or 35 men were taken altogether from Atafu, leaving only women and children and six men.

From these accounts, we may estimate the population of Tokelau after the slavers had finally left, as follows:

Fakaofo 57
Nukunonu 20-40
Atafu 105

After leaving Tokelau, one of the slavers put in to Tutuila for water. Local Samoans learned that slaves were aboard and threatened the ship, inducing the captain to release six Fakaofo men. Three of these six were ill with dysentery and died in Tutuila, but the three survivors were in Upolu in May 1863 (Bird 1863) and later reached their home island. One of these men, the “King” of the island fathered numerous offspring by five different Fakaofo women, and the other two also had numerous children

The first foreigner to take advantage of this depopulation of the islands was a man named Ben Hughes, who arrived on Fakaofo about 1863. He is described in several sources as an American, but he remains a shadowy figure, known only through vernacular accounts recorded some time after his departure. It seems certain that he was involved with the slave ships, and the fact that he was reported to have brought with him “a wife and child and three natives of Penrhyn” makes it probable that he was the same “Beni” who is recorded as being at Penrhyn at that period. Hughes alienated one large islet of the atoll and introduced a number of labourers to work it, but he does not seem to have stayed for very long on Fakaofo. The islet was leased in 1867 to Antonio Pereira, a Portuguese of African descent born in the Cape Verde Islands, and finally bought by his part-Samoan son Joseph in 1902; the entire islet then remained in the hands of this man’s part-Tokelauan descendants until 1956 when a large portion of it was purchased and vested in the people of Fakaofo to use as a village area. Joseph Pereira also alienated other large areas of Fakaofo during the 1870s and was able to control and exploit them by manipulating the rift between the Protestant and Roman Catholic factions until his claims were finally disallowed by the Western Pacific High Commission in 1892.

Another trader, referred to as a potuk? paepae “white Portuguese” was established in the islands by the 1870s, and has left part-Tokelauan descendants on Nukunonu. A later potuk? Amelika “American Portuguese” had children by women in each of the three atolls, all of whom now have descendants in the islands. By the 1880s there was a German trader on Fakaofo who had children by a local woman, but whose descendants are now in the Ellice group; and a Scottish trader on Nukunonu whose part-Tokelauan part-Samoan descendants are now mostly in Western Samoa and New Zealand.

The generation following 1863 thus saw the establishment of a wide variety of immigrants in the atolls. The labourers imported by Hughes included four men from Penrhyn, three from Samoa and one Maori—though it is not known whether he was from New Zealand or the Cook Islands. If one adds to these the various varieties of Portuguese—“black”, “white”, and “American”—the German, the Scotsman, a Frenchman (said by one source to be a nobleman) who has left descendants by a Fakaofo woman, the part-Tokelauan family of the American Eli Jennings on Olosega, various Uveans, Ellice Islanders and a man from Ontong Java in the Solomons who settled on Fakaofo in the 1890s, the result is an improbably bizarre genetic mixture.

All of these individuals who left children in the atolls can be located in current genealogies, and the genetic implications of their sojourns can be assessed. It is more difficult, however, to gauge the impact of the migrants on Tokelau society and culture of the late nineteenth century. The Polynesians apparently settled smoothly into the local communities, but the Europeans created for themselves a niche as traders, setting up shops and acting as agents for the purchase of copra. None of them was quite as grasping and disruptive to Tokelau society as the Pereiras; but all were drawn to some extent into the village communities. They may be credited with having established the Market sector of the Tokelau economy, though this remained small and marginal to the mainstream of Tokelau life during the nineteenth century.

Leave a Reply