All about the Rock: Niuean language week 2013

This week is Niue language week. The theme for this year’s celebration is: Leveki mo e Fakaaoga e Vagahau Niue: Treasure and Use the Niue language. Pacific Cultures curators will be posting blogs related to Niue throughout the week and highlighting treasures from Te Papa’s collections. To start us off, what are 10 things you should know about Niue?  I bet you’re wondering…


1. Niue is an elevated coral atoll with fringing coral reefs encircling steep limestone cliffs. It has a landmass of 259km and its highest point is about 60 metres above sea level. Niue lies 2400 km northeast of New Zealand in a triangle between Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands.

Tuapa landing Niue (Thomas Andrew photographer 1886-87)

2. Niuean language is most closely related to Tongan. Archaeologists believe the island was first settled about 2000 years ago, probably from Tonga, although place-names and traditions suggest some arrivals from Samoa as well, perhaps a little later.


3. The name Niue translates as ‘behold the coconut’.

Sense of Direction (Nigel Brown, 1993)

4. Niue was formerly known as Niue fekai (Savage Island) as a result of an acrimonious meeting in 1774 between Captain James Cook and local people. It is now popularly called ‘the Rock of Polynesia’.

Portrait of John Williams (George Baxter 1837)

5. Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society (LMS) visited Niue in 1830 and attempted, unsuccessfully, to introduce native teachers from  the Cook Islands. After several further unsuccessful visits, Niuean Peniamina returned to the island in 1846 to begin work after training at the LMS school in Samoa, and was joined in 1849 by Samoan missionary Paulo.

6. In 1862, Peruvian slave ships descended on Niue and kidnapped 109 people to work in guano mines and on plantations in Peru.

King Tongia

7. Between 1888 and 1889, King Fata‘aiki and King Togia, fearing annexation by other colonial powers, petitioned Queen Victoria three times for Niue to be declared a British protectorate, The offer was formally accepted in 1900 but was short-lived, and in 1901 the island was placed under New Zealand rule.

Niuean soldiers in Auckland 1916 (source: Te ara)

8. In 1914, Niue became involved in the First World War. Some 149 men of the Niuean contingent eventually became part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, which served in Egypt and France.

9. In 1974, Niue became politically independent in free association with New Zealand, under the 1974 Niue Constitution Act.

Alofi, Niue. Food division after an Earpiercing Ceremony 1982. From the series: Polynesia Here and There (Glenn Jowitt 1982)

10. In 2006, the Niuean population was the fourth-largest Pacific Island group in New Zealand, numbering 22.476. There are more Niueans living in New Zealand than on Niue itself.

Sources: Akeli, Safua and Pasene, Shane 2011 Exploring ‘the Rock’: Material culture from Niue Island in Te Papa’s Pacific Cultures collection: Tuhinga 22: 101-124

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