Four rare photographs of Olohega: Tokelau language week 2013

It’s the last day of Tokelau language week 2013. Te Papa staff are blogging daily with stories related to Tokelau and its treasures from Te Papa’s collections. Today, we will finish the week with four rare photographs from Olohega, the most eastern atoll of Tokelau. The photographs were taken in 1886 by New Zealand photographer Thomas Andrew. He was on the Buster – a ship out of Auckland that travelled through the Pacific Islands for seven months. The Buster called at Olohega (also known as Swains Island) for a day.

Frederick Moss, a New Zealand Businessman, politician, planter, colonial administrator wrote about the stop-over. We draw from his account in the descriptions that accompany these photographs.

Olohega copra

Moss described Olohega as a “…small coral gem not three miles long and about one mile wide broad.” In 1856, an American called Eli Jennings had settled on Olohega with his Samoan wife. They established coconut plantations and produced copra and oil for export.

Olohega copra cutting

When the Buster arrived on Olohega, Eli junior was in charge. His father had passed away about 25 years before. A small group of men from Tanna (Vanuatu) worked with about 50 members of the family on the plantation and drying coconut.

The centre of Olohega was occupied by a beautiful salt water lagoon surrounded by the coconut plantations. Roads ran throughout the island and the coconuts were transported by carts.  Eli Jennings travelled around in buggies imported from San Francisco.

Olohega church

The Jennings’ house was decorated with handsome furniture and works of art. Mr Jennings had built a church and a missionary teacher taught the numerous children.

Olohega Jennings family

To get supplies, the people on Olohega relied on trading vessels that visited them three or four times a year. They’d often travel to Apia in Samoa as it was a major port. You can see in this last photograph a range of European clothes including long dresses and even a jacket or two. No doubt they came from trips to Samoa or visitors to the atoll.

It is easy to think of an atoll like Olohega, a mere 3 miles long and a mile wide as being isolated and remote. However, through these four rare photographs and Moss’s account we discover a few things – the presence of men from Tanna, the missionary influence, the European dress styles and the existence of a coconut trade. Olohega had long been connected to the other atolls of Tokelau, but in the late 1880s it was connected to Vanuatu, Samoa, New Zealand and the United States. Olohega was an atoll but no “island”…


Moss Frederick J. Through atolls and islands in the great South Sea (1889)

One Response

  1. Jim Sugar

    I’m very interested to find out the names of the people in the family portrait. Who is the man posing with the rifle? Are his children among the children in the photograph?

    Very interested.




Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)