Seven things you should know about Tokelau

Seven things you should know about Tokelau

Pacific Curator Sean Mallon gives us seven facts about Tokelau – a country made up of four atolls that lies north of the Samoan Islands, and east of Tuvalu. 


As I was reminded today, the first thing anyone should know about Tokelau is that it is made up of four atolls… ‘Atafu, the northern most motu [atoll], then the beautiful Nukunonu, the historical home of ‘Tui Tokelau’ on Fakaofo, and never forgetting the ancient communal lands of Olohega in the south.'(1)

Politically, and as part of the processes of colonialism, Olohega is currently administered by the United States. Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo are administered by New Zealand.  However, historically and culturally Olohega is part of Tokelau.

Fakaofo Atoll in the Tokelau Group, photographed from 30,000+ feet on October 19, 2005.
Fakaofo Atoll in the Tokelau Group, photographed from 30,000+ feet on October 19, 2005.


Low coral atolls like those of Tokelau are formed from a coral reef that has grown on top of a submerged volcano. The actual land consists of sand and coral that has built up on the surface of the reef. The atolls of Tokelau sit on extinct volcanic peaks.


The coral atolls of Tokelau have no surface fresh water. The people had to dig wells to a lens-shaped natural reservoir of fresh water trapped beneath the sand. This precious resource is replenished by rain.


Environmental threats to Tokelau include cyclones, tsunamis, and drought. Rises in sea level erode the atolls. A rise of a few metres would make these islands uninhabitable. Seawalls and sandbags help keep the ocean back.


For food, Tokelauans in earlier times depended on the native pandanus and coconut trees, as well as introduced plants such as swamp taro (which they grew in ponds dug down to the freshwater level) and breadfruit. Marine resources were also vital. Tokelau people have developed a unique system of sharing out food among all members of the community. This is called inati.

A man portions out food
Inati ceremony – Food division, Nukunonu Atoll, Tokelau Islands, 1981, Nukunonu, by Glenn Jowitt. Gift of the photographer, 2012. Te Papa (O.041128)


The only ‘rock’ in Tokelau is coral, so the people used shell and bone for tools. Occasionally they obtained stone tools from other islands, like Samoa.


In 2011, the population of Tokelau was 1411. In 2006, there were around 6,819 Tokelauans living in New Zealand.

The Tokelau flag depicting a vaka sailing toward the Southern Cross constellation of stars

Inati – a system of sharing out food among the community

Toki – a hafted adzing tool used for shaping wood

Atafu, Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Olohega – the atolls of Tokelau

Motu – atoll/island


Many thanks to Nathan Pedro and Lily Pedro for their feedback.


  1. malo!man i miss tokelau

  2. Malo ni

    The global tragedy of colonialism and blackbirding in 1850s-1860s was catastrophic on Tokelau – the loss of lives nearly wiped us out, the theft by deception of Olohega by an American, the Tokehega signing by our elders encouraged by the NZ government who was supposed to protect our rights and us as a people is deplorable. The pain does not subside where there is no justice or mercy.

    On the 9th February 1863, both the Missionary vessel John Williams and the blackbirding vessel Rosa Patricia left Apia with the Peruvian vessel being seen making for the Tokelaus – Nukunonu, Atafu, Fakaofo and Olohega. The Rosa Patricia called at Olosenga where her supercargo Pitman signed on Eli Hutchinson Jennings as a recruiter. Jennings was accompanied by a Fakaofo labourer on Olosenga who helped to persuade his fellow islanders to recruit.The Rosa Patricia arrived at Atafu on 16th February and Eli Jennings the recruiter embarked at Olosenga showing those who came on board samples of cloth, shirts and trousers, inviting the islanders to bring their coconuts and fowls to the ship to barter for them. The chief Foli (called Oli by the Rarotongan Maka) and 36 other men went on board; only two of them reached the shores again discharged as being too old and weak. After questioning the two men, Maka wrote the letter below to Henry Gee the same evening:

    Sir, all the people of this land are carried off. They have taken the chief Oli, who was in Samoa, and 34 other men. All that now remain here are women and children and six male adults…Such, Sir, has been the cruelty of the ship to the people of this land. The good work which had begun on this island is now destroyed. Had we known the character of this vessel, no-one would have gone aboard. We are startled that such a thing should be done to these people. Two men who were returned to the shore by the captain, told us that when the people reached the ship with their things for sale, one of the crew collected these things together. Then the captain said to the men, “Go and look at the cloth for your purchases”. But this was the contrivance of the captain: he placed some things in the hold of the vessel – the best of the cloth, red cloth, and shirts, and trousers, and white and blue calico; and some things he kept on deck. Then the captain said to the men, “look for the cloth on deck and that in the hold, and see which to choose”. Some of the people were looking at the cloth in the hold, then all went below. The captain told them to go below, and all went down. Then one of the crew gave them wrappers and shirts, and trousers and hats to put on. So the men rejoiced that they had got some clothing to attend worship in. But some of the crew were hidden in the hold armed with cutlasses. They were hidden so that the people did not know that they were there. All these things the captain had arranged. None remained on deck except the chief; he continued on deck. He called down to his people to return to the deck, and not remain below lest they should injure anything in the vessel. The chief was standing over the hatchway, when some of the crew seized him and threw him down into the hold and he fell into the middle of the hold. Then the hatchway was immediately closed down upon them all. These two men also told me they saw one of the people struck down by the crew with a sword. They saw the blood flow like water. They do not know if he was killed for the ship hastened off.

    Sir, there is nothing that we do now but mourn and weep for our island is destroyed. But we think now that they had taken all the strong people of this land, they will return with the ship to fetch the women and children. This is my enquiry, what shall we do if the ship comes again? Tell us what to do, lest the vessel quickly returns.

    This is the end of my letter.

    The evidence indicates that 37 people, all men, were taken from Atafu and six males left, through age and infirmity, to look after their families. This is in substantial agreement with the total of about 30 given to the Reverend A.W. Murray in 1868.

    It seems likely that Pitman was advised in Apia to try and secure the services of Jennings as he spoke the Tokelau dialect and he was known to and trusted by the people. In all probability, Pitman offered Jennings ten dollars a head for recruits.

    As the four blackbirding ships left the Tokelaus, their captains could congratulate themselves on having carried off the best of the able-bodied population of the three atolls within a few days and with very little trouble: Fakaofo had lost 140 people, Nukunonu 76, and Atafu 37 (all men), a total of 253. This figure represents 47 per cent of the estimated population when the raiders arrived, but probably close to a 100 per cent of the able-bodied male.

    On the four atolls of the Tokelaus, the nature and extent of the catastrophe was immediately apparent. It was in the three Tokelaus (as well as the two Tuvalu Islands, Funafuti and Nukulaelae) that the shock was most severe. The effect was summarised in the words of Maka, the Samoan pastor on Atafu, written immediately after the able-bodied men on the island had been taken away.

    It is most piteous to witness the grief of these women and children. They are weeping night and day; they do not eat, there is none left to provide food for them or to climb the coconut trees. They will perish with hunger…Another event occurred to the wife of the chief; in her misery she prematurely gave birth to a child. She felt no pain from the intensity of her grief for the loss of her husband, her son and her people.

  3. I’m looking forward with confidence when justice emerge only God knows.

    Foai Suka Foai QSM, JP

    1. Author

      Thank you for reading the blog and for your comment Foai.

  4. Our family is having Christmas and we were talking about uncle Nathan. Would you be Nathan Pedro that had been married to our aunt. If so we miss you.

  5. Malo ni Ioane and Lily,
    Io, te fakaalofa o to tatou fenua. Thanks for your invaluable input, alofa lahi atu. Ke manuia te vaiaho o te tatou gagana.


  6. Malo ni Sean,

    Fakafetai for acknowledging our 4th atoll. Ke manuia te vaiaho o te gagana Tokelau


  7. Malo Nathan for expressing the sentiments about Olohega which many of our Tokelau people share. It is just another instance of the great injustice all colonised Pacific nations had suffered and will continue to be so at the hands of the colonial powers. Olohega will never fade away from the consciousness of our people and future generations of Tokelau and Olohega will continue the fight for unification and restoration of the relationship and Tu Fa status to pre-European time. Personally, reuniting Tokelau and Olohega is far more important an issue than the question about what colonial power they should be under.

    1. Author

      Fakafetai ni Ioane for your comments. Much appreciated…

  8. Malo ni Sean,

    Thanks for the blog, I did enjoy it. But I just wanted to make a correction. The first thing anyone else should know about Tokelau is that we are made up of four islands. Atafu, the northern most motu, then the beautiful Nukunonu, the historical home of ‘Tui Tokelau’ on Fakaofo, and never forgetting the ancient communal lands of Olohega in the south. All are inextricably linked together. Ke manuia te vaiaho o te gagana Tokelau.

    1. Author

      Fakafetai ni Lily for your feedback on the blogpost. As I replied to Nathan, and as you point out, all four of the atolls of Tokelau are historically and culturally connected. I have amended the blogpost to address the issues that you and Nathan have raised.

  9. I want to point out a false and colonial-biased information disseminated through this site. A lie that has deceived and unfortunately bought by and engrained in the hearts and minds of many of our Tokelau people for many years; one that needs to be corrected for the sake of our future generations. Culturally and historically, Tokelau is a Pacific Island Nation of 4 atolls – Fakaofo, Nukunonu, Atafu and Olohega; though in its current political administration, it has jurisdiction over 3 atolls (less Olohega) – this is political rubbish which is another chapter in itself, thus the term Tutolu or Fenua e tolu (three islands). This term is a “slap in the face” for the Tokelau people from Olohega – in essence it should be a slap in the face for anyone who truly calls him/herself Tokelau. This term negates the existence of Tokelau people from Olohega, it reinforces and affirms the lies and deceptive spirit that fuelled the Tokehega treaty. In reality this term does NOT acknowledge those from Olohega as Tokelau people – if that is so, then WHO ARE WE? I’m speaking on behalf of Tokelau communities in the USA – remnant of Olohega. What are you saying to these communities when you make the claim that Tokelau is of three atoll? Are you claiming that these communities are not Tokelau? It saddens and disgusts me that our own Tokelau people (intentionally or not) add to the insult done by colonialism by the continual usage of this “Tutolu or Fenua e tolu” term. To the manager of this site: read our Tokelau history or ask any Tokelau elder about Olohega. The completeness of Tokelau is Tu-Fa (Four islands). Ke manuia te Vaiaho o te Gagana Tokelau

    Nathan Pedro, Son of Tu-Fa
    Fakaofo, Nukunonu, Atafu and OLOHEGA

    1. Author

      Fakafetai ni for your feedback Nathan. I have been aware of Olohega for some time. As we work in the Museum of New Zealand we tend to focus on Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo where the ties are strongest.
      Your feedback reminds us that that colonialism and the lines on maps can often obscure the deep historical connections that we as Pacific peoples maintain between ourselves. I acknowledge your point that the political status of Olohega is still contested, even among Tokelau people.

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