Four rare photographs from Olohega, Tokelau

Four rare photographs from Olohega, Tokelau

Pacific Curator Sean Mallon highlights four photographs taken in Olohega in the most eastern atoll of Tokelau.

These photos were taken by Thomas Andrew in 1886. 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, and colonial administrator wrote about the stop-over. I’ve drawn from his account in the descriptions that accompany these photographs.

Huts
Copra drying sheds Swains Island. From the album: Views in the Pacific Islands, 1886, Swains Island, by Thomas Andrew. Te Papa (O.037822)

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.

Locals sit under structure with a roof made from palm tree leaves
Copra cutting Swains Island. From the album: Views in the Pacific Islands, 1886, Swains Island, by Thomas Andrew. Te Papa (O.037824)

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 saltwater 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.

Inside a church
Church Swains Island. From the album: Views in the Pacific Islands, 1886, Swains Island, by Thomas Andrew. Te Papa (O.037823)

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.

A group of Tokelau children and a white man stare at the camera with blank expressions
Swains Island. From the album: Views in the Pacific Islands, 1886, Swains Island, by Thomas Andrew. Te Papa (O.037941)

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’s easy to think of an atoll like Olohega, a mere three 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’…

Sources:

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

14 Comments

  1. Hi my name is Monwell Levi from the Torres Straits island community of St Pauls in Australia. My Great Grandfather who came from Rotuma with the name Fred Pedro who had children Moilang, Louisa, Donnie, Napau (my grandfather) Lency, Ruby Belphina. I do apologise for the writer of this column but i am just wanting to see if I have links to the Pedro’s who commented..

  2. Hello,
    I am supposed to be a direct pedro descendant sharing tokeluan blood and the last name any information is much appreciated!

    1. Author

      Hi Aleksys, thank you for reading the blogpost. Unfortunately, I have no further information about Pedro family. I hope other descendants or researchers who read this blog can guide you some further resources to help you in your search.

  3. My grandfather Misikosi Caleb Jennings is my grandfather his father is Eli Jennings can you tell me how many children Eli Jennings or Eli Jennings Jr had. Always was Eli Jennings German but from America??

    1. My last name is Pedro as well…..ive been told that swains is our island. There has been feud over the island for years i believe. My auntie would have more specific information.

  4. My GGrandfathers brother ,George Napier Jennings, went to tonga in the late 1880”s from New Zealand and lived there until his death. he married twice and had 7 children. Is this man Eli Jennings the same man?
    please reply to my e-mail

    1. Author

      Hi Kath, thank you for reading the blog. Eli Jennings and George Napier Jennings don’t appear to be the same man. Eli Jennings senior was an American who moved to Olohega in 1856… a couple of decades before George left New Zealand. You may be aware of that the family history of George Napier Jennings in Tonga is detailed in a book by Yvonne McKissock called “Jennings Family of Tonga”.

  5. Please confirm whether the man holding the rifle is John Jose Pedro, who married a Tokelauan Women from Tokelau Island..Can you also let me know the names of the people in the photo?

    Thank you,
    Akenehe

    1. Author

      Dear Akenehe,
      thank you for your question and for commenting on the blogpost. I appreciate you sharing the name of John Jose Pedro with us. As I mentioned to Jim below, I was unable to confirm the identities of the people in the photographs. The only account I am aware of about the voyage is that of Frederick Moss (there is a link to the account in the blogpost). I am hopeful some descendants may be able to help us with identifications if this post comes to their attention. I suspect there are very few photographs of people on the island at this time…

    2. Hi Sean Mallon,

      This is to confirm that the man with the rifle is John Jose Pedro my great, great grandfather from Fatima, Lisborn, Portugal. The photo have been confirmed by relatives on my Facebook.com website. If only someone would be able to confirm the rest in the photograph. Thank you!

    3. Author

      Thank you for your comment Akenehe, I will add your comment to our records.

  6. 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.

    Thanks.

    Jim.

    1. Author

      Dear Jim,
      Thank you for your question about the blogpost. Unfortunately, I was unable to confirm the identities of the people in the photographs. The only account I am aware of about the voyage is that of Frederick Moss (there is a link to the account in the post). I am hopeful some descendants may be able to help us with some identifications.

      sean

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