Tokelau is an island country and dependent territory of New Zealand in the southern Pacific Ocean. It consists of three tropical coral atolls (Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo), with a combined land area of 4.2 square miles (10.8 km²) and a population of approximately 1,500 people. Its capital rotates yearly between the three atolls. Tokelau lies north of the Samoan Islands, Swains Island being the nearest, east of Tuvalu, south of the Phoenix Islands, southwest of the more distant Line Islands, and northwest of the Cook Islands. Until 1976, the official name was Tokelau Islands. With the fourth smallest population of any sovereign state or dependency on Earth, Tokelau is a leader in renewable energy, being the first 100% solar powered nation in the world.
Tokelau is sometimes referred to by its older colonial name, the Union Islands. In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly designated Tokelau a non-self-governing territory. However, Tokelau is officially referred to as a nation by both the New Zealand government and the Tokelauan government. It is a free and democratic nation with elections every three years. The basis of Tokelau’s legislative, administrative and judicial systems is the Tokelau Islands Act 1948 and its amendments. In 1992, the head of government was established, who is elected every three years. Before this, the Administrator of Tokelau was the highest official in the government; in November 1974 the administration of Tokelau was transferred from the Maori and Island Affairs Department to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and from then until September 1980, when the Tokelau administration regulations were amended, the New Zealand Secretary of Foreign Affairs was the administrator of Tokelau; and regulations then came into force whereby the Minister of Foreign Affairs was empowered to appoint a suitable person to be the Administrator.
The most widely-spoken language in Tokelau is Tokelauan, at 93.5%. At 25.4% as of 2015, Tokelau is relatively high in immigrant percentage; a percentage more than two times higher than France’s immigrant percentage, and even higher than Canada (18.76%), making it nearly on par with countries such as Israel (at 26.5%) and Montserrat (at 25.9%). Tokelau had a small increase in census population from 2011 to 2016: about 6 percent. Tokelau has the smallest economy in the world and has a life expectancy of 69, comparable with other Oceanian island nations.
The name Tokelau is a Polynesian word meaning “north wind”. The islands were named the Union Islands and Union Group by European explorers at an unknown time. Tokelau Islands was adopted as the name in 1946, and was contracted to Tokelau on December 9, 1976.
Tokelau includes three atolls in the South Pacific Ocean between longitudes 171° and 173° W and between latitudes 8° and 10° S, about midway between Hawaii and New Zealand. They lie about 311 miles (500 km) north of Samoa. The atolls are Atafu, Nukunonu, both in a group of islands once called the Duke of Clarence Group, and Fakaofo, once Bowditch Island. The atolls each have a number of coral islands, where the villages are situated. The highest point of Tokelau is just 16 feet (5 meters) above sea level. There are no ports or harbors for large vessels. However, all three atolls have a jetty to and from which supplies and passengers are shipped. Tokelau lies in the Pacific tropical cyclone belt. A fourth island that is culturally, historically, and geographically, but not politically, part of the Tokelau chain is Swains Island (Olohega), under United States control since about 1900 and administered as part of American Samoa since 1925.
Swains Island was claimed by the United States pursuant to the Guano Islands Act, as were the other three islands of Tokelau; these claims were ceded to Tokelau by treaty in 1979. In the draft constitution of Tokelau subject to the Tokelauan self-determination referendum in 2006, Olohega was also claimed as a part of Tokelau, though the claim was surrendered in the same 1979 treaty. This established a clearly defined boundary between American Samoa and Tokelau.
Tokelau’s claim to Swains is generally comparable to the Marshall Islands’ claim to U.S.-administered Wake Island, but the re-emergence of this somewhat dormant issue has been an unintended result of the United Nations’ recent efforts to promote decolonization in Tokelau. Tokelauans have proved somewhat reluctant to push their national identity in the political realm: recent decolonization moves have mainly been driven from outside for ideological reasons. At the same time, Tokelauans are reluctant to disown their common cultural identity with Swains Islanders who speak their language.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the atolls of Tokelau — Atafu, Nukunonu, and Fakaofo — were settled about 1,000 years ago and may have been a “nexus” into Eastern Polynesia. Inhabitants followed Polynesian mythology with the local god Tui Tokelau; and developed forms of music and art. The three atolls functioned largely independently while maintaining social and linguistic cohesion. Tokelauan society was governed by chiefly clans, and there were occasional inter-atoll skirmishes and wars as well as inter-marriage. Fakaofo, the “chiefly island”, held some dominance over Atafu and Nukunonu after the dispersal of Atafu. Life on the atolls was subsistence-based, with reliance on fish and coconut.
Commodore John Byron discovered Atafu on June 24, 1765, and named it Duke of York’s Island. Parties onshore reported that there were no signs of current or previous inhabitants. Captain Edward Edwards, knowing of Byron’s discovery, visited Atafu on June 6, 1791, in search of the Bounty mutineers. There were no permanent inhabitants, but houses contained canoes and fishing gear, suggesting the island was used as a temporary residence by fishing parties. On June 12, 1791, Edwards sailed southward and discovered Nukunonu, naming it Duke of Clarence’s Island. A landing party could not make contact with the people but saw “morais“, burying places, and canoes with “stages in their middle” sailing across the lagoons.
On October 29, 1825, August R. Strong of the USS Dolphin wrote of his crew’s arrival at the atoll Nukunonu:
examination, we found they had removed all the women and children from the settlement, which was quite small, and put them in canoes lying off a rock in the lagoon. They would frequently come near the shore, but when we approached they would pull off with great noise and precipitation.“
On February 14, 1835, Captain Smith of the United States whaler General Jackson records discovering Fakaofo, calling it D’Wolf’s Island. On January 25, 1841, the United States Exploring Expedition visited Atafu and discovered a small population living on the island. The residents appeared to be temporary, evidenced by the lack of a chief and the possession of double canoes (used for inter-island travel). They desired to barter, and possessed blue beads and a plane-iron, indicating previous interaction with foreigners. The expedition reached Nukunonu on January 28 but did not record any information about inhabitants. On January 29, the expedition discovered Fakaofo and named it Bowditch. The islanders were found to be similar in appearance and nature to those in Atafu.
Missionaries preached Christianity in Tokelau from 1845 to the 1860s. French Catholic missionaries on Wallis Island (also known as ‘Uvea) and missionaries of the Protestant London Missionary Society in Samoa used native teachers to convert the Tokelauans. Atafu was converted to Protestantism by the London Missionary Society, Nukunonu was converted to Catholicism and Fakaofo was converted to both denominations.
Helped by Swains Island-based Eli Jennings senior, Peruvian “blackbird” slave traders arrived in 1863 and kidnapped nearly all (253) of the able-bodied men to work as laborers, depopulating the atolls. The Tokelauan men died of dysentery and smallpox, and very few returned. With this loss, the system of governance became based on the Taupulega, or “Councils of Elders”, where individual families on each atoll were represented. During this time, Polynesian immigrants and American, Scottish, French, Portuguese and German beachcombers settled, marrying local women and repopulating the atolls.
In 1877, the islands were included under the protection of the United Kingdom by an Order in Council that claimed jurisdiction over all unclaimed Pacific Islands. Commander C. F. Oldham on HMS Egeria landed at each of the three atolls in June 1889 and officially raised the Union Flag, declaring the group a British protectorate. In conformity with desire expressed by “the Native government” they were annexed by the United Kingdom and included in the Gilbert Islands by the Tokelau Islands (Union Islands) Order in Council, 1916. The annexation took place on February 29, 1916.
From the point in time that the islands were annexed, their people had the status of British subjects. Tokelau was removed from the Gilbert and Elllice Islands Colony and placed under the jurisdiction of the Governor-General of New Zealand in 1925, two Orders in Council being made for the purpose on the same day. This step meant that New Zealand took over administration of Tokelau from the British on February 11, 1926. At this point, Tokelau was still a territory under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom but administered by New Zealand.
The Union Islands (Revocation) Order in Council, 1948 after reciting the agreement by the governments of the United Kingdom and New Zealand that the islands should become part of New Zealand, revoked the Union Islands (No. 2) Order in Council, 1925, with effect from a date fixed by the Governor-General of New Zealand after he was satisfied that the New Zealand Parliament had provided for the incorporation of the islands with New Zealand, as it did by the Tokelau Islands Act 1948. Tokelau formally became part of New Zealand on January 1, 1949.
Between 1856 and 1979, the United States claimed that it held sovereignty over the island and the other Tokelauan atolls. In 1979, the U.S. conceded that Tokelau was under New Zealand sovereignty, and a maritime boundary between Tokelau and American Samoa was established by the Treaty of Tokehega.
The Dominion of New Zealand, of which Tokelau formerly was a part, has since been superseded by the Realm of New Zealand, of which Tokelau remains a part. Defense is the responsibility of New Zealand. When the British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act 1948 came into effect on January 1, 1949, Tokelauans who were British subjects gained New Zealand citizenship; a status they still hold. Villages are entitled to enact their own laws regulating their daily lives and New Zealand law only applies where it has been extended by specific enactment. Serious crime is rare and there are no prisons, and offenders are publicly rebuked, fined or made to work.
Cyclone Percy struck and severely damaged Tokelau in late February and early March 2005. Forecasters underestimated the cyclone’s strength and the length of time it would be in vicinity to Tokelau. It coincided with a spring tide which put most of the area of the two villages on Fakaofo and Nukunonu under a meter of seawater. The cyclone also caused major erosion on several islets of all three atolls, damaging roads and bridges and disrupting electric power and telecommunications systems. The cyclone did significant and widespread damage to food crops including bananas, coconuts and pandanus. It did not seriously injure anyone but villagers lost significant amounts of property. The geographic future of Tokelau depends on the height of sea level.
No significant land is more than 6.6 feet (two meters) above high water of ordinary tides. This means Tokelau is particularly vulnerable to any possible sea level rises.
Until December 2011, Tokelau was 11 hours behind Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). At midnight December 29, 2011, Tokelau shifted to UTC+13:00 in response to Samoa’s decision to switch sides of the International Dateline. This brought Tokelau closer to New Zealand time (and in the process omitted December 30). Many sources claim that Tokelau is 14 hours ahead of UTC (UTC −10 before the 2011 date switch), but the correct time zone offset is UTC+13:00.
Tokelau is served by the MV Tokelau, owned by the country, with the trip from Apia in Samoa taking a little over a day. Ships load and unload cargo by motoring up to the down-wind (leeward) side of the islet where the people live and maintaining station, by intermittent use of engines, close to the reef edge so that a landing barge can be motored out to transfer cargo to or from the shore. On returning to shore, the barge negotiates a narrow channel through the reef to the beach. Usually this landing is subject to ocean swell and beaching requires considerable skill and, often, coral abrasions to bodies.
When bad weather prevents the barge making the trip, the ship stands off to wait for suitable weather or goes off to one of the other atolls to attempt to load or unload its passengers or cargo, or both.
There is no airport in Tokelau, so boats are the main means of travel and transport. Some seaplanes and amphibious aircraft are able to land in the island’s lagoons. An airstrip was considered by the New Zealand Government in 2010.
According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s list of countries by GDP (PPP) Tokelau has the smallest economy of any country in the world. Tokelau has an annual purchasing power of about US$1,000 (€674) per capita. The government is almost entirely dependent on subsidies from New Zealand. It has annual revenues of less than US$500,000 (€336,995) against expenditures of some US$2.8 million (€1.9 million). The deficit is made up by aid from New Zealand.
Tokelau annually exports around US$100,000 (€67,000) of stamps, copra and woven and carved handicrafts and imports over US$300,000 (€202,000) of foodstuffs, building materials, and fuel to, and from, New Zealand. New Zealand also pays directly for the cost of medical and education services. Local industries include small-scale enterprises for copra production, wood work, plaited craft goods, stamps, coins, and fishing. Agriculture and livestock produces coconuts, copra, breadfruit, papayas, bananas, figs, pigs, poultry and a few goats. Many Tokelauans live in New Zealand and support their families in Tokelau through remittances.
Tokelau is currently the world’s only country to only use renewable sources of energy in the production and consumption of electricity. Tokelau’s electricity is 93% generated by photovoltaics, with the remainder generated from coconut oil. The goal of 100 % renewable energy was met on November 7, 2012, according to the Foreign Affairs Minister of New Zealand, Murray McCully.
Three solar power stations provide 100% of current electrical demand from photovoltaics, with battery backup. The first power station was completed in August 2012. In total, 4,032 solar panels are used and 1,344 batteries weighing 550 pounds (250 kilograms) each, making Tokelau the first nation in the world to be 100% powered by solar power. The systems are designed to withstand winds of 143 miles per hour (230 km/h). Previously, electricity was generated using diesel generators, and was only available about 16 hours/day.
Tokelau used the stamps of the Gilbert & Ellice Islands beginning in 1916, followed by the issues of Western Samoa from 1926. The first stamps for Tokelau were issued in 1948 — a set featuring maps and scenes from each of the three islands. Stamp production is moderate with a blend of themes of local interest and themes aimed at the thematic collectors market.
Scott #83, denominated 34 shillings and depicting ‘”bowl finishing”, was released by Tokelau’s postal authorities on May 5, 1982, as part of a set of four stamps depicting local handicrafts. The 10-shilling stamp pictures wood carving, bow-drilling sea shells is shown on the 22-shilling value, and the 60-shilling portrays basket weaving. The four stamps were printed by lithography and perforated 13½x13.