Lesson 9: Tokelau

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Tokelau is a tiny territory consisting of three tropical coral atolls with a land mass of only a few square miles. About 1,500 Tokelauans live there, and only that many or fewer have inhabited the atolls since the first settlement about a thousand years ago. In the late 18th century and early 19th century British and American explorers “discovered” the atolls but believed them to be either uninhabited or just in use as a temporary fishing camp. They soon realized that the small fixed population of at least one atoll would pile into canoes and anchor themselves just off the shore when they saw Westerners coming. In the mid 1840s both French Catholic and British Protestant missionaries came to Tokelau from their posts in Samoa. The French converted Tokelauans on one atoll to Catholicism, the British converted the population of another atoll to Protestantism, and the islanders on the other atoll became mixed. In 1863 Peruvian slave traders took almost all Tokelauan men (253 of them) to work in South America. Most died of disease and other causes while in Peru; very few returned. Without an able-bodied male population Tokelauans developed a family-based system of government, putting power in the hands of “Taupulega” (“Councils of Elders”) that received representatives from individual families on each atoll. During these years a smattering of “beachcombers” from Europe and other islands in Polynesia married local women and boosted the population of the atolls.

Tokelau came under British jurisdiction in 1877 and in 1920 Tokelauans became British subjects. In 1926 the British transferred Tokelau to the administration of New Zealand, which ended the system of chief/clan rule. In 1848 British Tokelauans became New Zealand citizens. Today Tokelauans seem to be moving from being on of the world’s 16 remaining “non-self-governing-territories” to becoming a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand, but the Tokelauans have voted twice since 2000 on the matter of independence and both times there weren’t enough votes for free association for Tokelau to change status. (Of the 692 votes cast in the 2007 referendum 446 were for Free Association, 246 against…16 shy of 2/3 majority needed to make the change.)

Whether independent or not, Tokelau is so tiny it has no substantial income of its own and relies almost entirely on others for economic support. The land of the three Tokelauan atolls is also at most a few feet above sea level, putting Tokelau at threat of disappearing as the ocean rises. No wonder the Tokelauans take global warming seriously; its leaders have stated a goal to provide all the island’s power by using photovoltaic solar panels. During cloudy times or when demand outpaces supply they will use a generator powered by coconut oil.


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