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What Should I Know About Tokelau?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Tokelau is a small collection of atolls in the South Pacific. The region covers 5 square miles (10 sq. km), making it the fifth-smallest nation or territory in the world, and has a population of just under 1500 people. Tokelau is located about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, and just over 300 miles (500 km) from Samoa. Tokelau is made up of three distinct atolls, Atafu, Nukunonu, and Fakaofo.

Tokelau was most likely first settled in the 11th century by sailors from Tuvalu, Samoa, and the Cook Islands. The three atolls were linked by a shared Polynesian heritage, but for most of their history were distinct social and political units. At times the government of Fakaofo exerted dominance over the other two islands, but generally the three were independent.

Tokelau was first discovered by Europeans in the mid-18th century, but they considered the land to be uninhabited. A visit a few decades later revealed signs of inhabitants, although contact was not made between the Europeans and the Polynesians at that time.

In the early-19th century an American ship made first contact with inhabitants of Nukunonu, and a few years later the atoll of Fakaofo was discovered. From the mid-19th century on the islands were evangelized to, mostly using natives who had been converted to Christianity. The islands suffered a heavy setback a few years later when a Peruvian slaving party raided and captured nearly all of the healthy men. The islands were largely depopulated, and were later repopulated by immigrants from both Western countries and other Polynesian islands.

In the late-19th century Tokelau was annexed by Britain, and made part of a collective that included what are today Tuvalu and Kiribati. In 1925 the islands were transferred to New Zealand, which continues to administer them to this day. New Zealand grants the islands a great deal of autonomy, allowing individual villages to have their own laws and manage their own regional matters.

Although a small island, Tokelau is developing its own economy, and moving towards independence. A constitution is in draft form currently, and with the support of both Britain and New Zealand, Tokelau is heading in the direction taken by both the Cook Islands and Niue of becoming an independent region in free association with New Zealand.

Tokelau has the distinction of having the smallest economy of any territory or country in the world. It definitely is not the sort of place to vacation to if what you’re looking for is a standard Polynesian experience. There are no airports on the island, no cars, no harbors for ships, no banks to get money from, no capital city or even cities of any sort, and virtually no tourism. This is truly an island apart, and for those looking the experience of beaches and Polynesian culture unfettered by modernity or tourists, it’s an ideal destination. For anyone else, however, it can feel claustrophobic and as though you’ve dropped out of time altogether.

Getting to Tokelau is a bit tricky, to say the least. With no airport and no harbor, options are very limited. There is a regular cargo ship that comes from Samoa every few weeks, and a passenger ship comes from Samoa every month or two. Yachts rarely head to Tokelau, because of the lack of good harbors, so hitching a ride is out as well. Once there, it’s important to keep in mind you might be stuck for a bit between ships, and it’s a good idea to make arrangements well in advance to make sure an outgoing ship has room.

CulturalWorld.org is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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