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Atafu was the ancient name given to one of three atolls of Tokelau by its earliest inhabitants - Fakaofo and Nukunonu are the other two atolls.  The traditional history describes each of the atolls operating independently, but having social and linguistic connections, as well as inter-marriage.  There was also intermittent warring between the islands including fierce campaigns by Fakaofo which drove off the original inhabitants of Atafu, who are believed to have found refuge on Sikaiana and Leuaniua (Ontong Java) in the Solomons.

Fakaofo continued to have political dominance, which was bound up with that island's possession of the god Tui Tokelau.  That dominance lasted well into the period of European contact, and was formally ended only in 1918.  A fourth island Olohega (Swains Island) is also thought to have been originally under the control of Fakaofo.  Traditionally and culturally, Olohega is considered to be part of Tokelau but today is under the jurisdiction of American Samoa when it was annexed by the United States in 1925.

If, as the traditions state, the original inhabitants of Atafu were driven from the island by a war party from Fakaofo, this event probably occurred some time before 1765, when Commodore John Byron landed and found no evidence of habitation.  Byron is said to the be first European to discover Atafu.

In 1791 Captain John Edwards also found no inhabitants, but by 1841 when Captain Hudson visited there was a small population.  ​It's then thought that sometime between these visits, in the early 1800s, Tonuia (from Fakaofo) and his wife Lagimaina (from Nukunonu), along with their seven children formally established the community in Atafu.  The Fale Fitu, or Seven Houses, signifies Atafu because of their ancestral origin.

It's understood Tonuia set aside two pieces of land in Atafu as communal land.  The coconuts and pandanus fruit on this land was harvested by the village only in times of necessity, and timber, coconut, and fala pandanus leaves was reserved for communal enterprises.  The first houses during this settlement were those of the five sons of Tonuia: Vaovela, Pio, Malokie, Laua, and Laufali; his two daughters, Lovao and Fekei; and Ngaluava and Tuati, the sons of Folasanga who accompanied Tonuia. Their homes were built surrounding the house of Tonuia which served for a time as the god house of the community.

The Presbyterian Church is the only church in Atafu since its introduction by Faivalua in 1858.​

Tokelau is a word meaning "north wind" in Gagana Tokelau (Tokelauan language). The Tokelau islands had been named the Union Islands and Union Group by European explorers. The British annexed the Tokelau group in 1916. Tokelau Islands was adopted as the islands’ official name in 1946.  Formal sovereignty was transferred to New Zealand with the enactment of the Tokelau Act 1948.  The name was officially shortened to Tokelau on 9 December 1976. 

However, it wasn't until 1980 that the United States formally relinquished its “claim to sovereignty over the islands of Atafu, Nukunonu, Fakaofo” with the signing of the Treaty of Tokehega.  In return, New Zealand agreed to abandon any claim to Olohega.  The US "claim to sovereignty" stemmed from a fraudulent 1859 claim to all four atolls lodged by an American sea captain under the U.S. Guano Islands Act of 1856.  (See the Olohega page on this site).


This section of the Matauala Hub website draws on various  sources to provide an historical overview of Atafu, and Tokelau.  Although some dates and facts may conflict, the sources have been provided. 


Source: Government of Tokelau, “A demographic history of Tokelau Islands", by Anthony Hooper and Judith Huntsman 1973,   "Ethnology of Tokelau Islands" by Gordon MacGregor 1937 and other sources.  Photo:  "Group Atafu" by Thomas Andrew; photographer; 1886; Atafu. Te Papa Collection.

Brief History of Tokelau

Archaeological evidence indicates that the atolls of Tokelau were settled around 1000 years ago. Oral history traces local traditions and genealogies back several hundred years and details the origins of the social and political order that was in place by the 19th century.


According to oral sources, the three atolls (Atafu, Nukunonu, Fakaofo) 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.


Historically, Fakaofo held dominance over Atafu and Nukunonu. Life on the atolls was subsistence-based, with reliance on fish and coconut. There is no soil on Tokelau, and therefore the vegetables and fruit that provided staples elsewhere in the Pacific (such as taro and bananas) were not available.

Contact with Europeans led to some significant changes in Tokelauan society. Trading ships brought new foods, cloth and materials, and exposure to new information and ways of doing things.


In the 1850s, missionaries from the Roman Catholic Church and the London Missionary Society, with the assistance of Tokelauans who had been introduced to religious activities in Samoa, introduced Christianity, which was readily embraced. Currently, the majority of the Atafu population are Congregational Christians and most of the Nukunonu population are Catholic. On Fakaofo the majority of the population (around 70 percent) are Congregational Christians and most of the remainder are Catholic.

In the 1863, Peruvian slave ships visited the three atolls and forcibly removed almost all able-bodied men (253) and some women and children to work as labourers in Peru. Many died in the dozens of dysentery and smallpox, and very few ever returned to Tokelau. The impact of the slave ships was devastating, and led to major changes in governance. With the loss of chiefs and able-bodied men, Tokelau moved to a system of governance based on the Taupulega, or Councils of Elders. On each atoll, individual families were represented on the Taupulega (though the method of selection of family representatives differed among atolls). Village governance today is squarely the domain of the Taupulega. (See Blackbirding on this website)

Tokelau became a British protectorate in 1877, a status that was formalised in 1889. The British Government annexed the group (which had been renamed the Union Islands) in 1916, and included it within the boundaries of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (Kiribati and Tuvalu).


In 1926 Britain passed administration of Tokelau to New Zealand. There has never been a residential administrative presence on Tokelau, and therefore administration has been ‘light-handed’ and impinged to a relatively small extent on everyday life on the atolls. Formal sovereignty was transferred to New Zealand with the enactment of the Tokelau Act 1948. (See Act here) While Tokelau was declared to be part of New Zealand from 1 January 1949, it has a distinctive culture and its own political, legal, social, judicial and economic systems.


Since the early 2000s, Tokelau has moved progressively towards its current advanced level of political self-reliance.  Tokelau has its own unique political institutions, including a national legislative body and Executive Council. It runs its own judicial system and public services. It has its own shipping and telecommunications systems. It has full control over its budget. It plays an active role in regional affairs and is a member of a number of regional and international bodies. (See Independence page on this website)

Source: Government Tokelau with minor edits

Atafu - European Contact

The following is based on excerpts from: Ethnology of Tokelau Islands 

Author: Gordon Macgregor

Published: Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1937


Atafu, composed of 42 islets, lies in lat. 8° 33′ 30″ S. and long. 172° 30′ W. (fig. 4). It is the smallest atoll in the group, extending 3 miles north and south and 2.5 miles east and west, and having a land area of 550 acres. The highest land of Atafu is 15 feet above sea level. The present population is 380.

Atahu or Atahumea was the ancient name given the atoll by its earliest inhabitants. However, it is not possible, with present knowledge, to connect Atafu with Atahumea, which appears in the earliest Samoan legends.

It's believed the first European to visit Atafu was on June 21, 1765, when English Vice-Admiral John Byron discovered Atafu and named it “Duke of York Island”.  He sent two boat parties ashore, but they found no sign of inhabitants. 


On June 6, 1791, Captain John Edwards of HMS Pandora, knowing of Byron's discovery, came to Atafu in search of the mutineers of the Bounty. There were no permanent inhabitants, but the crew which went ashore discovered houses containing fishing gear and canoes, indicating that the island was used as a temporary residence for fishing parties. These probably came from the other islands of the group before the island was permanently colonized from Fakaofo.

In 1841, Captain Hudson of the United States Exploring Expedition visited Byron's “Duke of York Island” with two ships and discovered a small population living on the island. Horatio Hale, ethnologist and philologist of the Wilkes Expedition, rightly believed that the people of Atafu belonged to Fakaofo.


They were temporary residents at Atafu. This declaration proceeds partly from their own statement that they had no chief with them and partly from the circumstance that they had none but double canoes with them, which are best adapted for a sea voyage.

Hale also assumed that they had had previous intercourse with foreigners, probably at Fakaofo, because of their desire to barter, and because of the fact that they had blue beads and a plane-iron in their possession. He estimated that there were 20 men with women and children. Wilkes gives an estimate of 40, as counted by Hudson. Possibly the overpopulation of Fakaofo, between 500 and 600 as counted by Hale, accounts for the establishment of a permanent settlement on Atafu.

One of the most traumatic encounters with Europeans was in 1863 when Peruvian slave traders raided Tokelau, kidnapping all the able-bodied men on Atafu. Of the 140-odd people believed to be on Atafu at the time, all that remained after the raids were women and children, and six male adults.  See Blackbirding.

Photo: Satellite image of Atafu, 2007.  Source:  Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. 

Tokelauan Narratives (2007)

Stories told by Tokelauans of their journey to Aotearoa Whitireia Polytechnic, Porirua Wellington Nov 28th 2007.  (Tokelauan language, no English sub-titles)

Courtesy of Kimoa Productions.

History of the 
People of Atafu

Excerpt from “A demographic history of Tokelau Islands", by Anthony Hooper and Judith Huntsman, 1973.

The traditional evidence for the peopling of the atolls (of Tokelau) is both fragmentary and contradictory.  One group of traditions ascribe the origin of the Tokelau people to settlers from Samoa, Rarotonga or Nanumanga in the Ellice group, while another, declared by one anthropologist to be “probably derived from Samoa”, describes an autochthonous origin.  Both agree, however, that the first man of Fakaofo took a woman of Nukunonu as his wife.

The traditional history of the group, much of which still has currency in the form of tala, describes incidents from the campaigns by which Fakaofo subjugated Nukunonu and drove off the original inhabitants of Atafu, who are believed to have found refuse on Sikaiana and Leuanuia (Ontong Java) in the Solomons.  The political dominance of Fakaofo, which was bound up with that island’s possession of the god Tui Tokelau, lasted well into the period of European contact, and was formally ended only in 1918.  MacGregor, from the lists of Fakaofo kings and the genealogies available to him argues for an original settlements date of Fakaofo ‘about the middle of the seventeenth century’, and, in the absence of any archaeological evidence from the atolls, there seems to be little ground for disputing this estimate.

The origin of the present-day population of Atafu is clearly attested by the traditional, genealogical and historical evidence. If, as traditions state, the original inhabitants were driven from the island by a war party from Fakaofo, this event probably occurred some time before 1765, when Byron landed and found no evidence of habitation. Edwards, in 1791, found a few houses and other evidence which led him to conclude that the island was used for temporary habitation. In the mid 1820s, however, a Captain Macy on a whaling ship out of Nantucket “saw natives on it”, and all subsequent visitors reported the island to be inhabited. Tokelau traditions maintain that Atafu was settled by a Fakaofo man, Tonuia, and his wife from Nukunonu, and the genealogies deriving from their seven offspring are widely known and neither esoteric nor subject to dispute. The first missionaries to visit the island, in 1861, were greeted by a chief who declared himself to be Tonuia’s grandson (Tonuia’s eldest son’s third child), and in the present population his closest descendant is a great-great-granddaughter born, she says, in 1891.

Tokelau Flag Raising (2009)

Source: Graham Tuckett

First ever raising of the national flag of Tokelau on 22 October 2009.  The event was in Fakaofo.  At the same time the flag was being raised  in Atafu and Nukununo and in New Zealand, outside Parliament.  See Tagata Pasifika story on the New Zealand event with Atafu Tokelau Community Group members being interviewed.

The third speaker in the video is Foua Toloa who was a Faipule of Fakaofo and Ulu o Tokelau.  The Ulu rotates to each atoll annually.  Foua is the father of well-known musician Vaniah Toloa and also played rugby for Manu Samoa.  He sadly passed away in 2015.

Organisation of Atafu Kindred

Excerpt from Ethnology of Tokelau Islands, by Gordon MacGregor, 1937.  New Zealand Electronic Text Collection.

The development of kindred groups from the division of lands at Atafu during its short history of five generations illustrates the formation and organisation of the Tokelau kindred.


The Atafu community, established by Tonuia and his family with a few followers from Fakaofu, was originally composed of his five married sons, Pio, Malokie, Laufati, Vaovela, and Taua; his two daughters, Fekei and Levao; Fekei's husband, Faunga, and Levao's husband, Nofoloa; and five others, Folosanga and his two sons, Fuati and Folosanga; and Pepe and Fakavanga, brothers of Laufali's wife. Tonuia was chief and priest of the community by appointment of the high chief at Fakaofu, but he was also head authority by right, as the eldest man of the kinship group, which, except for three members, comprised the entire community.

Before Tonuia's death he divided the land among his sons and daughters. Each of them had an individual household whose membership was increased by the marriage of children with people brought from Nukunono and Fakaofu. With increasing size and separate land rights, each household became more self-sufficient and occupied with its own existence, although still belonging in the kindred.

Tonuia's children redivided among their children the shares of land they had received in the original division. Some of Tonuia's grandchildren lived in the original households, and others established new homes. Except in one line, where the land division was inherited in the second generation by one person who redivided it again, the complete subdivision of the land among individual owners ended with the generation of Tonuia's grandchildren. Since then the descendants of each grandchild have inherited and owned these divisions in common, the individual receiving the right to use his kindred's land.

The mode of inheritance by these later generations has been very irregular. In some families a right to the use of a share of the land was given to each child of the next generation. In other families the whole was passed on to the eldest son or a daughter, who allotted subdivisions to the brothers and sisters. In all families, the eldest son has directed the use of the land. When two people, both descended from Atafu families, marry, they and their descendants have a claim to the use of the land of both kindreds. However, they usually use the land of only one kindred and succeeding generations drop the secondary kinship. From Tonuia's original kindred there developed secondary kindreds of his children, split into still other kindreds by his grandchildren. The subdividing ended with the cessation of distributing the land among individuals.

Source - Title: Ethnology of Tokelau Islands, Author: Gordon MacGregor, Publication details: Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1937.  New Zealand Electronic Text Collection.

Scenes of Atafu (2020)

Source: Museum of NZ Te Papa

Drone footage of Atafu, a low-lying atoll of Tokelau. Tokelau's other motu (atolls) include Nukunonu and Fakaofo. About 1,500 Tokelauans live on these atolls which are in the South Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawai’i and Aotearoa New Zealand.

*This video has no sound

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