Physically Olohega or Olosega in Sāmoan, is a remote coral atoll that covers an area of only 3.5 sq km (1.35 sq mi), including the lagoon. It's located 180 km south of Fakaofo (Tokelau) and 300 km north of Savai‘i (Sāmoa).
Culturally and geographically, but not politically, Tokelau considers it to be the fourth island of the Tokelau group. Historically though, the Olohega story is one of greed, fraud, governmental incompetence and apathy, slave trading, worker exploitation and colonial arrogance.
Olohega has been the subject of an ongoing territorial dispute between Tokelau and the United States, which has administered it as part of American Sāmoa since 1925. Outside of Tokelau, the island was oirignally known as Gente Hermosa or Quiros Island, after Portuguese explorer Quiros believed he discovered it in 1606. However, it’s now widely accepted that what he saw was actually Rakahanga, which is part of the Cook Islands. Today the island is better known internationally as Swains Island, named after Captain William Swain, the master of the whaling vessel George Chaplin, when he came across Olohega in either 1850 or 1851. But in 2017, Steve Denher argued that it may have been a "forged discovery".
Since 1856 Olohega has been said to be privately owned by the family of American Eli Hutchinson Jennings Snr, who is pictured above with his Sāmoan wife Malia Su’a, family members and the local workforce. Jennings reportedly purchased the “title” to the island for 15 shillings per acre and a bottle of gin from an Englishman Captain Alexander Turnbull. For obvious reasons, there are ongoing questions about the legitimacy of that "purchase".
To further complicate matters, in 1859 American Captain William Taylor made a claim under the US Guano Islands Act 1856 for all the islands of Tokelau, including Olohega. Even though there were deficiencies with his claim, the US State Department certified it anyway, effectively giving him ownership rights to the four islands - rights to extract guano that didn't exist.
Then in 1863, all the able bodied men, some women and children of Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo were abducted by Peruvian Slave Traders - almost half the population was taken. For decades after Tokelau would focus on repopulating their islands. However, none were taken from Olohega because Eli Jennings Snr was a slave recruiter for one of the ships - earning one year's salary in a few days work. With the priority on the survival of their communities, this also meant Tokelau was in no position to challenge the Jennings claim to Olohega.
By the early 20th century, it was still unclear whether the British or Americans thought they had sovereignty over Olohgea. In 1907, the British tried to collect tax of US$85 from the Jennings family. The family paid but brought the matter before the U.S. State Department on the basis they were American. The money was ultimately refunded. In 1909 the British conceded Swains was an American possession.
However, in 1924 the US Secretary of State wrote to US President Calvin Coolidge admitting that the US jurisdiction over Swains Island was unclear that it was "questionable whether the United States has acquired sovereignty over Swain’s Island by reason of the provisions of the (Guano Islands) Act of August 18, 1856". But the US annexed Swains Island in 1925 anyway, putting it under American Samoan administration.
Fakaofo lodged a counterclaim for Olohega, but this was largely ignored by New Zealand, the governing administration of Tokelau.
Until 1967, Olohega was principally used as a copra plantation. It was so successful, that at one point Eli Jennings Jnr, who took over running Swains Island from his mother, was thought to be the wealthiest man in the Pacific. Even Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson referred to him as "King Jennings" when he made a brief stopover in 1891. However, Olohega has not been permanently inhabited since 2008 but has often been visited by members of the Jennings family, scientific researchers, and amateur radio operators.
Tokelau has consistently called for Olohega to be returned. But Tokelau's pleas have been ignored and the issue remained largely dormant until the late 1970s when New Zealand was insistent on Tokelau's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) being finalised.
The Tokelauans were effectively bullied into agreeing to the "Treaty Tokehega" in 1980, which was signed between New Zealand and the US. The treaty confirmed the US would not pursue its claim over Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo. The treaty agreed that the Tokelau EEZ would only cover the areas around the Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo, and that the US interests for the rest would be administered through American Sāmoa. The treaty does not specifically mention Swains Island or Olohega by name, but it in effect gave control of Olohega to the US. Ironically the Treaty is celebrated as a public holiday every September in Tokelau, because of the economic benefit Tokelau derives from the EEZ, not because of the loss of Olohega.
Whether the Tokelauans who supported the treaty being signed fully appreciated the legal concepts or impact of the treaty based on the Tokelauan translation, is still being debated today. And more recently its become even clearer how the US claim to Olohega under the Guano Islands Act was indeed fraudulent.
For Tokelauans, the question of Olohega is far from settled. In May 2022, the Tokelau's General Fono said it wanted to progress the question of Tokelau's self-determination by 2025/26, and by then have come up with a "strategy for Olohega".
On this page you'll find videos of Olohega, including drone footage, more information on the role Eli Jennings Snr played as a Slave Recruiter, details on the fraudulent US Guano Act claim and why the US introduced the scheme, a song Te Vaka wrote about Olohega and why New Zealand bargained away Olohega.
This page was compiled and written by Tokelauan/Samoan writer/producer Samson Samasoni based on a variety of sources. Please refer any questions/notes to Samson directly by email.
Photo: The photo above is the property of the Trustees of the British Museum. It pictures Eli Hutchinson Jennings Snr and his Samoan wife Malia Su'a, sitting on chairs on top of the steps at their home in Olohega or Swains Island as it was also known; Mrs Jennings is believed to have her son Jr Eli Jennings on her lap. The production date of the photograph is stated as 1889-1890, however this is disputed because Eli Hutchinson Jennings Snr died in 1878 as referenced by the British Museum.
Banished from Olohega in 1953
In 2009, New Zealand current affairs television show Tagata Pasifika broadcast a three-part television series on Olohega. They described Olohega as a small, idyllic Pacific island that was reputed to have been bought by American Eli Hutchinson Jennings Snr from a British Captain Turnbull for 15 shillings an acre and a bottle of gin.
The island was annexed to the United States in 1925. Its former inhabitants were evicted from Olohega by the Jennings family in 1953 and told not to return. Some of those people who called Olohega home tell their story in the video series below.
New Zealand tells US Swains Island is "Finished Business"
Ahead of the 2007 referendum on Tokelau self-determination, the United States was clearly worried that Tokelau was planning to agitate again about Olohega (Swains Island).
This came to light in 2010, when WikiLeaks released confidential government cables from April 2007.
The cable confirmed that the US was concerned with a comment made by Tokelau leader Koulouei O'Brien that "a self-governing Tokelau could discuss ownership of Swains with the United States". This was six months before the second referendum in October 2007. (See Independence page)
The US asked New Zealand to "publicly reaffirm that Tokelau does not/not have claim over any American Samoan island presently administered by the United States, including Olohega, or Swains Island."
The cable says that David Payton, Administrator of Tokelau at the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the US that New Zealand considered the Swains Island issue "finished business" and that it would stand by the Treaty of Tokehega.
Photo: Headline in New Zealand Herald over leaked cable about Tokelau and Swains Island, 22 December 2010.
History of Olohega
Photo Credit: Copra cutting Swains Island. From the album: Views in the Pacific Islands, 1886, Swains Island, by Thomas Andrew. Te Papa (O.037824)
A 2013 report entitled “Unlocking the Secrets of Swains Island:” a Maritime Heritage Resources Survey" contains a potted history of Olohega which has been reproduced here as an excerpt. References and the use of the name Swains Island have been retained.
20th-century anthropologists indicate that Swains Island (Olosega) was initially settled by Polynesian voyagers, and later conquered by Tokelau inhabitants from the atoll of Fakaofo, a distance of 185km or 115mi (Hooper 1975: 89). Oral histories establish a period of domination on the atoll by Fakaofo, as well as a distinct Tokelau lineage on Swains Island, naming Tui Olosega as the historic Aliki or chief. One anthropologist also suggests Samoa (distant 570 km or 355mi) as a possible homeland for “at least part of the people” (Macgregor 1937: 19). Others identify Swains Island or Olosega as a Polynesian voyaging waypoint from Samoa to Tokelau and to Pukapuka (570km or 355mi), as part of the trade in basalt stone adzes (Lewis 1972: 270).
Early sources suggest that the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Quiros, sailing for Spain, landed at what is now called Swains Island in 1606 AD and described a lightskinned race of peaceful people. Initially Swains Island was referenced as Quiros Island. However, later scholars re-examined this claim and concluded that Quiros’ discovery was actually Rakahanga Atoll (or even Manihiki Atoll) in the Kiribati Islands, 1,097km (682 miles) to the east of Swains Island (Maude 1959: 90; Huntsman and Hooper 1996: 333n; Becke 1897: 107; Whistler 1980: 2). This would suggest that first western contact for Swains Island occurred much later during the historic 19th century whaling period in the Pacific.
Western whalers from New England called at Swains Island beginning in the 1830’s, if not earlier. Reportedly, New Bedford whaling Captain W.C. Swain passed the island’s location to Captain William Hudson of the USS Peacock in 1841. The Peacock, part of the U.S. Exploring Expedition in the Pacific, subsequently confirmed the island’s location (Wilkes 1845: vol5, 18). Whaling ships continued to make contact at Swains Island, but few details are known. It is interesting to note that Wilkes’ 1845 description of the island is erroneous at best: “…it is of coral formation but has no lagoon..,” a consequence of observers passing by but being unable to go ashore due to the high surf.
Several Frenchmen, and possibly an American, reportedly established copra production on the island as early as the 1840’s (Huntsman 1996: 186; Hooper 1975: 92). Many of the Tokelau people on the island at the time fled, apparently due to violence propagated by the foreigners (Ickes 2009: 166).
Eli Hutchinson Jennings Sr., a whaler and shipwright from New York, arrived at Swains Island in 1856, with his Samoan wife Malia from Lefaga Village on Upolu Island. Several Tokelau natives were on the island at that time (Jennings 1856). Allegedly, Jennings purchased the “title” to the island from an Englishman Captain Alexander Turnbull, who also claimed to have discovered the island (Gray 1980: 212). Turnbull’s claim is unclear. Jennings and Malia established their own copra plantation, the island being registered with the American Consulate in Apia as private property sometime in the 1880s (Ickes 2009: 184). The copra plantation continued operations managed by the descendants of Jennings through the 1960s.
In 1860 a territorial claim for Swains Island was filed by the US Guano Company under the Guano Act of 1856, despite the island being occupied. There is no evidence that guano was ever procured from the island (Skaggs 1994: 77).
The U.S. Navy first visited the island in 1917, responding to complaints about labor conditions raised in the British local court system (Gray 1980: 217). This was a period when both Britain and the United States were still unclear about the nationality of Swains Island. The labor complaint was reported at that time to be without substance (Gray 1980: 218).
Swains was later annexed by the United States in 1925, under the jurisdiction of the naval administration in American Samoa, initiating more than two decades of infrequent naval inspections at the island. A work stoppage and subsequent mass eviction led in 1953 to the establishment of enhanced local governance. Swains Island’s circuitous transition to the modern period and its multicultural plantation labor setting has led to contention regarding its cultural legacy.
The last shipment of copra from Swains Island occurred in 1967.
In 1981 New Zealand, of which Tokelau is a dependency, confirmed by the Treaty of Tokehega US sovereignty over Swains Island.
Photo Credit: Swains Island. From the album: Views in the Pacific Islands, 1886, Swains Island, by Thomas Andrew. Te Papa (O.037941)
US Claim Fraudulent
"There were things that just didn't add up," American writer Laray Polk told Radio 531pi in 2021 (video above).
That's essentially what inspired her to pen an exposé into exactly how Olohega became annexed by the United States in 1925. While there many complex twists and turns, it essentially stems from a fraud committed by Captain William W. Taylor, a whaler from South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 1859.
In her paper "The Question of Olohega", Polk lays out the legal basis that was used, and still exists today, for Tokelau to unwittingly give away their claim to Olohega, with New Zealand urging for the change during the late 1970s.
As Polk explains, the legal instrument used to justify the taking of Olohega and numerous other Pacific and Caribbean islands is called the U.S. Guano Islands Act of 1856.
The Act gave claimants “the exclusive right of occupying said islands, rocks, or keys, for the purpose of obtaining guano,” with possession of a place considered a temporary arrangement lasting for the duration of mining operations. But once the guano has been removed, there is nothing “obliging the United States to retain possession of said islands, rocks, or keys.”
Captain Taylor made a claim on 43 islands in 1859 including Atafu (known as Duke of York Island in his signed affidavit to the State Department on 12 February 1859), Fakaofo (Low Island), Nukunonu (Clarence Island) and Olohega (Quiros Island)
But as Polk says, 23 of the islands Taylor claimed didn't actually exist, 10 were known at the time to be inhabited by Pacific Islanders (disqualifying them under the Act), one island is located in a region of high rainfall where substantive amounts of guano do not accumulate; and one island, a low-lying reef, is largely submerged by rolling breakers, therefore unsuitable for sustaining seabird colonies or human enterprise.
"Despite these numerous deficiencies, the (US) State Department certified the entirety of Taylor’s claim in 1860," says Polk.
She writes that even into the 1930s, the State Department still wasn’t 100 percent sure where Taylor had obtained his information or how many islands in his list were real or imagined.
In a 1932 State Department memorandum from the Office of Legal Counsel about Olohega, it was noted:
"As with most of the other islands on Captain Taylor’s list, there is no evidence that Captain Taylor ever landed on the island [Olohega] or in fact discovered guano there; and there is no evidence that guano was ever taken from the island or that it was occupied under the Guano Act by the discoverer or by any of his assigns."
But Polk says the origin of Taylor’s claim to 43 islands can finally be substantiated.
"He took the islands from John W. Norie’s New Chart of the Pacific Ocean, published in 1836. By comparing the island names and coordinates included in his affidavit of discovery to this particular Norie chart, the evidence is clear (and Taylor’s intention to commit fraud unambiguous)," she writes.
So could Tokelau make a legal case for returning Olohega to New Zealand based on this information?
Polk writes that in 1979, Tokelauans were dissuaded by New Zealand from pursuing the matter and were told their “claim to Olohega was weak and would not succeed in an international tribunal.”
A year later, New Zealand, negotiated a delimitation treaty with the U.S. that firmly places Olohega on the American Sāmoa side of the maritime boundary..
So the U.S. formally relinquished its “claim to sovereignty over the islands of Atafu, Nukunonu, Fakaofo” with the signing of the Treaty of Tokehega in 1980. In return, New Zealand agreed to abandon any claim to Olohega. While this trade-off is not explicitly stated, it is obliquely indicated in a clause pertaining to American Sāmoa, writes Polk.
"By placing Olohega (Swains) on the U.S. side of the maritime boundary, American Sāmoa increased its EEZ. Conversely, Tokelau’s potential for an increased EEZ diminished, perhaps irrevocably. That’s because the EEZ is measured outward from the shoreline of each island within a territory. If Olohega were placed on the Tokelau side of the maritime boundary, it would mean the baseline for establishing its 200-nautical-mile EEZ would be anchored to Olohega’s shoreline rather than Fakaofo’s."
Journalist and filmmaker Johnny Harris outlines in the video below why the world suddenly targetted islands for guano, to support their agricultural industries. At that time, it was the equivalent of the gold rush, with ships sailing the world to claim uninhabited guano islands for the US and other countries.
Why did New Zealand bargain away Olohega?
A 1984 paper by Victoria University Institute of Policy Studies sets out "The Olohega Case" and why the dispute between Tokelau and the United States over control of Olohega remained dormant for some 50 years, until the late 1970s. An excerpt from the paper is published here:
The question of sovereignty first came to New Zealand's attention in 1917, when some (Olohega) inhabitants complained to the Western Samoan administration about working conditions on the island. The authorities in Apia referred the matter to the United States as the national authority over Jennings and his family. In the early 1920s, diplomatic exchanges between Britain, the United States and New Zealand led to formal United States annexation of the Swains in 1925. At the time, the Tokelauans of Fakaofo lodged a counterclaim to the islands, but this was largely ignored by the governing New Zealand administration.
Any dispute between Tokelau and the United States over control of Olohega remained dormant for some fifty years, but in the late 1970s with the establishment of Tokelau's E.E.Z., the matter surfaced as an obstacle to economic benefits for all concerned. As Administrator of the islands, New Zealand was caught as broker between a major trading partner on one hand and a former colony on the other.
“In 1975 and during the United Nations Mission's visit in June 1976, the Tokelau claim to Swains Island was again raised. The New Zealand Government was asked to bring it to the attention of the United States. We have discussed the matter with the United States Government on various occasions in the past two years. Two aide memoire were presented in June, 1978 (this year), one relating to the United States claim to Tokelau and the Northern Cook Islands (Penryn), and another relating to the Tokelau claim to Swains Island.”
The United States Government took the position that U.S. sovereignty over Olohega should be recognised, and U.S. claims over the remainder of Tokelau renounced, in the form of a maritime boundary treaty between New Zealand and the United States. Such treaties have opened the way in recent years for negotiations between Island governments and the American Tunaboat Association over licence fees for fishing operations within the EEZs of the island countries. From New Zealand's point of view, the importance of negotiating a treaty was to enable a Tokelauan EEZ to be implemented, so that local government revenues could be augmented by licensing fees from fishing vessels. The sums involved were not very great and have not yet eventuated, but New Zealand placed a lot of emphasis on the desirability of moving Tokelau “towards running its own affairs and to a greater economic self sufficiency” and wished to see the boundary dispute with American Samoa resolved quickly. In mid 1979, during a visit by the Administrator, Frank Corner, the Tokelau Fono agreed not to press the claim to Olohega if the EEZ could be agreed and implemented. The EEZ was implemented by New Zealand on April 1 1980, but without US recognition; and it was clear that a maritime boundary treaty could be negotiated only if the Olohega claim was explicitly renounced (not merely left dormant). New Zealand officials therefore approached the General Fono in June 1980 with the proposal that the claim be renounced and a treaty signed along the lines sought by the United States Government. The arguments advanced to the Fono by the leader of the New Zealand official party were as follows:
The United States would not voluntarily abandon its assertion of sovereignty over the Swains.
Because international law related to sovereignty placed great weight on administrative occupation, the Tokelauan claim was weak. (Legal advisors in the New Zealand MFA believed that a tribunal would dismiss the Tokelauan claim).
The final New Zealand assessment was that unless Tokelau was prepared to go a long way down the road of abandonment of its claim to Swains, it would not be possible to negotiate a treaty with the U.S. which drew a maritime boundary between Tokelau and American Samoa and contained a renunciation of the U.S. claim to Tokelau.
Despite Beeby's (C.D. Beeby, NZ Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs) plea for a “practical” response and not one backed by historical “nostalgia”, the Tokelauans were reluctant to give up their cultural claims to the Swains. The Fono were almost unanimously against abandoning their claim to Olohega in principle practice.
The views of one outspoken member directly challenged the New Zealand interpretation of international law. Beeby reported:
“I began to lose conviction largely as a result of an extremely astute question about the second of the three judgements I had put before the Fono, i.e. that the Tokelauan claim to the Swains was weak and would not be upheld by an international tribunal.”
The astute question went as follows.
“The people of Tokelau lived for many years cut off from the rest of the world. We were in no position to know of the rules of law about disputed territory and of the actions that nations and people should take to protect a claim to such territory. For us, the sun has just risen. In considering our claim would an international tribunal have regard to this fact and would it hold us accountable for our actions (or inactions) when we still lived in the darkness.”
“This question ... I suspect may prove to be an untested (and highly relevant) area of international law relating to the acquisition of territory.”
Mr Beeby concluded during the Fono that “we must examine Tokelauan claims”. One possibility was to do so through an international court of law. Such a hearing would assure the Tokelauans of a full expression of their views and provide some redress for New Zealand's failure to review colonial land disputes in the 1920s. As a former Official Secretary in Tokelau pointed out:
“By today's standards at least and as a matter of political appreciation, Tokelau can rightly regard itself as having been badly done by.”
Upon Mr Beeby's return to New Zealand he discussed the Tokelauan claims, and a proposal for a third party hearing, at a meeting with senior Foreign Affairs administrators. It was decided however that there was little to be gained from such an exploration of the position in international law, while failure to conclude a treaty with the United States would undermine New Zealand's plans for securing revenue from the Tokelauan EEZ at an early date. The treaty was therefore agreed, and signed on 2 December 1980 on Atafu, by the three faipule acting for New Zealand.
The Administrator presented New Zealand's approach to the issue in terms of the usual formula:
“The negotiations were consistent with our policy of encouraging the people of Tokelau to make decisions for themselves.”
From the Tokelauan point of view, this does not seem a fully accurate representation of what had occurred. The “decision” ultimately taken was Tokelauan acquiescence in New Zealand's strongly expressed wishes. It went against the grain of Tokelauan wishes, produced a good deal of resentment and distrust of New Zealand, which still lingers, and highlighted in Tokelauan minds the eternal issue of where the malo (real power) resides. New Zealand officials assumed throughout that Tokelauans would accept the New Zealand order of priorities (in which financing 5% of the annual budget from fishing licence fees ranked above retaining the Olohega claim). New Zealand officials no doubt felt that the claim was an anachronism, an unnecessary source of future friction with the United States, and something the Tokelauans would be better off without. They failed, however, to take sufficient time to persuade Tokelauans of these arguments in Tokelauan terms; and they showed themselves unwilling to accept the strong Fono objection to the proposed treaty.
Tokelauans now question whether the signing of the treaty may have been a mistake. Within the TPS there is a feeling that the elders in the Fono, deprived as they were of any independent source of advice, were unable to withstand the pressure from Wellington for signature of the treaty. Had TPS members been free to advise the Fono, the battle might well have been harder fought. More to the point from the New Zealand point of view, the issue of Olohega has not yet been fully resolved, despite the signing of the treaty. In terms of palagi laws the Tokelauan claim has been renounced, but it was not done by the free will of Tokelau, and in the nature of such claims, the “traditional” claim will not be extinguished until Tokelauans willingly relinquish it. The issue may well arise again with the next visiting United Nations mission, if there is one.
Haloa Olohega by Te Vaka (2005)
"Haloa Olohega" is from the third Te Vaka album "Nukukehe". Olohega or Swains Island as it is also known, is the 4th Island of Tokelau. This track is all about how Olohega became part of the USA. This live version was filmed in 2005 at the Toata Stadium in Tahiti. Lyrics by Opetaia Foa'i, Music by Opetaia Foai and Malcolm Smith. Lyrics below in Tokelauan with English translation.
Muhumuhu mai te igoa o te motu
Na kave e Ilai i te 1856
Lea mai ko he mea aloha
Mai he tama Igilihi
Kitea e ia tino kai katiga
E he nonofo na tino i ei
Heki totokia ni mea ki latou
E he nonofo na tino i ei
Kamata na talanoaga
Fai ai te fakafokiga
E lahi mea kino na fai e Ilai
Ko vaka gaoi ko ia na fehoahoani ai
Maua ai ana koloa fakafita lahi te nuku
Maua foki e ia te fenua fa
Te talohaga e fai mo te kaiga o Ilai
E lahi mea i anamua
He tatau ona fai
Kae mafai na hui e koutou uma
fai tonu lava te faiga
E tahi lava te fakaikuga
E maua ai te fiafiaga
Whisper to me the name of this land
Taken by Eli in 1856
He said it was a gift Gifted to him by an Englishman
He saw natives eating coconuts
But they were passing through
They didn't grow anything
So naturally this wasn't their home
We need to start the discussions
It will surely lead to the return
Among the crimes committed by Eli
The slavers and slaveship he did help
Gaining treasures while people suffered
Also gaining their fourth Island
A request for the family of Eli
Many wrongs were made long ago
That will never go away
But you can change some of that
By doing what is right
There is only one conclusion
That will satisfy everyone
Jennings - Slave Recruiter
The 1981 book by H.E. Maude entitled Slavers in Paradise is considered to be the authoritative work on the Peruvian slave trade of the 1860s, when thousands of Pacific islanders were recruited and kidnapped to work in South America.
In 1863, only 7 years after Eli Hutchinson Jennings Snr had set up in Olohega, he was hired by slave traders to help "recruit" Tokelauans. He was paid more than 1 year's income for a few days of work.
The following are excerpts from the Slavers in Paradise chapter on "Depopulating the Tokelaus". The excerpt refers to Pitman, who was the supercargo on the Peruvian slave ship Rosa Patricia. A supercargo is the representative of a ship's owner on board a merchant ship, responsible for overseeing the cargo and its sale:
On 25 December 1862 eight canoes left Nukunonu for Atafu but missed their landfall, and eventually six canoes with 33 men, 11 women and 15 children reached Apia; the seventh with 4 men, 3 women and 8 children, all from Fakaofo, reached Savai'i; and the eighth with 5 men from Atafu and a woman from Fakaofo reached Tutuila.
This drift voyage is of considerable importance to our narrative because the LMS (London Missionary Society) ship John Williams, which visited all four Tokelau Islands between 19 and 31 January (1863), just prior to the arrival of the recruiting vessels from Peru, returned the passengers on the six canoes which had arrived at Apia (but not those in the last two). Unfortunately several of those from Fakaofo were suffering from dysentery contracted in Samoa and the disease spread rapidly among the local population; within three weeks 64 of the 261 inhabitants had died and many of the survivors were still infectious when the Peruvian recruiters called, thus causing an epidemic among the other passengers on board the ships.
Both the John Williams and the (slave ship) Rosa Patricia left Apia on 9 February 1863, and early the following day the mission barque could see the Peruvian vessel making for the Tokelaus. On her way the Rosa Patricia called at Olosenga, where her Salem supercargo Pitman signed on his American compatriot Eli Hutchinson Jennings (Snr) as recruiter for the round trip of the (Tokelau) Group. According to Tokelau tradition Jennings was accompanied by a Fakaofo labourer on Olosenga, who helped to persuade his fellow-islanders to recruit.
It seems likely that Pitman was advised in Apia to try to secure the services of Jennings, after failing to obtain anyone in Samoa, for he spoke the Tokelau dialect and was known to and trusted by the people. In all probability Pitman offered him also the same terms as he had suggested at Apia—$10 a head or $1000 for 'a goodly number' - for there was no one else suitable, since the American beachcomber William on Atafu, the only European in the three Tokelau atolls, had left on one of the canoes which drifted from Nukunonu on Christmas Day 1862, and making a landfall at Tutuila had decided not to return.
Referring to the arrival of the slave ship Rosa Patricia in Atafu, Maude writes:
The Rosa Patricia arrived at Atafu on 16 February and Eli Jennings (Ilae), the recruiter embarked at Olosenga, showed those who came on board samples of cloth, shirts and trousers, inviting the islanders to bring their coconuts and fowls to the ship to barter for them, as the main stock was on view there. Trusting in Ilae, who was known to them, the chief Foli (called Oli by the Rarotongan Maka) and thirty-six other men went on board; only two of them reached the shore again: discharged as being too old and weak.
At the conclusion of the chapter, Maude writes:
Meanwhile the Rosa y Carmen had set sail on her ill-fated course south to Samoa, Niue and the holocaust on Sunday Island, while the other three vessels, the Rosa Patricia, Guillermo and Micaela Miranda left direct for Callao, with only a slight deviation by the first to drop Eli Jennings at Olosenga; he had served his employers well, having obtained fifty-seven recruits which at $10 a head would have netted him $570—more than a year's income for a few days' work.
After only a few days, the slave ships had kidnapped a total of 253 people: Fakaofo lost 140 people, Nukunonu 76, and Atafu 37 (all men). This figure represents 47 per cent of the estimated population when the raiders arrived, but probably close to a 100 per cent of the able-bodied males.
No-one was taken from Olohega, where the only people were Jennings' own family, and his plantation workers with their families. However, with able-bodied men and leaders of the Tokelau islands having been enslaved, it also meant there was a generation of people who were unable to dispute Jennings' claim to Olohega or interfere with his commercial enterprise.
Photo Credit: Photo is of church women from Atafu, Maude describes them as the generation who lost their fathers: young women of Atafu in 1886. From F.J. Moss, Through Atolls and Islands . . . (London 1889). NL.
This story is also featured on the Blackbirding - Slavery page.
Last Jewel of the Planet
Ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau (first video) and a team of scientists explored Olohega or Swains Island, located 200 miles north of American Samoa and reachable only by boat. Their expedition was made into an award-winning film released in 2014. The team camp on shore to study Olohega - at the time it had recently been named a National Marine Sanctuary.
Jean-Michel dives its pristine coral reefs that he says are as healthy as you can find. The scientists search for clues to the Island's past use, especially by early Polynesians that settled the Island and used it as a stopover to reach distant Islands, and also when it was used as a family-owned copra plantation. They uncover many mysteries long-held on this tiny island in this fascinating Jean-Michel Cousteau adventure.
Hawaiʻi’s voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa visited Olohega in 2015 (second video). They captured some stunning photos which can be seen at this website.
As mentioned earlier, Olohega was originally claimed by the US pursuant to the Guano Islands Act as were the other three islands of Tokelau, which claims were ceded to Tokelau by treaty in 1980.
However, in the lead up to the US annexing Olohega 1925, even a paper from Secretary of State Charles E Hughes to President Coolidge, noted it was questionable whether the US had sovereignty over Olohega through the Guano Islands Act.
"While it is questionable whether the United States has acquired sovereignty over Swain’s Island by reason of the provisions of the Act of August 18, 1856, it appears to be clear that no other country is in a position to assert a claim to the island. The fact that the island is included in the list of guano islands appertaining to the United States, and has since 1856 been continuously in the possession of the Jennings family, who have always regarded themselves as American citizens, and that American jurisdiction over the island has been recognized by Great Britain, the only other country which might be in a position to dispute an American claim thereto, would seem to place upon this Government the responsibility either of extending its sovereignty over Swain’s Island and assuming the obligations which such a course would necessarily entail, or of disclaiming the exercise of any control or jurisdiction over the island and the inhabitants thereof."
In the draft constitution of Tokelau subject to the Tokelauan self-determination referendum in 2006, Olohega is claimed as part of Tokelau, a claim surrendered in the 1980 treaty which established a maritime boundary between American Samoa and Tokelau.
The Government of Tokelau notes on its website that 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. But at the same time, Tokelauans are reluctant to disown their common cultural identity with Swains Islanders who speak their language.
Source: Includes material from the Government of Tokelau website Note that the Tokelau Government website refers to the Treaty of Tokehega of1979, it was in fact signed in December 1980 and ratified in 1983.
Drone Footage of Olohega (2017)
This drone footage is from Facebook and may take a moment to load up.
The footage is owned by Six84 Aerial Drone Services who were contracted by DMWR American Samoa.
Flag of Tokelau - is the 4th star Olohega?
Tokelau was presented with its first official flag by the New Zealand Governor-General, Hon Sir Anand Satyanand, on 7 September 2009 at Government House Vogel in Lower Hutt. While the flag depicts the stars of the Southern Cross, many Tokelauans still view the stars as representing the 4 atolls of Tokelau - Atafu, Nukunonu, Fakaofo and Olohega.