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Olohega

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.

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History of Olohega

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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)

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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.

Snagge Islands

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:

  1. The United States would not voluntarily abandon its assertion of sovereignty over the Swains.

  2. 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). 

  3. 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 Samo