Legend tells how the Maui brothers pulled three islands out of the ocean while fishing far from shore. Later the Polynesians arrived with taro, which supplemented the abundance of fish and coconuts. In the 18th century, the warriors of Fakaofo brought the other atolls under the rule of the Tui Tokelau.
The first European on the scene was Captain John Byron of HMS Dolphin, who saw Atafu in 1765. Ethnologist Horatio Hale of the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1841 spent several days at Fakaofo and wrote an account of the inhabitants.
Catholic and Protestant missionaries arrived between 1845 and 1863. In 1863, Peruvian slavers kidnapped several hundred Tokelauans, including nearly all of the able-bodied men, for forced labor in South America. Those who resisted were killed. A terrible dysentery epidemic from Samoa hit Tokelau the same year, reducing the total population to only 200.
The British belatedly extended official protection in 1877, but not until 1889, when it was decided that Tokelau might be of use in laying a transpacific cable, did Commander Oldham of the Egeria arrive to declare a formal protectorate. The British annexed their protectorate in 1916 and included it within the boundaries of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. This distant arrangement ended in 1925, when New Zealand, which ruled Samoa at that time, became the administering power.
With the Tokelau Islands Act of 1948, New Zealand assumed full sovereignty, and the islanders became N.Z. citizens. A N.Z. proposal for Tokelau to unite with either Samoa or Cook Islands was rejected by the Tokelauans in 1964. In 1974, responsibility for Tokelau was transferred from New Zealand's Department of Maori and Island Affairs to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In a 1980 treaty signed with New Zealand, the United States government formally renounced claims to the group dating back to 1856. However, Tokelau's fourth atoll, Olohega (Swains Island), was retained by the United States. In 1999, Tokelau's elected leader restated his country's claim to Olohega at the United Nations.
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