Tokelau looks to independence

Last updated 00:00 21/10/2007
Michael Field/Fairfax Media
INDEPENDENCE DAY: Tokelau is voting on whether to become independent of New Zealand.

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After a series of ownership decisions that entirely bypassed the indigenous population, Tokelau has appealed to the UN for independence from New Zealand. When that succeeds, it'll be asking the US for an island back too.

In the White House's War Room a looming assault on American borders lingers unnoticed . . . but in the tiny Pacific nation of Tokelau, there's a pretty determined group of people who want their island back - just as soon as New Zealand gives them their independence.

Tokelau, three atolls which between them have no harbours, no airports, no capital and perhaps about four cars among 1466 people, will this week conduct another United Nations-supervised referendum on self-government from New Zealand.

UN officials and New Zealand diplomats, plus a handful of reporters, sail tonight from Apia aboard Lady Naomi, a small inter-island ferry which will take two nights to reach the southern atoll of Fakaofo.

Approximately 600 voters will, over the next three days, decide on the micro-nation's future. The 8000 expatriate Tokelauans, mostly in New Zealand, have no vote.

Smart money says that unlike the first referendum in February last year, this time Tokelauans will go their own way, after 80 years of New Zealand's mostly benign neglect.

And they are quietly making it clear they also want a piece of their property back from Washington.

New Zealand gave it away against the people's will; an atoll the Americans call Swains Island but which Tokelauans call Olohega.

With a population of around 14, it's now part of American Samoa, and was a token in a grand piece of US imperialism in the 19th century. Spaniard Pedro Fernandez de Quiros was the first foreigner to visit in 1606, finding what he described as handsome and friendly people.

The island got its American name around 1840 from whaling skipper W C Swains who claimed to be the first white man to visit it.

A "Captain Turnbull" showed up in Apia though, claiming to have discovered the atoll. An American, Eli Hutchinson Jennings Sr, purchased the sovereignty of the island from Turnbull and moved there with his Samoan wife in 1856 and raised the American flag. Tokelauans living there were not consulted. When he died in 1878, his widow took over ownership and it then passed on to her son, Eli Hutchinson Jennings Jr.

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He ran it as a copra station.

Britain challenged sovereignty and in 1907 a colonial official called by and demanded Jennings pay tax.

Under protest he paid $US80. He claimed that he was an American and that his island belonged to the United States. Washington agreed and the money was returned.

The US annexed Olohega in 1925, although the people of Tokelau were, again, never asked despite their tradition being that it was a close part of their culture. Their feelings were quietly ignored and even the UN took no notice.

The era of exclusive economic maritime zones changed that, as New Zealand and the US had to negotiate a sea boundary through Tokelau.

Complicating the picture was the American Guano Act of 1856 which asserted Washington ownership over a large number of islands - including the three now-New Zealand Tokelau atolls. To get a deal, Wellington renounced the Tokelauan claim on Olohega - again without asking Tokelauans - and Washington gave up its claim on Tokelau.

Auckland University anthropologist Judith Huntsman, in a new book, The Future of Tokelau, says New Zealand was in an invidious position.

"This was an emotive matter in Tokelau and Tokelau initially balked, but in the end was reluctantly persuaded to forego its claim by the Treaty of Tokehega." It was signed in 1980.

"However, many Tokelau people in the atolls and elsewhere viewed the treaty with dismay. The episode jeopardised New Zealand rapport in Tokelau; New Zealand was not supporting and caring for Tokelau's interests," Huntsman wrote.

Tokelauans have not let the issue go and, despite New Zealand trying to stop them, their new constitution - which will come into force after independence - reasserts ownership of Olohega.

"At the dawn of time the historic islands of Atafu, Nukunonu, Fakaofo and Olohega were created as our home," the preamble states. "Since the days of Maui and Tui Tokelau, the land, sea and air have nurtured our people, and God has watched over us."

Briefing papers issued by the "government of Tokelau" for this week's vote reassert it all, saying "a cultural claim to Swains Island is a sensitive and longstanding issue for Tokelauans".

Before the Pentagon starts worrying, it should be noted that Tokelau has no armed forces or even a port or runway.

In fact, if an independent Tokelau ever finds itself at war with anybody, New Zealand is legally obliged to defend it.

One US account of Olohega says it is "certainly one of the most beautiful and picturesque under the American flag. Were it not for the mosquitoes and small flies, it would be quite an island paradise".

- Sunday Star Times

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