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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



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Three tiny coral atolls comprise the Tokelau group –Fakaofo, Nukunono, and Atafu. They lie approximately 50 miles apart and 300 miles north of Western Samoa. Each atoll consists of a number of reefbound islets encircling a lagoon. The islets do not rise more than 15 ft above sea level and their total land area is four square miles. The average mean temperature is 82°F.


The Tokelauans are Polynesians who are culturally and linguistically linked to the Samoans, but their remote atoll way of life most closely approximates that of the northern Cook Islanders. The population at the census of 25 September 1961 was 1,860, 874 males and 986 females.

History and Government

The first European to visit the group is believed to have been Commodore Byron, RN, in 1765. The group became a British protectorate in 1877 and was annexed by Britain in 1916, being included with the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony. New Zealand took over administration of the group in 1925 and in 1948 included it within the territorial boundaries of New Zealand; Tokelauans thereby became New Zealand citizens as well as British subjects. The group is administered by the High Commissioner for New Zealand in Western Samoa in his capacity of Administrator of the Tokelau Islands.

The basis of law in the group is the 1948 Tokelau Islands Act which preserves unrevoked legislation made by the Western Pacific High Commission prior to 1925 together with subsequent New Zealand regulations. Local government is controlled by the “faipule” on each island who is the chief Government representative. The faipule administers the law and presides over the local court. He is democratically elected for a term of three years and is assisted by the village mayor or “pulenu'u” who is in effect the principal executive official.

Social Conditions

A simple atoll existence consisting mainly of subsistence planting and fishing is centred around the family unit. Village affairs are looked after by a council of family elders. Human rights are protected by legislation as they are in New Zealand. Housing is of timber-framing covered by pandanus with gabled roofing.


The principal food crops of the almost entirely subsistence economy are coconuts, breadfruit, pawpaws, and bananas. All land is owned by the Tokelauan families according to their own custom.

Approximately once a quarter, a chartered vessel visits the atolls from Western Samoa to load their only exports, copra and plaited ware. Approximately 200 tons of copra are exported each year. Imports consist mainly of foodstuffs, kerosene, and tobacco.

New Zealand currency is used and expenditure is mainly devoted to health, education, and agriculture. The territory's economy is subsidised by the New Zealand Government by approximately £40,000 a year.

Transport and Communications

Apart from the quarterly trading visit from Western Samoa, the group's only connections with the outside world are by daily radio telegraphic schedules and an occasional RNZAF flying boat visit for urgent medical cases or to fly in Government officials.


Normally an assistant medical officer resides on each atoll and he is assisted by Tokelauan nursing staff. Regular visits are made to the Group by medical officers of the Government of Western Samoa, and specialist services are made available by the New Zealand Government. Nutrition standards are as good as atoll conditions will permit. Filaria, skin diseases, and eye trouble are the major sicknesses but all are kept under control.


Schooling, which is free and compulsory, is carried out by Tokelauan teachers in two Government primary schools, and by Roman Catholic European missionaries in the sole mission primary school. Selected students are sent to New Zealand, Western Samoa, and Fiji for higher education.

by Selwyn Digby Wilson, B.A., Department of Island Territories, Wellington.