My Pacific island ancestors were part of a great migratory movement into the Pacific, from the west eastward, south and north. From out of the South-East Asian peninsulas, the north-easterners settled into the islands we now call Micronesia; the south-easterners islandhopped into what we call the western Melanesian archipelago. They then migrated through the island subcontinent we know as New Guinea to the islands of the Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji. From Fiji they again spread east and northward, navigating vast distances through the islands of Tonga, Samoa and the Cooks, then to Tahiti and beyond to Easter Island.
Some went north across the equator to settle Hawaii. From there, their descendants sailed south-west to Micronesia; others sailed more directly south to meet up with the Polynesians south of the equator.
Some of them reached the last islands of the south to be settled, Aotearoa, New Zealand. Thus the circumnavigation of the Pacific, which covers some 40 per cent of the planet’s surface, was complete, arguably one the greatest human seagoing feats.
In another world adjacent to another ocean—the Atlantic—southern European and Middle Eastern peoples hadn’t even contemplated sailing out of the sea we call Mediterranean. All that would change (about 700 years ago) of course, but that’s another story.
Some of the islands settled by the great Polynesian voyagers were three atolls, almost halfway between Hawaii and Aotearoa. Those atolls became known as Tokelau. Reaching them on the oceanic Pacific blue wouldn’t have been unexpected, for their original inhabitants were skilled in traversing vast, uncharted expanses of ocean. Today the atolls may seem like the last outpost in the universe.
The first European navigator to spy them, Commodore John Byron, in 1785, would have had no reason to suppose he’d reached a group of people who would be among the world’s smallest, identifiable tribal groups.
A little more than 100 years after Byron, the Tokelau atolls became an official British protectorate. In 1925 they were handed into the care and administration of the independent dominion of New Zealand. Immediately after World War II, they were officially named “Tokelau” and, in 1948, “adopted” by New Zealand and given formal territory status. From then on, the island group was administered under New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs Ministry in liaison with Tokelau’s indigenous assembly, the General Fono, and cabinet in Apia.
Individual atolls are governed by councils, comprising a cabinet member responsible for public services and another responsible for village matters.
The annually elected head of the cabinet is referred to in traditional terms as the Ulu O Tokelau (head).
Tokelau has two population communities: one resident on the atolls (about 1500 people); the other living mostly in NZ (about 7000). Like many of the Pacific islands, local copra, agriculture and subsistence fishing cannot sustain the economy. The atolls lack such facilities as roads, ports and airports, so many of the population have migrated to the greener, more modern pastures of New Zealand. Even with remittances, the sale of fishing rights to foreign fleets, a local tuna processing plant, the sale of internet address rights, and sundry other minor incomes from stamps, fees and licences, Tokelau has remained a reality without substance. A potential nation without the means for becoming one—and costing New Zealanders about $NZ9 million a year to maintain the mirage.
It was with this history and present reality in mind, that about 600 registered voters went to the polls in February this year to decide on their status: to remain under New Zealand administration (as a colonial territory) or enter into a compact of “free association” with their guardian power. While the sitting Ulu O Tokelau and a majority of Tokelauans supported the latter, with a view to more autonomy, they fell short of the two-thirds majority required to pass the referendum.
So Tokelau continues to sit like a lucky pawpaw tree I pass on my way to work every day. The pawpaw tree has so far survived bulldozers sent in to clear the block of land it sits on.
It survives because it grows next to an immovable concrete power pole. Every other garden patch on the block, every bush and tree that had stood for generations, were simply knocked over and out of the way of progress. The land is going to be turned into a shopping centre, so everything had to go, as it does. Everything except for the pawpaw tree—and the pole.
The options facing all Pacific peoples in the face of sweeping globalisation is not unlike that of the Tokelauans: accept the protection of stronger relatively immovable larger neighbours, such as Australia or New Zealand, or go it alone.
The future for going it alone doesn’t look good given forces that are pushing dozer-like toward environmental and cultural decimation. More and more, Pacific islanders are abandoning their traditional homelands and recreating themselves in the urban settings of Australian and Kiwi cities; more and more they are forsaking their idyllic villages for the sake of supporting their future generations.
It is lamentable that this is happening, but scientific evidence is pointing more assuredly to the deleterious cultural effects of so-called coca-colonisation, and to global warming and its consequence of rising sea levels. The journals of scientific research, such as Nature and Science magazines, continue to raise alarms about the effects of overfilling oceans and melting icecaps. At a mere five metres above sea level, if the prophesied effect is ever reality, Tokelau will be among the first to feel the impact of any such ecological change.
More and more, the pressure will be on Tokelauans to abandon their atolls and reinvent them in their imaginations as they take up futures elsewhere. The only question remaining is whether the newer power-pole societies will remain hospitable to the ancient pawpaw societies of the Pacific. I hope so, because the Pacific needs their assistance to continue surviving and growing. Without their help, the smallest Pacific islands may one day be as much myth as Atlantis. Their people uprooted and their civilisations dissolved at the bottom of the Pacific.