POPULAR MUSIC GROUP DEMANDING U.S. RETURN REMOTE SWAINS ISLAND TO TOKELAU

admin's picture

By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (July 3, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---A Pacific territory is demanding the United States return an atoll the size of New York's Central Park, which was annexed on the strength of the claim of an American who sold its people into slavery at ten dollars a head.

Although New Zealand and the U.S. regard the issue as dead, Tokelau is deploying a new weapon: music group Te Vaka and a sad-sweet song, Haloa Olohega (Poor Olohega).

Olohega or Swains Island, an 800 acre U.S. atoll 224 miles north of American Samoa, was part of Tokelau, a three-atoll New Zealand colony of 1,500 people 100 miles further north who live on just four square miles of scattered land.

Olohega, the highest of the atolls, was a thriving community, as witnessed by the 31 star mounds or pre-historic rock platforms built by the inhabitants for cultural events.

But in 1856 an American, Eli Hutchinson Jennings, with Samoan wife Malia, arrived at Olohega, claiming title to it from an Englishman he said discovered it. It was an empty island, he said, and the people there were transient.

Described at the time as an "extremely brutal" man, he forced the people to make copra.

A measure of the man came in 1863 when he sold dozens of Tokelauans to a Peruvian slave ship, Rosa Patricia. It devastated Tokelau for over a century.

Jennings died in 1878 and it was taken over by his son, who died in 1920.

The granddaughter and grandson tried to probate the will and found they could not because of the confused political status. They lobbied Washington and in 1925 the U.S. Congress extended American sovereignty over the island.

Today a Tuvaluan couple and their children live on Olohega, as servants to Jennings heir pretender, Ilaisa Thompson, who is seldom on the island.

Effectively, the island is empty while Tokelauans struggle to survive on the crowded other islands.

Wally Jennings, who does not live on the island, is paid by the U.S. government to sit as a representative in the American Samoan legislature.

Britain, through New Zealand, claimed Tokelau, including Olohega, while Washington counter-claimed over Tokelau and parts of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now Kiribati and Tuvalu). With independence looming for the latter in 1979, Washington and Wellington signed a treaty renouncing the claims and accepting the status quo. Like all good colonial deals, it was done without consulting the people most affected; and there was turmoil among the fewer than 30 people, Jenning descendants, on Olohega.

Which is where Opetaia Foa'i comes in. He is lead singer and writer of the 11-strong group Te Vaka, the Pacific's most popular music and dance group and well known in Europe.

Foa'i is the son of a Tokelauan and Tuvaluan who grew up in Samoa, leaving at the age of nine for New Zealand. Last year, with his family, he took the group back to Samoa, and on to Tokelau and Tuvalu. On Tokelau's Fakaofo he talked with a faipule or political leader.

"He expressed his feelings about Olohega," Foa'i told AFP.

"Every time I go on tour he will say 'Oh, would you mind mentioning Olohega'....

"I realize it is . . . only a small thing, but to Tokelau it is a better place to live."

This led to Haloa Olohega, which includes the verse: "A request for the family of Eli; Many wrongs were made long ago, that will never go away, but you can change some of that, by doing what is right."

Te Vaka performed the song in Hawai‘i.

"I had the Jennings family knock on the backdoor of the stage, basically saying 'you better not put the song on the album.' Because of that I have pointed out the truth."

The Jennings, he says, still act as if they are superior to Tokelauans. Foa'i says through his music all he is asking is for proper discussion about the island.

"I am opening the door for them and point out that this guy actually gained money helping the slave traders. Ten dollars a head. That's a crime."

Tokelau's General Fono or government has a committee set up to seek the return of Olohega and the 5,000 strong New Zealand Tokelauan community now has an Olohega flag to advance the cause.

University of Hawai‘i PhD student Betty Ickes, whose father was a founding member of the Fono's Committee of Olohega, said all Tokelauans want the land back.

"Olehega lays wasted while Tokelau's own soil has such limited potential and the overcrowding would worsen save for Tokelau's liberal relationship with New Zealand," she said.

 

The following is a statement from New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, commenting on the above story.

1. The statements "Like all good colonial deals, it was done without consulting the people affected" and "it was done over the resistance of the very people who were worst affected, the Tokelauans" are demonstrably wrong.

There was extensive consultation with the Tokelauan people leading up to the Treaty ("The Treaty between New Zealand and the United States of America on the Delimitation of the Maritime Boundary Between Tokelau and the United States of America") signed on 2 December 1980. The consultation included several visits by New Zealand's Administrator of Tokelau, Frank Corner, and New Zealand's foremost international legal expert, Chris Beeby. The final decision to rescind claims to Olohega (Swains Island) was made by Tokelauan leaders themselves. The Treaty, translated into Tokelauan, was signed by the then leaders of the atolls as well as the New Zealand Administrator and the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand, who traveled to Tokelau to sign the document.

2. The statement "In one of those cynical deals diplomats are good at" is an offensive slight on the motives of New Zealand diplomats who advised the Tokelauans of their options at the time. The considered opinion of our foremost international legal expert at the time, Chris Beeby, was that the Tokelauan claim to Olohega was weak and would not succeed in an international tribunal. For this reason, New Zealand advised the Tokelauans to rescind their claim to Olohega so the U.S. would rescind its claim to the other three atolls, thereby allowing Tokelau to confirm its international legal boundaries. This has subsequently enabled Tokelau to take full advantage of its valuable fisheries resources. But the decision itself was made by Tokelauan leaders, not by New Zealand. Quoting from a speech in Tokelau by Frank Corner in October 1980: "I believe that at this Fono you will want to take a decision on this issue. You can, if you wish, maintain intact your claim to Swains Island. There will then be no boundary treaty with the United States and the American claim to Tokelau will be maintained. Or you can decide to give your blessing to a treaty of the kind we have discussed with the Americans. There will then be an agreed boundary between Tokelau and American Samoa; that treaty will mark the end of the American claim to Tokelau and, for all practical purposes, the end of your claim to Swains Island. The decision will be yours, not mine and not New Zealand's."

3. Article 6 of the Treaty provides for ongoing cooperation between the peoples of Tokelau and American Samoa. This has led to practical cooperation in matters such as fuel supply and access by Tokelauans to coconut resources on Olohega.

4. The story's claim that Tokelauans living on Olohega were sold into slavery by Jennings conflicts with the authoritative history of the Tokelauan people as told by Tokelauans themselves. The history, "Matagi Tokelau," translated into English by Antony Hooper and Judith Huntsman, shows no record of slaves being taken from Olohega, although it does document how Jennings helped Peruvian slave traders take slaves from the other three atolls.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: [email protected]  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Add new comment