A short history of Niue

by Dr J Floor Anthoni, 2004
On this page we have brought together interesting facts and thoughts about the history of Niue, about which very little has been written. Niue is not only isolated by its location in the south Pacific, but its policies of quarantine against introduced diseases, isolated it even further. So, by the time missionaries were allowed to preach the Gospel, Niue was indeed barbaric in its culture and behaviour with only stone tools.
  • introduction: some thoughts about the history and society of Niue
  • timeline: a time line of important events in Niue's history
  • land tenure: who owns the land and who can own land?
  • statistics: population and other vital statistics as far as they were collected (postponed).

Read more interesting facts about Niue and its environment and go to the Niue index on this web site.
Reference: Chapman T, Etuata I, et al. (1982): Niue, a history of the island. Government of Niue & Inst Pacific Studies & University of the south Pacific. (152pp in Niuean and English). An authoritative study of Niuean history.
For suggestions, comments and improvements, please e-mail the author.
-- Seafriends home -- Niue index -- sitemap -- Rev 20041128,20060113,

If one is disappointed at not seeing the beautiful vistas of cloud-wreathed mountains sweeping down to romantic beaches as on neighbouring volcanic islands, one has to admit that Niue has a distinctive beauty all of its own. Sheltered rocky coves, jewel-like reef pools, noble headlands, awesome tropical forest, scattered coconut and taro plantations, neat colourful villages, comprise an island of almost 100 square miles.

These are words from the book Niue, a history of the island - how appropriate. Yes, Niue is different, very different.

Niue is perhaps the only nation-island located on a large rock of coral limestone with no other kind of rock protruding through its surface. It has no natural mining resources such as oil, gold, coal or even guano (bird droppings). Its soils are unwilling, its coasts unkind with precious little access to the bounties of the sea, which are also very few. It is a poor man's place. Although it has a clement climate and good rainfall, it also experiences annual periods of drought and the occasional disastrous year-long drought. Seabirds tend to agree, as borne out by the absence of deposits of bird droppings. The Niuean people agree too, since they have been leaving the island as soon as this became possible through modern shipping (since 1860). Now about 20,000 Niueans live elsewhere, leaving 1100 as caretakers behind (2004).

Yet, people who found Niue and wrestled a living from it, never wanted to return to where they came from. To them, Niue held promises, only to be fulfilled by hard work. Niue has perhaps never been a unity but it consisted of moieties (parts) with rivalry and war between them. But the island was too poor to be able to afford a king with ceremonies and a bureaucracy. Neither could Niue afford extensive spiritual rituals, large temples and priesthoods, even though Niueans were very superstitious. So the rank and file in Niue has by and large been unitarist, as in a republic.

A lack of surplus in the economy has resulted in a less structured society and religion, compared with other Polynesian islands. The lack of idols and huge temples has not diminished Niuean religion deeply embedded in their lives and ways. Niueans were a very superstitious people, and developed a complicated system of tapus which also heralded an early form of conservation. Every settlement had its own sanctuary (tauga) in the bush, a place marked out and strictly forbidden to go even near, and supposed to be a place wholly kept for the breeding of birds and land crabs. The Tauga at Hakupu is still such a tapu area. 

Land and fresh water (Niue has only one source of running water) being the most important resources, were common causes for disputes and necessary acquisition due to population growth. Warfare simply adjusted the boundaries to what was required. However, after Christianity did away with warfare, the disputes about land actually increased. Remember that because there was no written tenure system, the knowledge about ownership and boundaries disappeared in as little as two generations.
Niue (Niue-Fekai: niu= cocounut palm; niue= 'see the coconut tree' or 'palms ahoy'. Fekai= cannibal, even though cannibalism was unknown in Niue) has for a century been called Savage Island, for good reasons. Niueans' nature of worship is very much an ecstatic type. Human hearts when touched by the power of spirits often reacted in an energetic and frantic manner. These ceremonies were especially used before going to war  (tugi e mama = lighting the fires).

In a pre-war ceremony known as a tugi e mama (lighting the fires) the Taula-atua (shaman or priest) who was supposed to be the leader of the ceremony, first appeared in the foreground feverishly calling out in a language of his own to his gods to come together and aid the troops who were about to enter into battle fields for fighting. He then proceeded to light the fires scattered around the place together with a large fire into which the poisonous wood of the kieto, the moota and the foumamala were burnt. Leaves of the foumamala tree were also thrown on top of the fire in order to make its smoke, and at such times the whole troops blackened the ends of their spears in the smokes. While this was still under process, the Taula-atua cried out in a very loud voice, the kinds of words which could offer magic touches on their spears. When he had finished with all that, he then hit his head with a burning torch made from the wood of a kofetoga tree with the idea of spreading little sparks against his head. After this, when the shaman had finished lighting the fires, the whole troop did a war dance (takalo) in order to show the Taula-atua that they also had possessed some sparks from his gods. The most vigorous dancer, the one who had displayed a lot of furious action would afterwards be chosen as their leader. Obviously it was because of this sort of ecstatic mood that Niueans were often accused by some early visitors of being a most devilish and savage lot.
Similarly when the troops were successful and upon returning to their own territories, every one of them including their women would rejoice greatly. They engaged in dancing vigorously in pairs throughout the whole night, as if they were all possessed by spiritual powers. Such form of dance was known to them as tafeauhi and was certainly their own way of celebrating their success in warfare. However, in later periods, mainly after missionary influences, the tafeauhi was regarded as mostly evil.
kieto: a tree (Diospyros samoensis) used for making clubs and furniture. Its timber has a hard core resembling ebony while its outer part is soft and white. Its fruits are used to stun fish. The kanume tree (Diospyros ferrea) is used in a similar way.
moota: a tree (Dysoxylum forsteri) used to build the main hull of a canoe
fou: a hibiscus shrub (Hibiscus tiliaceus) whose bark fibres are traditionally used for weaving. foumamala is perhaps some other hibiscus species.
kofetoga: a weed (beggar's tick) (Bidens pilosa) known for its scent. The word may be used for other herbaceous plants used for scenting oils.
tafeauhi: (tafe= to flow; uhi= forest) a traditional ceremony which involves a lot of singing and dancing, creating a lot of noise.

Like any other society, Niueans had their own power structure. Class in Niue was based on performance of activities (rather than birth), and the more famous their activities, the higher their status.

Girls never had any right to ownership of important belongings. The wives were considered of different descent, and their brothers rather than their husbands would avenge them. Getting a wife from another person was not embarrassing and the woman would still be well regarded as it proved her beauty and descent. Husbands prided themselves of other men (particularly chiefs) wanting their wives as this proved their good taste and choice.
Before going to war, the warriors (toa) were strictly forbidden from getting themselves involved with women. Whilst engaged in warfare, they were not allowed to even stop and talk to women, for fear of being killed by their own troops.

Very early in their history, Niueans made the connection between disease and its transmission by close proximity and contact. Hence their suspicion of foreigners, and their desire to kill anyone who landed there, even their own people returning from overseas. Anyone suspected or showing disease, had to remove himself in isolation in the forest until the disease was cured or the person died. This worked so well that a smallpox epidemic killed only 100 out of 4000 people (in Europe, casualty rates were very much higher, like 20-60%)

Because of its isolation, its environmental background, and its very simple social structure (very much after a republican form), the physical health and strength of Niueans appears perfect. Very little is mentioned of illness and disease. The island was very much blessed and its inhabitants became very much concerned about people from outside coming to the island. Much of the hostility seen by some early visitors to the island reflected how reluctant Niueans were to accept any visitors, simply because they were suspected of bringing with them various sicknesses and diseases which might affect Niueans' health. Even in those early days, because Niueans were very much concerned about protecting their own health, they adopted a policy whereby any sick person was taken away into the bush and left there, away from the presence of the public at large. Such form of primitive quarantine was a common practice of the people of Niue before.

Their almost complete isolation and rejection of contact with other island groups, resulted in their culture such as building, arts, crafts, dancing and singing, remaining quite basic. Their self-imposed isolation deprived them also of raw materials and from being part of Polynesian trade routes. Even though Niueans descended mainly from Tonga, today one can find the Samoan influence more prominent, as Christianity came with Samoan missionaries.

Christianity, introduced by the Niuean Peniamina Nukai to the island as late as 1840, has replaced revenge with tolerance, ending the cycle of reciprocal wars. The Council or Fono brought the villagers together to resolve disputes as it grew to a form of local government.

Niueans discovered that working together rather than fighting, delivered more prosperity but even so, there are not enough people for all the specialties a modern society depends on. Most have two or more jobs. Many have multiple skills. Lagi Tuhega, a man returning to Niue from his 'training' in New Zealand, describes it as follows: "During my stay I moved around from job to job in order to learn. I worked as a blacksmith, a sawmiller, a shoemaker, bushman and steel metal worker". (Lagi Tuhega in Land Tenure in Niue, 1977)

Niue has elected a form of government of independence with full representation as a nation in the United Nations. This top heavy bureaucracy is unaffordable, reason why much aid money does not do any good for the island itself. Yet, becoming fully incorporated as part of New Zealand brings other disadvantages as discussed in the chapter about what next? For the moment, the Niue government is strongly determined to maintain their cultural links with their past, while carefully accepting some benefits of the modern world.

Niue’s system of government is based on the Westminster system.  The Niue Assembly consists of 20 members, 14 of whom are elected by village constituencies and 6 from the common roll. The 20 members elect a Premier and the Premier selects three cabinet ministers from the 19.  Members elect a Speaker from outside their ranks. A general election is held every three years.

This historical timeline provides a quick overview of Niue's history. The dates that are uncertain have been greyed out to alert you.
King Fataaiki writes to Queen Victoria in 1887:
We the chiefs and rulers and governors of Niue-Fekai desire to pray Your Majesty and Your Majesty's Kingdom, if it be your pleasure to stretch out towards us your mighty hand that Niue may hide herself in it and be safe. We are afraid lest some other powerful nation should come and trouble us, and take possession of our island, as some islands in this quarter of the world have been taken by great nations. On account of this we are troubled, but we leave it with you to do as seems best to you. If you send the flag of Britain, it is well; or if you send a Commissioner to reside among us, that also will be well.
Our king, Tuitonga, died on the 13th July last, but before he died he wished to write to Your Majesty, and beg to send the powerful flag of Britain to unfurl in this island of Niue, in order that this weak island of ours might be strong. It was from your country that men first came to this island to make known the name of the Lord, and through them this land of Niue-Fekai became enlightened; then for the first time, this people knew that there were other lands in this world. Therefore the people of this land rejoice in you and your kingdom. This land is enlightened by the gospel of Jesus Christ brought by the subjects of Your Majesty, and that is why we make this petition.
That is all we have to say. May Your Majesty the Queen and your powerful kingdom be blessed, together with the kingdom of Niue, in the Kingdom of Heaven.
I, Fataiki, write this letter.

Sir Basil Thomson writes further: The first kingdom of all kingdoms in the world, England, the earth-hungry and insatiable, took thirteen years to think it over, and then, having received a second letter more precisely worded, reluctantly consented. It is an object-lesson of the way in which we blunder into Empire.

[1] Thomson, Sir Basil C (1902, 1984): Savage Island, an account of a sojourn in Niue and Tonga. R McMillan, Papakura NZ.

Land tenure in Niue
In Niue land is owned by line of descent (mangafaoa). Land is passed preferentially to the eldest son, but the vagaries of life and death show a different reality, where women as sole survivors own land and so on. Traditionally, land as a precious resource, was acquired by waging war and those in most need were keenest to fight hardest for it. So war resettled land boundaries as the need arose. Remember that the rights of descent were passed on verbally, and were often forgotten after 2-3 generations, as were the exact boundaries of the lands. Ironically, as Christianity put an end to wars, the conflicts about land increased, and the land registration system of 1969 made things just worse. Now most of the land is owned by absentee-owners, living in foreign lands. Their claims are then passed down to children who have never even been in Niue. The best land is owned by those least in need of it and those most in need must scrape a livelihood off marginal lands.

Major problems on Niue relate to fragmentation of land titles and multiple ownership of particular blocks of land. These are much less serious in fact than they could be because nearly two-thirds of Niue's population live overseas, mainly in Auckland (10,000 in 1977). If all these people returned to Niue, there would be complete chaos and upheaval in Niue's society, because everybody would be making land claims. Niue is very fortunate that emigration has in some measure alleviated this problem.

With a total land area of  nearly 260 km2, divided over 4000 people (= 6.5 ha/person or 33 ha/family at 5 members each), Niue has ample land for each. But because living from the land reduces one's living standard by 75% compared to a government salary, few people are motivated today to work the land or even to fish the sea. Niue has 13 villages. 25% of all land privately owned, whereas 75% remains in multiple ownership, shared by the members of the magafaoa or descent groups. Each family has a house site.

The Cook and Other Islands Act 1902  provided for individual ownership of land but did not address shared ownership. By prohibiting the selling, giving, willing or even abandoning of land rights, it replaced excessive flexibility by excessive rigidity. Under the colonial law, rights to land could be acquired only by accidents of birth, that is by compulsory inheritance. In French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, where similar legislation was put into effect, it had the most serious consequences including a quite fantastic fragmentation of the few recognised rights at the one accepted level. In some cases the rights to a single house site are now shared by hundreds of individuals. It has led to everyone obtaining an ever-decreasing share in an ever-increasing number of lands, making administrative costs exceedingly high and productivity exceedingly low [1]. In the years of inter-village warfare, men mostly married women of their own village, but this has changed, making the registration system even more complicated, as village land ownership also became more scattered.

Land disputes were settled by local advisers until 1940, but this was abandoned because relatives and family members were being favoured and the advisors were easily corrupted.

The new registration system introduced in 1969 was aimed to steer a middle course between systems then in use in Great Britain and Fiji, providing for both individual and group registration of lands. This group registration led to the land identifying the magafoa descent groups, rather than the people. Today most disputes are settled outside the Court but a long backlog developed, to be judged by the Land Court which sits for no more than a few weeks each year. There never have been any private lawyers practising in Niue. So how is land registration done today?

Before land can be registered (title registration is now compulsory), it must have been surveyed (still free of charge). In 1969 about 20% of the land was surveyed; by 1979 40%. The register records:

Most lands remain unused or under used. Land cannot be bought or sold in Niue, but the Government of Niue can purchase land for public purposes, only with the consent of the land owners, which are not only many but most also living abroad. Thus such purchases can take decades to complete. Besides, the lands are fragmented. With most landowners living overseas, consensus is almost impossible to achieve. Particularly the Niue Development Board, which seeks ways to make Niuean lands more productive, is stifled by being unable to acquire land.

Non-Niueans are not allowed by law to acquire land, except by lease. For most immigrants acquiring long-term or secure rights to land is quite difficult. Marrying a Niuean does not provide security either, as the title goes into Niuean hands after death. There exists a strong resistance against making lands available to immigrants.

In 1964 the Niue Assembly decided that persons who had been absent for 20 years or more would automatically lose their former land rights on Niue because it would retard economic development. But Niueans in NZ were vigorously opposed as they saw this as a break in social relations and they also wanted to keep Niue the way it was. Considerable animosity developed between residents and absentees. An important source of income on Niue comes from remittances from absent relatives in NZ. One of the functions of these remittances, as seen by the senders, is to maintain membership and active participation in one's family back home, and land rights function as continued membership. Many Niueans in NZ also suffered hardship and saw a possible return to Niue as an economic security.

Even those working the land, complain that the control by the magafoa stifles individual enterprise. In the old days, the family leader takitaki magafoa had indisputable rights of taking for himself and redistributing the proceeds from the land, and some of this custom is still present today.

[1] Source: Kalauni S, Crocombe R, et al. (1977-1996): Land tenure in Niue. Institute of Pacific Studies (72pp).