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 Presented by Jane Resture

Atafu or Duke of York Island is the north-western atoll of the Tokelau or Union group. It lies 513 nautical miles south of the equator, 260 miles S.S.E. of Gardner Island, and 310 miles north of Savaii, western island of Samoa. The Ellice Islands (now called Tuvalu) are 500 miles to the west. Between Atafu and Gardner, and about 60 miles S.E. of the latter, is a horseshoe-shaped shoal, about 1500 yards across, known as Carondelet Reef, after the vessel which reported it.


Atafu is a low coral atoll, triangular in outline, about three miles north and south by two and a half wide. The land reaches a height of 12 to 15 feet, but it is covered with trees and coconut palms, and has an area of about 550 acres. The eastern side is nearly continuous land, about an eighth mile wide. It does not appear to have a name, but is divided by the native inhabitants into thirty sections, each of which has its own name. A partial break nearly divides this into two islets. The village is on the north-western islet, Atafu. An L-shaped islet, Fenualoa ("long-island") marks the southeast corner. Two islets run out into the lagoon from the west reef. The south reef is dotted with 35 very small islets; and others are scattered along the west reef.

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The reef is continuous around the atoll, from a quarter to half a mile wide, awash at low tide, so that it is possible to walk from one islet to another, and there is no boat passage into the lagoon. The natives use a small canoe passage just south of Atafu islet, or else drag their canoes across the reef. The lagoon contains numerous shoals and coral heads.

The sea drops away to great depth just off the reef, against much of which waves break with violence. With the prevailing southeast trades good anchorage may be had in sixty feet of water, 400 yards west of the northwest point of Atafu islet. Landing, opposite the south end of this islet, is best near high water.

Most of the islets are thickly covered with groves of coconut palms, among which are Tournefortia, Pisonia, Pandanus, Morinda, Ficus, and other trees, and the usual undergrowth found on moderately moist central Pacific islands. Rats, lizards, and the usual sea birds have been reported as common.

Atafu is in the hurricane belt. In January, 1914, an unusually severe storm demolished the church and most of the houses, and levelled many of the coconut palms.

The island is inhabited by 380 persons (1932), all natives of the Tokelau islands. Concerning them and their culture Gordon Macgregor, a Yale-Bishop Museum fellow, who spent two months on the island, has written an interesting and informative bulletin. He believes that the island was inhabited by a fine race of Polynesian people, all of whom were killed or driven from the island by an invasion from Fakaofo in legendary times (about 1600). Some settled in Samoa, and others on islands to the west. Later Atafu was used periodically as a fishing base for expeditions from Fakaofo; and finally drought, hurricane, and over-population on the latter island brought about a new permanent settlement.

European contact came with the discovery of the island by Commodore John Byron, in the British ship Dolphin, June 24, 1765. He named it Duke of York Island, and reported no sign of inhabitants. When Captain Edwards reached it in H.M.S. Pandora June 6, 1791, in search for mutineers of the Bounty, he stated that, while there did not seem to be permanent inhabitants, there were signs of visits by fishing parties. Lieutenant Paulding, in command of the American ship Dolphin, arriving October 30, 1825, found the island inhabited.

The island was mapped and much information about it recorded by the U.S. Exploring Expedition, which visited it in the U.S.S. Peacock and Flying Fish, January 25, 1841. Horatio Hale, ethnologist with the expedition, describes the inhabitants and their culture, and gives a vocabulary and grammar. He found that Atafu was under the King of Fakaofo. The natives did little or no cultivation, but lived on fish and coconuts. Water was scarce and bad, rainwater being  collected at the base of coconut palms. The natives were eager to trade them, even as we found them to be when we passed by the island on the Taney in July, 1938.

All of the natives on Atafu are Protestants, although all on the next island, Nukunonu, are Catholics. This was due to the arrival of native teachers from Samoa on the London Missionary Society's ship John Williams, in 1858.

The Tokelau Islands suffered greatly between 1850 and 1870 from raids by South Americans in search of labourers. Many were kidnapped from Atafu, although not as many as from the other islands of the group. (See Depopulating the Tokelaus Web site for further information).

In 1880 there was one European resident, employed by a New Zealand firm to collect copra. Copra and native products, such as mats, fans, and carved wooden boxes (tuluma) have been their only industry.

In 1877 the Tokelau Islands were nominally included under the protectorate of Great Britain, by an Order in Council which claimed jurisdiction over all islands in the Pacific not previously ceded or claimed by other powers. The British flag was hoisted June 22, 1889, by Commander Oldham, R. N. landing from H.M.S. Egeria. A survey of the island was made by the British vessel Goldfinch in 1896. 

In 1916 the Tokelau Islands, called officially the Union Islands were made a part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu). In 1925 jurisdiction was transferred to the Administrative of Western Samoa, a New Zealand mandate. This was more acceptable to the natives as they felt a bond of kinship with Samoa. All government is administered on Atafu by native officials, the details of which will be discussed under the next island of Nukunonu.

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(E-mail: -- Rev. 13th May 2005)