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FAKAOFU ISLAND

TOKELAU

Presented by Jane Resture

           

Fakaofu (also called Fakaofo) or Bowditch Island is southeasternmost of the three atolls of the Tokelau or Union group. It lies between 560 and 566 nautical miles south of the equator, 35 (60?) miles E.S.E. of Nukunono (now called Nukunonu), 100 miles north of Swains Island, and 270 miles north and a little east of Apia, Samoa.

It is a coral atoll, consisting of a continuous flat reef, awash at low tide, along which are scattered about fifty small islets and five of somewhat larger size; the largest (Matang), shaped like a hockey stick, is 2 miles long (including the bend) by less than 1/4 mile wide.

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The reef rim has the outline of a kite or arrowhead, and measures 7.12/4 miles north and south by 5.1/2 miles greatest width. The islets are thickly strewn along the east side; fewer and more scattered along the west; and there are none on the northwest side, which is flat bare reef. The lagoon contains numerous reefs and coral heads. On its east side, the water is very clear, and one can look down into deep, jade and pale blue caverns, lined with coral formation of fantastic shape, among which flit schools of brilliantly coloured, tropical fishes.

The islets average about ten feet high. Most of them are thickly covered with groves of coconut palms and low trees and shrubs, which give the islets a total height of 70 or 80 feet. Some beaches are gradual and sandy, others steep, with broken coral and sandstone slabs.

The village of Fakaofu is located on a small islet on the west side, scarcely large enough to house its population, which varies between 450 and 500 persons. The reason all of the inhabitants live crowded together on this one islet goes back to mutual protection against South American kidnappers; but it is also caused by the presence here of fresh water wells, lee-side shelter, and fairly good landing. The island has become so crowded that walls of coral sandstone, built to protect houses from high waves, have been pushed out into the lagoon, and the space behind them filled in to provide more land.

Visiting Fakaofu, April 2 to 5, 1924, one was impressed by the neatness and orderliness of the village, with gravel walks, edged with stones, between the substantial thatched houses, enclosing attractive but closely packed gardens of breadfruit, pandanus, banana, and fragrant-flowered trees and coconut palms. Their condition was the more remarkable in that houses are periodically demolished and trees stripped of branches by hurricanes.

Some of the islets are privately owned, such as Fenua fala, the N.W. islet, which is owned by the Pedro family. It has luxuriant vegetation, patches of bananas in banked terraces of rich humus, taro patches, and colourful gardens. The next islet is the Catholic cemetery, appropriately named Afua (God). Two islets south of Fakaofu is the Protestant cemetery, and the next is occupied by its caretaker. In 1924 there were 350 Protestants and 80 Catholics.

Fenua loa, at the S.W. corner is about the most luxuriant of the atoll. Within a marginal fringe of Scaevola and Tournefortia is a tall stand of such trees as Pisonia, Guettarda, Hermandia, Cordia, Ficus, Pipturus, and Pandanus, beneath which are thickets of shrubs, herbs, giant taro, and vines. In the center is a brackish lake, with narrow, winding channel leading to the sea. Some islets are cultivated, with huts in which the natives rest. A few persons, such as Willi, the salt-maker, who boils down sea water to salt, and some aged natives, live on the east side; but nearly everyone lies on the one small islet. Transportation is by canoes across the lagoon, but one can walk between islets along the flat reef.

Bird life is not abundant, perhaps because of the many persons. Land and hermit crabs are plentiful. There are many small green-tailed lizards, and a few of larger size which change colour from cream to black, according to their background. Insects are abundant, with such large species as dragonflies, two kinds of butterflies, reddish-brown sphinx moth, grasshoppers, crickets, long-horned beetles, ants, craneflies, spiders, and, sad to relate, day mosquitoes.

Although the last of the group to become inhabited, Fakaofu became the dominant island, due to conquests of Te Vaka, son of the powerful chief, Kava Vasefanua, in the 17th century. The earlier inhabitants on the other islands were destroyed, driven away, or absorbed, and the islands recolonised by the later comers.

White men discovered Fakaofu in January, 1841, with the arrival of the French ship Adolphe, Captain Morvan. Immediately after, on January 28, 1841, the Peacock and Flying Fish, of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, arrived, and named the atoll Bowditch Island. They considered it a new discovery until they found parts of a wrecked ship, which the natives said had been cast up two or three years earlier, and from which two men with Polynesian names had escaped, but had later died.

The British flag was hoisted and protectorate declared, June 20, 1889, by Captain Oldham of H.M.S. Egeria, whose officers surveyed the island. In 1916 the Tokelau Islands, under the name Union Group, were incorporated in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. In 1925 they were transferred to the Administration of Western Samoa.

The only trade is the export of a little copra and the making of native objects to sell to tourists, most characteristic of which are circular wooden boxes with tight covers, called tuluma, and fans trimmed with feathers.

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 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 13th May 2005)