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Nassau Island

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Nassau Island is located 693 nautical miles south of the equator, 45 miles S.E. by S. of Pukapuka, 175 miles N.W. of Suvarov, and 290 miles E.E. of Tau Island, American Samoa, (240 from Rose Atoll and 350 from Pago Pago).

The island is oval in outline, a little less than a mile long, east and west, by a half a mile wide. The land is flat, with a few low dunes and shallow depressions, nowhere more than 35 feet high. The tops of the  trees and coconut palms reach a height of 60 to 75 feet.

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The island is surrounded by a fringing reef, 100 to 1590 yards wide on the east, south, and west, but narrower on the north. Off the reef the water is deep, with no anchorage. Place of landing depends upon the wind. During the period of the southeast trade winds, April to September, landing is best on the northwest curve; from October to May the winds come from the west and northeast, and then landing is better on the south shore. It can be had at both places.

Most of the beach is narrow and sandy, except at the northwest curve, where there is sandstone and red rock, which dips to the north. Nearly all the area behind the beach is thickly covered with arboreal vegetation. This consists of a marginal fringe of Scaevola, Tounefortia, Pandanus, and Guettarda. Behind this groves of coconut palms have been planted, replacing much of the original vegetation. Among these are scattered such trees as Pisonia, Cordia, and Calophyllum, with herbs and bird's nest and polypodium ferns. In several low swampy places are sedges; grass; Hermandia Pipturus, and other trees; and planted taro and bananas. Pools of water standing in these swamps are covered with dirty scum, but the water is fresh and drinkable. a moderate rainfall and warm but agreeable climate is suggested. 

There are no land birds, and the usual species of sea and migratory birds, although present, are not common. Pigs and chickens, imported by copra harvesters, run wild. Land and hermit crabs, and at least three species of lizards are common. Insects, unfortunately, include both day and night mosquitoes and annoying house flies; there are moths, dragonflies, and usual species, but no butterflies were seen. Marine life is abundant off the reef, including numerous edible fishes.

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Nassau Island settlement, 1890.

In early times Nassau was occupied by people from Pukapuka (Danger Islands). There are definite legendary accounts of intercourse between the two islands during about the 17th century. The people of Pukapuka believed that they owned Nassau, which they called Te Nuku-o-Ngalewu, after a chief who defended the island against invasion by a warrior from Aitutaki named Tima. His name has been attached to a reef lying between Nassau and Pukapuka, now spelled Tema.

According to Pukapuka account, contact between the two islands stopped "at the time when the great conflict between the gods made sea travel dangerous," and the island received the name Te Motu-ngaongao (deserted island). Occasional fishing trips were made to Nassau up to the time of white contact, but the permanent settlement died out. The finding of shell adzes and pearl-shell breast ornaments of Pukapuka design in an old grave of Nassau, uncovered by the tidal wave of 1914, helps to substantiate the traditions.

The island was named for the American whale ship Nassau, of New Bedford, Captain John D. Sampson, which sighted it in March, 1835. At least two other vessels had sighted it previously: the London whale ship Ranger (date not known), and the American whale ship Mary Mitchell, of Nantucket, Captain Elihu Coffin, who reported calling it Mitchell Island in 1834. Some authorities believe this to be the Peregrino Island of Quiros, 1606.

The whale ship Audley Clark, of Newport, Rhode Island, Captain Joseph Paddack, sighted the island December 28, 1836, and called it New-Port Island. It was described as thickly wooded, with no sign of inhabitants. Two of these American discoveries were recorded by Edmund Fanning, 1838.

Six men and a woman, in a sailing canoe from Manihiki, were shipwrecked on Nassau about 1859 or 1860, and lived two years on the island until picked up by a passing ship. The account of them is given by Reverend W.W. Gill, who found traces of them when he landed in 1862. He planted several coconut palms, of which there previously had been only one.

The missionary ship John Williams touched there April 18, 1863, and again in 1875, when Captain Turpie planted 100 more coconuts. Revisiting Nassau in 1881, Reverend Gill found an American captain in possession. He had planted 14,000 coconuts, as well as sweet potatoes, taro, bananas, and breadfruit, and employed natives from Pukapuka.

A sketch survey of the island was made by a British ship in 1890, and the island was formally annexed to Great Britain in 1892.

Nassau was leased to the Samoan Shipping and Trading Co. about 1916, and was used for the production of copra. F.L. McFall was manager from 1921 to about 1926, when the company ceased activities. He entertained the writer on the island, February 26 to 28, 1924. He had 22 natives (including 16 men--Ellice, Gilbert and Samoan) working for him, as well as a Samoan wife and three children.

After being abandoned for some years, the camp was again occupied, there having been 30 Tokelau natives under a Captain Williams on the island in 1938.

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 5th February 2003)