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Nukunono (now called Nukunonu) or Duke of Clarence Island is the center atoll of the Tokelau or Union group. According to the charts it lies 546 to 554 nautical  miles north of the equator, 45 miles southeast of Atafu, and 35 miles W.N.W. of Fakaofu (now called Fakaofo). Gordon Macgregor states that it is 60 miles N.W. of Fakaofu, and that local ship captains say the map position is from 14 to 16 miles too far east, as they have to make a correction accordingly when laying a course for the island. However, this may be due to the swift and variable ocean currents in the vicinity, it being thought that the charts are correct.

The island is a low coral atoll, the reef of which shaped like a conventional shield, measuring 8 miles north and south by 7 miles greatest width. Along this reef are scattered 24 islets. Nine of these, including the largest, which is nearly 4 miles long by 1/4 to 1/3 mile wide, are on the eastern side; another 9 are on the west, and the remaining 6, all small, are on the south. There are no islets on the north, which is a bare reef, awash at low tide.

The atoll is said to have a land area of 1,350 acres. Most of the islets are covered with groves of coconut palms and low trees and shrubs, of kinds listed for Atafu. The sea birds, hermit crabs, rats, and insects are thought to be about the same as on other similar central Pacific islands; and there is abundant marine life about the fringing reef, and in the shallow lagoon, which contains reefs and coral heads.

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In 1932 Macgregor obtained 92 place names on the atoll, 60 of which were on the largest islet, which does not have an individual name. The names on the above map are from his list.

The village of Nukunono is on the southwest side, on the south end of the second largest islet of the atoll. There is only one well, and because of this lack of adequate water supply, the population has always been relatively small, in 1925 numbering 227. When the well dries up and there is no rain, the natives must rely on coconuts to drink. All of the inhabitants are Roman Catholics, and their church is a conspicuous structure just northwest of the village.

There is no anchorage, and no passage leads through the reef to the village. The sea here is not so rough, and the native canoes jump the reef. Formerly there was a passage through to the lagoon, but this was filled by a hurricane. In 1914 another hurricane made a deep cut through the southern end of Nukunono islet, forming the little islet of Motusanga.

The southeast trade winds blow over the Tokelau Islands for more than half the year, from March to October, keeping the temperature from becoming too high, despite the direct rays of the tropical sun. During the balance of the year, which is their summer, the winds are from the north or variable, with calms, during which it is hot. The rainfall may exceed 100 inches some years, but is usually less. It comes from daily showers, during the trade wind season, and occasional tropical storms. From the end of November to March the rainfall may be light, with periods of drought; but this is the hurricane season, and there may be torrential downpours in these months.

The ocean currents change with the seasonal winds. During the trade wind period the set is from east to west, with a drift which may reach several knots. In midsummer (December or January) the current changes, coming from the north, running southeastward, about parallel to the line of the three islands, turning eastward of Fakaofu.

Nukunono was inhabited at an early date by a Polynesian people of fine physique, according to tradition, which states that they furnished the first settler of Fakaofu with a wife. All but a few of these early people were destroyed or driven away by conquerors from Fakaofu, under a chief named Te Vaka, about 1650. The rest became subject to Fakaofu, and were gradually absorbed by its people.

The first account of European contact was the discovery, June 12, 1791, by Captain Edward Edwards, of H.M.S. Pandora, British naval frigate in search of mutineers of the Bounty. He called the atoll Duke of Clarence Island. Lieutenant Paulding visited it on the American ship Dolphin, October 29, 1825. The Peacock and Flying Fish, of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, visited the atoll January 28, 1841; surveyed the coast, but did not land. All three of the Tokelau islands were claimed by American guano companies, but there is no record of their having made use of them.

The Roman Catholic religion was taken to Nukunono, before 1858, by a native convert, named Justin, who had been for some years with the Mission in Samoa. His simple teaching so inspired the natives that many went to Samoa to learn more and to be baptised. When the ship John Williams, of the London Missionary Society, visited the island in 1858, they found the people already converted to Catholicism, and went on to Atafu. In 1863, Father Ellory of Samoa visited Nukunono and found Justin virtually a chief, and the inhabitants Christians, but in great fear of raids by South American vessels, kidnapping natives as labourers. So many were taken that by 1868 only 80 of the inhabitants were left, most of them women.  

The British flag was hoisted and protectorate proclaimed June 21, 1889, by Commander Oldham, of H.M.S. Egeria. The island was mapped by the British vessel Goldfinch in 1896. From 1916 to 1925 it was administered from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now Kiribati and Tuvalu). Since 1925 the Administration of Western Samoa, a New Zealand mandate, has had charge.

All of the government in the Tokelau Islands is handled by native officials. Each island has a magistrate (faipule), a mayor (pulenu'u), a chief of police and one or two policemen (leoleo). About once a year a member of the Native Office of Samoa visits the islands to attend to the most important matters.

Each village has a native council (fono), of which the magistrate is head. These men determine all matters of village government and policy. The women have a committee, presided over by the pastor's wife, which inspects daily the sanitation of the houses and the health of small children. Each village has a nurse, and there is a native medical practitioner for the group, with hospital at Atafu.

Much of this material has been condensed from Gordon Macgregor's "Ethnology of Tokelau Islands," B.P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 146, 1937.

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 30th December 2003)