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The Peruvian blackbirders caused
a catastrophic loss of young men from the islands of Tokelau.
It was a loss that changed forever the character of this Island Group.

Presented by Jane Resture

The three permanently inhabited atolls of this isolated group lie in a line running south-east to north-west, Fakaofo, the most easterly island, being 270 miles north of Upolu in Samoa, with Nukunonu, the central island, about thirty-five miles to the north-west and Atafu, the western island, at least another forty-five miles away. The land area of each atoll is small, and consists of a number of islets surrounding a lagoon without any reliable boat passage: Atafu, the smallest, having a total area of about 502 acres; Fakaofo has about 612 acres of land, and Nukunonu about 650 acres. The best estimate of the population in 1863, immediately before the Peruvian raids, is 261 for Fakaofo, and 140 each for Nukunonu and Atafu.

Approximately half-way between Samoa and the three atolls is a fourth island, Olosenga (also called Olohega, Quiros or Swains Island), which geographically, though no longer politically, forms part of the Tokelau Group. Although regarded by the Tokelau people as under the suzerainty of Fakaofo an American, Eli Hutchinson Jennings, settled there in 1856 and developed the existing coconut plantations for his own benefit. Known as Ilae, or Ilai, by the islanders he is described in a Fakaofo account as 'cruel' and 'exceedingly brutal'.

Tokelau Map

Click on the above for a larger map
of Niue, Samoa and the Tokelau Islands.

The people traditionally live together in a single village on each atoll, probably to facilitate control over their limited food resources. The proximity of the three atolls to each other resulted in a good deal of inter-island canoe sailing. Not all voyages were successful due to sudden storms or changes of wind.

When the London Missionary Ship John Williams visited all four Tokelau Islands between the 19th and the 31st January just prior to the arrival of the recruiting vessel from Peru, it also returns the passengers of six canoes who had drifted to Apia after starting out on an inter-island voyage in the Tokelaus.


On the 9th February 1863, both the Missionary vessel John Williams and the blackbirding vessel Rosa Patricia left Apia with the Peruvian vessel being seen making for the Tokelaus. The Rosa Patricia called at Olosenga where her supercargo Pitman signed on Eli Hutchinson Jennings as a recruiter. According to Tokelau tradition Jennings was accompanied by a Fakaofo labourer on Olosenga who helped to persuade his fellow islanders to recruit.

It seems likely that Pitman was advised in Apia to try and secure the services of Jennings as he spoke the Tokelau dialect and he was known to and trusted by the people. In all probability, Pitman offered Jennings ten dollars a head for recruits.


The Rosa Patricia arrived at Fakaofo from Olosenga on the 12th February 1863. Her crew landed armed with guns and swords, and selected sixteen of the strongest men to add to the 40 Niueans and 5 from Atiu already on board; as soon as these were safely in the hole, she sailed off.

Not long after this the Rosa y Carmen arrived from Atafu and chose a further 44 men for embarkation. Several were ill with dysentery, which soon spread among the other overcrowded and underfed passengers. Captain Marutani evidently changed his mind about taking only men from Fakaofo as he sent his tender the brig Micaela Miranda back to the island to pick up the women. She returned with four men and 76 women and children who were all transferred to the Rosa y Carmen before the latter finally left the group.

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Fakaofo village, Tokelau Islands

Samoan mission teacher Mafala who, with his colleague Sakaio, was resident on the island throughout the period mentions that four other recruiting vessels called later, and these could have been the Guillermo in February, and the Dolores Carolina, Polynesia and Honorio on their way to the southern Tuvalu Islands. No other Peruvian ships are known to have been in the locality at this time.`

fakaofo children

Twenty-six years later; the children left behind on Fakaofo reached maturity.
From: The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1892).

The Rosa y Carmen called at Tutuila and landed six Fakaofoans with dysentery, of whom three died almost immediately from the disease. The brother of the chief of Fakaofo and his son were two of the three who survived the return home. It appears that only sixty people (9 men, 30 women and 21 children) were left on the island out of the 261 alive when the John Williams arrived on the 23rd January 1863. Due to the paucity of young adult males, those who were capable fathered numerous children, the chief's brother by five different women. As a result, the missionary A.W. Murray was able to report in 1868 that although the population was still under 200 and the total of adult males comparatively small, the number of children and young people gave the impression of "quite a thriving community".


A knowledge of the activities of the Peruvian recruiters on Nukunonu is dependent on the fact that the Reverend P.G. Bird of Savai'i was visiting Nukunonu when five men, five women and some children arrived from Nukunonu in two or three canoes lashed together to form a raft including Ulua, the chief.

They reported that five Peruvian vessels had called at the island. The first arrival took sixty people, the second six and the third ten. Although the evidence is not conclusive, it seemed most probable that the first ship was the Guillermo, the second the Rosa Patricia and the third the Rosa y Carmen. The total taken from Nukunonu to Peru would appear to have been 76 with 80 people left on the island.


Atafu was a wholly Protestant island, the people having been converted by Maka and another Samoan teacher left by the London Missionary Society, Samuel Ella of Samoa in 1861. By far the most detailed account of the Peruvian visits are to be found in letters written by Maka himself to the Reverends H. Gee, P.G. Bird and H. Nisbet. 

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Atafu Atoll, Tokelau Islands.

The Rosa Patricia arrived at Atafu on 16th February and Eli Jennings the recruiter embarked at Olosenga showing those who came on board samples of cloth, shirts and trousers, inviting the islanders to bring their coconuts and fowls to the ship to barter for them. The chief Foli (called Oli by the Rarotongan Maka) and 36 other men went on board; only two of them reached the shores again discharged as being too old and weak. After questioning the two men, Maka wrote the letter below to Henry Gee the same evening:  

Sir, all the people of this land are carried off. They have taken the chief Oli, who was in Samoa, and 34 other men. All that now remain here are women and children and six male adults...Such, Sir, has been the cruelty of the ship to the people of this land. The good work which had begun on this island is now destroyed. Had we known the character of this vessel, no-one would have gone aboard. We are startled that such a thing should be done to these people. Two men who were returned to the shore by the captain, told us that when the people reached the ship with their things for sale, one of the crew collected these things together. Then the captain said to the men, "Go and look at the cloth for your purchases". But this was the contrivance of the captain: he placed some things in the hold of the vessel - the best of the cloth, red cloth, and shirts, and trousers, and white and blue calico; and some things he kept on deck. Then the captain said to the men, "look for the cloth on deck and that in the hold, and see which to choose". Some of the people were looking at the cloth in the hold, then all went below. The captain told them to go below, and all went down. Then one of the crew gave them wrappers and shirts, and trousers and hats to put on. So the men rejoiced that they had got some clothing to attend worship in. But some of the crew were hidden in the hold armed with cutlasses. They were hidden so that the people did not know that they were there. All these things the captain had arranged. None remained on deck except the chief; he continued on deck. He called down to his people to return to the deck, and not remain below lest they should injure anything in the vessel. The chief was standing over the hatchway, when some of the crew seized him and threw him down into the hold and he fell into the middle of the hold. Then the hatchway was immediately closed down upon them all. These two men also told me they saw one of the people struck down by the crew with a sword. They saw the blood flow like water. They do not know if he was killed for the ship hastened off.

Sir, there is nothing that we do now but mourn and weep for our island is destroyed. But we think now that they had taken all the strong people of this land, they will return with the ship to fetch the women and children. This is my enquiry, what shall we do if the ship comes again? Tell us what to do, lest the vessel quickly returns.

This is the end of my letter. 

The evidence indicates that 37 people, all men, were taken from Atafu and six males left, through age and infirmity, to look after their families. This is in substantial agreement with the total of about 30 given to the Reverend A.W. Murray in 1868.

atafu women

The generation who lost their fathers: young women of Atafu in 1886.
From F. J. Moss: Through Atolls and Islands ... (London 1889) NL

As the four blackbirding ships left the Tokelaus, their captains could congratulate themselves on having carried off the best of the able-bodied population of the three atolls within a few days and with very little trouble: Fakaofo had lost 140 people, Nukunonu 76, and Atafu 37 (all men), a total of 253. This figure represents 47 per cent of the estimated population when the raiders arrived, but probably close to a 100 per cent of the able-bodied male.

On the four atolls of the Tokelaus, the nature and extent of the catastrophe was immediately apparent. It was in the three Tokelaus (as well as the two Tuvalu Islands, Funafuti and Nukulaelae) that the shock was most severe. The effect was summarised in the words of Maka, the Samoan pastor on Atafu, written immediately after the able-bodied men on the island had been taken away. 

It is most piteous to witness the grief of these women and children. They are weeping night and day; they do not eat, there is none left to provide food for them or to climb the coconut trees. They will perish with hunger...Another event occurred to the wife of the chief; in her misery she prematurely gave birth to a child. She felt no pain from the intensity of her grief for the loss of her husband, her son and her people.

In the Tokelaus, where all three atolls had been depleted of their population, the overall pattern is characterised by immigration, very little emigration and a high rate of growth. The immigrants, many of them capable begetters, were expatriates: Portuguese, German, Scottish and French, as well as islanders from Samoa, New Zealand, Uvea, Tuvalu and Ontong Java, combining to make an improbable bizarre genetic mixture.

Hehe a Afora of Fakaofo:
The last surviving slave photographed in 1921.

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(E-mail: -- Rev. 23rd January 2005)