Volume 95 1986 > Volume 95, No. 4 > Who really discovered Fakaofo..., by J. Huntsman, p 461-467
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Our title is a quote from H. E. Maude (1961:102), who goes on to say, “... we may never now know, though on the other hand further research may provide the answer tomorrow.” The thinking of most culture historians then and now would be that Polynesians “really discovered FAKAOFO”, but then Fakaofo sages might dispute this since, by their own accounts, their forebear came into being right there on the atoll; from a stranded fish emerged a maggot which was transformed into a man by a pecking plover. But then this was not exactly the issue which Maude was addressing; he was concerned with latter-day “discovery” by Western voyagers. Here we do not claim to provide the answer to the question posed in the title, but to revise the record of early Tokelau-European encounters along lines anticipated by Maude.

“Discoveries” of Fakaofo

The three atolls known as Tokelau today 1 — Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo — were never considered major “discoveries” of the era of Pacific exploration. Having no anchorages and no streams or pools of fresh water, they were not attractive to whalers; having few exportable resources, they were not attractive to exploiters. It is generally accepted that Atafu, the northernmost atoll, was the first sighted; H.M.S. Dolphin under the command of John Byron “discovered” the uninhabited atoll in June 1765 and named it Duke of York's Island (Gallagher 1964). Nukunonu was next “discovered” in 1791 by H.M.S. Pandora (Edwards and Hamilton 1915). Captain Edwards had gone to Atafu where the Bounty mutineers were rumoured to have sailed, but found no mutineers, nor anyone else for that matter, in the course of a thorough search. Coming upon Nukunonu, people were seen on the shore, but they fled across the lagoon presumably to avoid an encounter. The atoll was named Duke of Clarence's Island. By 1800, then, two of the three atolls were “discovered” and placed approximately at their actual positions.

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The self-proclaimed “discoverers” of Fakaofo are many: at least six captains of four nationalities between 1835 and mid-century (see Ward 1967). The claim now officially accepted is that of Captain Smith in the Bristol (Rhode Island) whaler General Jackson. Captain Smith defended his claimed February 1835 “discovery” against sceptics reporting that he “... touched at Duke of York's Island; recruited at Duke of Clarence's Island and discovered D'Wolf's Island [Fakaofo] a few hours later” (Bristol Gazette and Family Companion, November 7, 1835). His claim was later confirmed by Captain Crocker, also of the General Jackson, who, following in Smith's path, drew recognisable sketches of the three atolls in 1839 (Crocker nd.). This, as far as we know, is the first report that there are three atolls; for over 40 years it had been thought that there were only two. (Evidently the reports of Captains Smith and Crocker did not become current in light of the many subsequent claimants.)

Maude suggested that “What seems to have happened is that whenever Fakaofo was seen it was mistaken for Nukunono [sic] ... only slightly over thirty miles away and in nearly the same latitude” (Maude 1961:102). In a footnote he cites the visit with which we are concerned here — a lead which we gratefully acknowledge.

The Visit of the Schooner Dolphin

Hiram Paulding, in his published account of the Dolphin's cruise (1970[1831]), recounts at some length encounters with the “natives” at Duke of Clarence and Duke of York islands, as he called them. This was in 1825 and is the earliest known record of a Tokelau-European encounter, and therefore of more than passing interest. At what Paulding identifies as Duke of Clarence (Nukunonu), the people's reactions to their visitors were hardly those of the retiring people who avoided contact with Edwards' party 34 years before. The men of the island came directly out to the ship, paddling to keep pace with her progress along the shore. When thrown a rope, they motioned for more and when no more was forthcoming, gathered in as much as they could and cut it off. After attempting this ploy again without success, they paddled right up to the ship

... and one of them, who was a powerful man, came on board, without seeming to fear us in the least.... without taking the least notice of any body, he walked straight to the stern-netting, where he commenced most industriously to throw into his canoe everything that he could lay hands on (p.79).

Remonstrations from the crew were to no avail, so Paulding himself struck him “a slight blow” with a musket.

He seized the musket ... and would have taken me overboard with it, but for the timely assistance of those who were near. He made his escape before the men could get hold of him, having succeeded in throwing into - 463 his canoe the log-reel and line, besides a number of other articles ... (p.79).

Others came on board to plunder and those remaining in their canoes kept up with the ship as it sought anchorage without success,

... and growing bold with their numbers, frequently threw on board of the vessel clubs, cocoa-nuts, or whatever they had in their canoes, that could be used as missiles.... accompanied by such loud shouting ... that the orders for the ordinary duty of the vessel could not be heard (p.81).

When a boat was lowered the canoes retreated, but when it moved away from the ship it was quickly surrounded; the apparent intention was to entice or force the party ashore.

The officer in the boat made threats and signs for them to retire, to which they paid not the slightest attention. A canoe came on each side of the boat, and the natives laid hold of the oars, a man rising in each canoe at the same time, with a barbed spear, which he held in the attitude of throwing (p.83).

In the confusion pistols were discharged and one man was wounded in the hand. Nevertheless, when the boat was hoisted on board, the canoes came up to the ship again “with as much confidence, as though nothing of the kind had occurred”. Even the wounded man reappeared to be compensated for his injury with gifts and have it dressed. In the evening, a party sent ashore returned empty-handed having encountered a threatening party of “natives”. However one wishes to interpret the events reported, as warlike or merely self-assured and determined, these were not timid “natives” trembling before European might.

At the next island, identified as Duke of York (Atafu) by Paulding, the encounter was utterly different. There were no confident, aggressive displays. Two canoes only ventured out to the ship; only one man came alongside and after one barter transaction made for shore immediately. The people on shore made welcoming signs, but when a party went ashore “... they were very much afraid starting with every motion we made, and if we attempted to touch them, they ran from us, and became as shy as ever” (p.90). After several hours of tentative trading, and the presentation of a couple of pigs, the men only became more familiar and engaged in “deceitful” though not aggressive trade. The women and children appeared to have been removed to a floating refuge of outrigger canoes in the lagoon. Now these people seem to be acting like those that Edwards did not encounter at Duke of Clarence's Island.

Paulding expresses “not a little surprise” at finding Duke of York's Island inhabited, though he would not have been had he known Captain Macy of Nan- - 464 tucket had seen “natives on it” earlier in the same year (Reynolds 1835:19–20). But Paulding expresses no surprise at the aggressive behaviour of the people who had been reported as so timid at Duke of Clarence's Island. However, we found this rather incomprehensible, not only in light of Edwards' account but also in view of all the other accounts of early Tokelau-European encounters at the three atolls. The people of Duke of Clarence (Nukunonu) were, by Paulding's report, behaving in a most uncharacteristic manner — and so, for that matter, were the people of Duke of York (Atafu) if we considered later reports. In short, we suspected that the Dolphin and Paulding were not where they thought they were, and indeed when we examined the voyage of the Dolphin carefully other evidence convinced us that, just as Maude had suggested, Fakaofo had been mistaken for Nukunonu.

The Whereabouts of the Dolphin

1. The number of canoes and people reported: At the first atoll, Paulding wrote: “Nearly a hundred canoes were assembled, and in them several hundred men” (p.82), and on shore there was “a numerous group of men, women, and children, inviting our people to land” (p.82). Even allowing for some exaggeration, these numbers contrasted markedly with those given for the men on the second island who appeared not to “exceed fifteen” (p.90) and the general statement that the atoll was “thinly populated” (p.92). While Atafu, recently resettled at the time, would have been “thinly populated”, the number of canoes and men reported at the first island would be far in excess of any numbers ever reputed to be in Nukunonu.

2. The descriptions of the atolls: In the course of reconnoitring the first atoll, upon “passing the south-west point of the island, a beautiful little bay opened to our view, upon the shore of which the surf beat less violently then we had seen elsewhere” (p.81), while at the second, they “made sail along the land, towards the south end of the island.... When we got to the southward of the point, which was the lee side of the island, we hove to...” (p.88). Admittedly, both accounts seem somewhat odd, but the first could hardly apply to Nukunonu, which notably does not have a “south-west point”. More telling, however, are remarks about the lagoons. The second atoll is described as generally similar to the first “and comprehending within the chain [of islets] a lake [lagoon] of many miles in circumference” (p.90). The relative circumferences of the three atolls are roughly as follows: Nukunonu is half again larger than Fakaofo, and three times the size of Atafu (AJHR 1926). Viewed from offshore, Fakaofo and Nukunonu appear similar in size and configuration: the islets hazy in the distance across the lagoon, the gaps visible between islets, and the open northern treeless margin. Atafu is very different: the islets across the lagoon are clearly visible, seeming to stand just behind those close at hand, and, except for the eastern side, the islets appear to be nearly continuous. Furthermore, no one after viewing the Nukunonu lagoon would consider the Atafu lagoon large!

3. The voyage between the atolls: The Dolphin made her passage between the atolls in about eight hours and came upon the second “much sooner than we ex- - 465 pected...” (p.88). If the distance travelled was between Fakaofo and Nukunonu — 64 km, rather than between Nukunonu and Atafu — 92 km, the Dolphin would indeed have traversed the distance between them “much sooner than ... expected”.

Though we were persuaded that Paulding did not know where they were on the basis of a close examination of his account, we none the less sought independent confirmation. The correction of the record was crucial to our understanding of the character and relations between the three atolls (see Huntsman and Hooper 1985). Having obtained photocopies of the relevant pages of the unpublished log of the Dolphin (USS Dolphin, nd.), which contained a fuller navigational account of the ship's movements (though virtually nothing about the encounters), and the most recent hydrographic chart of Tokelau (1969), we prevailed upon Captain N. Baddeley to chart for us the Dolphin's route. The chart labels the atolls only by their Tokelau names, while the log gives the names that Europeans gave them. This, then, was a “blind test”.

Captain Baddeley reported that he found the log “not easy to follow” and noted “inconsistencies between the log and narrative.” However, he was able to chart the approximate route of the Dolphin between, if not around, the atolls (Fig. 1) and to give an expert opinion.

In general I think the DOLPHIN approached the Tokelau group from the NE'rd, stood off and on at FAKAOFO and anchored at NUKUNONU and thereafter carried out a search to the NW, which did not sight ATAFU.
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She then stood to the SE and after establishing her position by a re-sighting of NUKUNONU bore away to the NW'rd (personal communication).

On the chart, Captain Baddeley labelled Fakaofo as Duke of Clarence and Nukunonu as Duke of York. Lieut. Hiram Paulding stands corrected.

What initially aroused our suspicions about Paulding's account was that it did not correspond with the receptions accorded to other visitors at the two atolls named, as these are recorded both historically and ethnographically. The depiction of the behaviour of the “natives” of each atoll was out of character and indeed it turned out, on closer examination, to be misplaced. We do not claim to have discovered “Who really discovered Fakaofo...”, since Paulding and his companions did not realise where they were. For the moment at least, Captain Smith's “discovery” 10 years after the Dolphin's visit must be granted precedence, since he realised that he had “discovered” a third atoll. What is significant about Paulding's account is that it is the earliest record (so far) of Tokelau-European encounters. Placed correctly, it contrasts the character of two neighbouring and related atolls, and this contrast may be linked with their past and resonates through the intervening years to the present. The third atoll, Atafu (or Duke of York's), is of different character too, but then it was never confused with Fakaofo.


Our debt to H. E. Maude is obvious and acknowledged in the text. We are very grateful to the late Captain N. Baddeley, retired Auckland Harbourmaster, for willingly applying his expertise to our problem; to Dr Josephine Baddeley for arranging for her father to be our accomplice; and to Caroline Phillips and Andrée Brett for Figure 1.

  • Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1926. Tokelau (Union) Islands. A.–4D. Wellington, Government Printer.
  • Baddeley, Captain N., 1983. Personal communication.
  • Bristol Gazette and Family Companion, 1835. Vol.III, No.9 dated November 7. Bristol, Rhode Island.
  • Crocker, Stephen R., MS. nd. Journal of the “General Jackson”, 1836–9. Nicholson Collection, Providence (Rhode Island) Public Library.
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  • Edwards, E. and G. Hamilton, 1915. Voyage of H.M.S. “Pandora”.... London, Edwards.
  • Gallagher, Robert E. (ed.), 1964. Byron's Journal of his Circumnavigation 1764–1766. London, The Hakluyt Society.
  • Huntsman, Judith and Antony Hooper, 1985. Structures of Tokelau History, in A. Hooper and J. Huntsman (eds), Transformations of Polynesian Culture. Polynesian Society Memoir 45, Auckland.
  • Maude, H. E., 1961. Post-Spanish Discoveries in the Central Pacific. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 70:67–111.
  • Paulding, Lt. Hiram, U.S. Navy, 1970 [1831]. Journal of a Cruise of the United States Schooner Dolphin.... Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.
  • Reynolds, Jeremiah N., 1835. Letter to Secretary of the Navy, dated September 24, 1828, in United States Congress, 23rd Congress, House of Representatives, Document No.105.
  • USS Dolphin, MS. nd. Logbook entries for October 26, 1825, to November 2, 1825. United States National Archives, Washington.
  • Ward, R. Gerard. (ed.), 1967. American Activities in the Central Pacific, Vol.II. Ridgewood (N.J.), Gregg Press.
1   A fourth atoll, Olohega or Swain's Island, is not politically part of Tokelau today, though Tokelauans consider it historically part of Tokelau. Olohega does not figure in our argument.