Niue — History and Culture
The ancestors of the presently peaceful people of Niue forced Captain James Cook to turn back all three times he landed on the island in 1774 by painting their teeth red. Fortunately, ‘Savage Island’ (the name Cook gave to the island) no longer applies today. Nowadays, the easiest places for tourists to experience traditional island culture are the weekly fiafia nights that Hakupu village hosts each Wednesday.
Although oral legends state the Fonuagalo fire gods were Niue’s first settlers, the island’s first recorded residents were Samoans who arrived in around the 10th century, followed by Tongan invaders during the 16th century. There were also a handful of settlers from the Cook Islands community of Pukapuka.
Aside from chiefs who led small villages, the island had no clear government or leader until the early 18th century, when Puni-mata became the first of the island’s putu-iki, or kings. Captain James Cook, the first known European to try to enter Niue, was turned away from the island no fewer than three times by locals with red painted teeth who feared the foreign diseases which had killed so many people on other South Pacific islands. Cook did, however, manage to stay on the island long enough to take special note of the spectacular Talava Arches (Northern Niue).
Niue’s next known European visitor, missionary John Williams, received no warmer a welcome during his attempted 1830 visit to the ‘Savage Island.’ Several Samoan pastors finally managed to convert the islanders to Christianity during the late 1840s. In 1861, English missionary George Laws became one of the first Europeans to receive a warm welcome on the island. Tui-toga became Niue’s first Christian king in 1875 and his reign lasted until 1887.
Many Niuean kings held their important meetings beneath the Avaiki Cave (Northwest Niue), among the biggest and most impressive of the island’s countless caverns. In 1887, King Fataaiki asked Queen Victoria to place the island under British protection, but Niue did not become British territory until 1900. New Zealand annexed the island the following year, but Niue continues to be administered as a separate territory.
The elected Fono Ekepule legislative assembly, who meet in Alofi’s Fale Fono, replaced an appointed island council in 1959. In 1974, Niue officially became an autonomous self-governing territory with free association with New Zealand. New Zealand still handles all military and foreign affairs on the island, whose residents are full citizens of New Zealand.
Apart from the devastating Cyclone Heta which left 200 people homeless in 2004, Niue’s biggest worry in recent years is its rapidly declining population, most of whom have left the island to seek employment in New Zealand. The island’s present population of 1,400 is a far cry from the 5,200 people who lived here in 1966. Only time will tell whether tourism will help to boost both Niue’s population and economy.
The people of Niue are far more welcoming toward tourists today than they were back when they drove Captain James Cook off their island three times in 1774. Today, the locals are more than happy to display their proud culture every Wednesday night in Hakupu village. This traditional fiafia night is filled with song, dance, and a gigantic kai feast of coconut crab and organic vegetables prepared in an umu pit. Hakupu women display and sell their handmade hats, bowls, placemats, jewelry, fans, and artwork.
Houses with tin roofs and concrete blocks replaced traditional island homes with thatched roofs during the 1960s, and only one-quarter of Niueans living abroad remain fluent in their ancestral language. However, islanders still practice their traditional hair-cutting ceremonies for teenage boys, ear-piercing ceremonies for teenage girls, and burial of the dead behind family homes.