A Brief History of Niue© NiuePocketGuide.com
A Brief History of Niue

A Brief History of Niue

© NiuePocketGuide.com

A Quick History of Niue

Not many people seem to know about Niue today, let alone its history. With no written records of Niue’s history before European contact, little is known about Niue’s history except what early missionaries could learn, what oral history has been passed down through generations, as well as what archaeological sites can tell us. Nevertheless, what we do know is a colourful history of Niue being branded the “Savage Island” by early explorers, a history of a democratic elective monarchy, Niue becoming a part of New Zealand and then becoming the self-governing state it is today. We go over it all in brief in this brief history of Niue.

Before we get into our short guide to the history of Niue, be sure to bookmark The Guide to the Niuean Culture for Travellers for advice on the local customs and cultural experiences.

A Brief Timeline of Niue’s History

900 AD – Samoan settlers arrive in Niue
1500s – Tongan settlers arrive in Niue
1700s – A kingship is established
1774 – Captain James Cook attempts to land on the island (and fails)
1830 – The first missionaries arrive
1846 – Nukai Peniamina converts his village to Christianity
1861 – It is established that almost all Niueans have become Christians
1900 – Niue becomes a British colony
1901 – Niue becomes a part of New Zealand
1974 – Niue becomes a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand
2004 – Cycle Heta hits Niue
2019-2022 – Niue shuts its borders to tourists during the COVID-19 pandemic.
2020 – Niue is made the world’s first Dark Sky Nation.

For some fun points in Niue’s history, see the 10 Fun Facts About Niue.

A Brief History of Niue© NiuePocketGuide.com

Polynesian Settlement: Who First Settled Niue?

Early Polynesians settled in Niue from Samoa around 900 AD and from Tonga during the 1500s.

Early History of Niue

Early life on the islands had no national government or ruler, just chiefs or heads of the family. However, a notion of kingship developed in the 1700s, influenced by Tongan settlers, with a succession of patu-iki (kings) ruling the island. The patu-iki were elected by the Niuean population.

Puni-mata was said to be the first patu-iki with the final patu-iki being Togia-Pulu-toaki, who was king until 1900 when he ceded to the British Empire.

More about Niue’s early history and archaeological artefacts can be found at Fale Tau Taogo Niue, the national museum, located along Halamahaga Road in Alofi. Find out more in the 5 Best Museums & Art Galleries in Niue.

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European Contact

The first European contact with Niue began when British explorer, James Cook, attempted to land on the island in 1774. He tried to land at Opaahi in today’s Alofi three times but was chased away by locals. The explorer then dubbed the island “Savage Island”. While the locals were said to be performing a traditional challenge, it was interpreted as a hostile reception.

The island’s nickname scared off many other boats, except for the occasional whaling vessel throughout the 1800s.

Missionary Influence in Niue

The first European missionaries to arrive on the island was a group from the London Missionary Society on the Messenger of Peace in 1830. However, they initially failed to convert the Niueans to Christianity.

Niueans didn’t convert to Christianity until one of their own people, Nukai Peniamina, left for Samoa where he was converted. When he returned to Niue in 1846, he converted his village of Mutalau. The chiefs of the village protected Peniamina with the Taue i Fupiu (fort) that you can still visit today (see the 10 Fascinating Historical Sites in Niue).

By the time a famous congregationalist minister and missionary, George Lawes, arrived in Niue in 1861, almost all of the population of Niue welcomed him as devout Christians. It is believed that only eight Niueans on the island by that time were non-Christians.

Learn more about Niue’s religious affiliations today in The Guide to the Religions in Niue.

A Brief History of Niue(c) niuepocketguide.com

The Road to Self-Government

Niue became a British colony in 1900 and then was brought within the boundaries of New Zealand in 1901 along with the Cook Islands.

Niue pressured New Zealand for self-government after World War Two but, with financial aid from New Zealand and family remittances, they did not rush for self-government until 1974 when Niue became a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand. Learn more about what that means in our guide, Who Owns Niue? The Political Status of Niue.

Since 1974, Niueans have had New Zealand citizenship where opportunities overseas have seen the population dramatically decline from around 5,200 in 1966 to around 1,500 in Niue today. Today, there are approximately 30,870 Niueans living in New Zealand. Find out more about the population structure in Who are the People of Niue?

A Brief History of Niue© NiuePocketGuide.com

Recent History in Niue

A significant moment in Niue’s recent history is when Cyclone Heta struck in January 2004, wiping out the old town of Alofi and causing two fatalities. The town has since been moved to a safer location.

Today, many traditions are still upheld in Niue as outlined in The Guide to the Niuean Culture for Travellers, while the Christian faith is still an important part of the Niuean lifestyle.

The country runs off agriculture, aid from New Zealand, and the growing tourism industry. The latter you can find out more about across Niue Pocket Guide, starting with the 10 Reasons to Visit Niue.

More About the History of Niue

That’s it for our brief history of Niue. For more about the history of Niue, take a look at the following guides:

Finally, if there’s anything we’ve missed, you’re likely to find it in The Guide to the Niuean Culture for Travellers.


Laura S.

This article was reviewed and published by Laura, editor in chief and co-founder of Niue Pocket Guide. Since arriving solo in the South Pacific over 10 years ago with nothing but a backpack and a background in journalism, her mission has been to show the world how easy (and awesome) it is to explore a paradise such as Niue. She knows the island inside-out and loves sharing tips on how best to experience Niue’s must-dos and hidden gems. Laura is also editor of several other South Pacific travel guides.

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