A History of Niue in Brief
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 during early visits to the island, 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 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
For some fun points in Niue’s history, see the 10 Fun Facts About Niue.
Early Niuean History
Early Polynesians settled in Niue from Samoa around 900 AD and from Tonga during the 1500s. 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.
First European Contact with Niue
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.
The Arrival of the Missionaries
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 Tauei Fupiu (fort) that you can still visit today (see 10 Fascinating Historical Sites in Niue).
By the time famous congregationalist minister and a 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 the religions in Niue here.
The Fight for 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.
Since 1974, Niueans have had New Zealand citizenship where opportunities overseas have seen the population dramatically declined from around 5,200 in 1966 to around 1,600 in Niue today. Today, there are approximately 20,200 Niueans living in New Zealand.
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 killing two people. 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 10 Reasons to Visit Niue.