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SWAINS ISLAND

Presented by Jane Resture

Swains Island lies 663 nautical miles south of the equator, 100 miles south of Fakaofu (now Fakaofo), 170 miles north and a little east of Apia, Samoa, 200 miles north and a little west of Pago Pago, and 310 miles west of Pukapuka (Danger Islands).

The island is a ring of sand and coral, a mile and a half east and west, a mile wide, and nowhere more than 20 feet high, surrounding a shallow lagoon, which is only slightly brackish, with no surface connection with the sea. Most of the land, from the crest of the narrow ocean beach to the very edge of the lagoon, is thickly covered with vegetation, about 800 acres of coconut palms and various trees and shrubs found widespread in the Pacific.

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Besides the present official name of Swains Island, the island is also known by its native Tokelau name of Olosenga (or Olohega), and as Quiros Island, Gente Hermosa, and Jennings Island. These names outline its long and varied history.

Its earliest history is a mixture of Tokelau legend and the sketchy account of the famous Portuguese navigator of Spanish vessels, Pedro Fernandes de Quiros, who discovered what is supposed to be this island, March 2, 1606. He describes a people so attractive that he named the place Isle de la Gente Hermosa, "the island of handsome people."

Shortly after this, Olosenga was conquered by an expedition from Fakaofu; the brave and handsome men were killed or driven from the island, and some of the beautiful, fair-skinned women were taken back to Fakaofu as wives. But the chief of Olosenga left a curse on the island, so it is said. When colonists came from Fakaofu, a drought struck the island, famine followed, fishing near shore became poor, and the people died of starvation.

Captain Hudson, of the U.S. Exploring Expedition's ship Peacock, learning of the island in Samoa from a whaling captain named Swain, visited it and surveyed the outer edge, February 1 to 4, 1841, but was unable to land because of stormy weather. He reported no inhabitants on the island; and finding the position quite different from that given by Quiros, he named it Swains Island. Shortly after this a new colony was founded from Fakaofu; but they were scarcely established before three Frenchmen landed, as agents for a French company, to make coconut oil.

On October 13, 1856, Eli Hutchinson Jennings, an American, born November 14, 1814, at Southampton, Long Island, N.Y. landed and he founded a unique little community, now in its third generation. In Samoa he had married Malia, a native woman of rank. He claimed to have acquired title to the island from Captain Turnbull, an Englishman, who said he had discovered the island.

Eli, Jr. was born on the island, January 1, 1863, and inherited it after the death of his father, December 4, 1878, and his mother, October 25, 1891. Under his management the coconut plantation prospered. So much so, that in September, 1909, the Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu) visited Swains Island and demanded $85.00 tax. Jennings paid the money, but appealed to the American Consul at Apia, who in turn took the matter up with the U.S. State Department. The tax money was returned. This was the first of several international episodes involving Swains Island.

Upon the death of Eli, Jr., October 24, 1920, the island was left jointly to his daughter Ann Eliza and son Alexander. The daughter had married a British subject, Irving H. Carruthers, who had been named executor and trustee, and they lived in Apia. In 1921, Mr. Carruthers was unable to probate the will, as Apia no longer had an American Consul, and the British court would not handle the matter. The situation was further complicated by the death of his wife in August, 1921.

In order to settle the matter of ownership, Alexander Jennings appealed to the Naval government of Pago Pago, and later through them to the U.S. Secretary of State and the President of the United States. On March 4, 1925, by Joint Resolution of the U.S. Congress, American sovereignty was officially extended the island, and it was placed under jurisdiction of the government of American Samoa.

Alexander Jennings, the then managing owner, was a robust, kindly man of middle age, quite well educated and capable. He was half Caucasian and half Samoan. He married Margaret Pedro, a quiet, attractive, intelligent woman, part Spanish and Portuguese and part Tokelau, born on Fakaofu. Through the relationship with American Samoa, Mr. Jennings had been able to market his copra in Pago Pago, where a fair price was paid for it. His chief worry was over transportation, for there was no safe anchorage at Swains Island for a vessel. 

The native population of the island was limited to about 100, although many more would have liked to come there from Tokelau group. It consisted of plantation workmen and their families. They lived in a neat little village at the west end, called Taulanga, where copra was dried and shipped, a meeting house, and a church, the pastor also being the school teacher. The men worked five days a week, went fishing or tended their own gardens, or played cricket on Saturday; and there were two church services on Sunday. There were about 500 pigs and numerous chickens at large on the island, but these were killed only by permission of Mr. Jennings.

A belt road circles the island, about half way between sea and lagoon. Along this ran an ancient Ford truck, collecting coconuts and carrying workmen and supplies. The Jennings family lived in a frame house about 3/4 mile down the road from the village, on the south side. The spot was called "Etena" (Eden), but it was more generally referred to as "The Residency." A power-driven generator supplied electricity for lights and radio. Swimming in the lagoon was available from a short pier. The edge of the lagoon is shallow, but parts of it reach a depth of 8 fathoms (48 feet).

Periodic visits are paid by the station ship from Pago Pago; and of recent years U.S. coast guard and naval vessels have stopped on their routine trips south. The lagoon may be too small for seaplanes; but the island is certainly one of the most beautiful and picturesque under the American flag. Were it not for the mosquitoes and small flies, it would be quite an island paradise.

                  

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 10th June 2009)