Niue, known as ‘the rock’, lies 2,400 km north-east of New Zealand’s Cape Rēinga. At 259 sq km and with a high point of 68 m above sea level, it is one of the world’s largest uplifted atolls. The British gifted Niue to New Zealand in 1901 for services during the South African War, but New Zealand administration frustrated many Niueans. Facing petty laws (including curfews and alcohol bans) and a subsistence lifestyle, Niueans looked to Niu Silani (New Zealand) as a land of opportunity. Niue’s main export became its people.
When 150 Niuean First World War troops landed for training in Auckland in 1915, they were greeted by the few Niueans who lived there. The 1936 census recorded 54 Niue-born residents in New Zealand. It was around this time that chain migration began, where family members established themselves in New Zealand so that others could follow. By 1943 the population had increased to 200. They grouped around the Auckland suburbs of Freemans Bay, Grey Lynn and Parnell. There, well-dressed men met in hotels to speak their native Niuean and sample the vai mamali (‘smiling water’).
In the First World War, 150 Niueans volunteered for active service. The majority had never been out of the tropics or eaten palagi (western) food. They spoke no English and had never worn shoes. In 1916, after training for three months at Narrow Neck camp in Auckland, they were dispatched to Egypt and France with the New Zealand Māori Contingent. Theirs is not a battlefield story; it is one of body and climate shock – 82% were hospitalised and many died as they had no immunity to European diseases. Returned soldiers had been exposed to a much wider world, and although most settled back on Niue, some grew footloose and migrated.
When tropical cyclones battered Niue in 1959 and 1960, new houses were built with New Zealand aid. But the introduction of modern conveniences changed Niuean attitudes. During the 1960s hundreds turned their backs on villages and bush gardens: ‘whole families flew away, wrote back and encouraged the others to follow’. 1 This exodus was fuelled by the opening of Niue’s airport in 1971. And when Niue became self-governing in 1974, many Niueans hurried over, mistakenly thinking that they would no longer be able to enjoy residency rights in New Zealand.
Migration only slowed as numbers on Niue dwindled. The population had peaked at 5,200 in 1966; by 2003 Niue’s government estimated it at 1,700 (others put it as low as 1,300). In contrast, there were 14,424 Niueans in New Zealand in 1991; by 2013 there were 23,883 – just under 80% were New Zealand-born. Niueans represent about 9% of New Zealand’s Pacific population. They rarely return to the atoll, and although they can draw a New Zealand pension in Niue, few take this option.
Niue’s depopulation has taken its toll on traditional village life, as the journalist Vaughan Yarwood reported in 1997:
‘House after house stands empty amid the vibrant greenery, their windows staring blankly across overgrown yards or hammered shut with sheets of rusting iron. So many families have left the island that, on the rugged and exposed east coast especially, the villages seem at first sight to have suffered an outbreak of pestilence or some other natural calamity’. 2
A cyclone in January 2004 means that emigration may continue to increase. Cyclone Heta’s 300 km/hr winds and 30 m waves devastated the island, destroying crops, reefs and buildings. Niueans face the difficult choice of rebuilding or leaving for New Zealand. The collective choices of individuals prove critical – if too many leave, the island’s population may fall to a level that is unable to support itself.
Niue pins its hopes for a viable economic future on tourism, fisheries and vanilla production. Remittances, so important to island relatives, have recently declined.
Unlike many other Pacific peoples Niueans did not group together, but dispersed throughout Auckland’s inner suburbs. When they gathered, it was mainly for marriages, deaths and coming-of-age ceremonies, when boys had their hair cut and girls their ears pierced. The magafaoa (extended family) made decisions and functioned as the primary social group.
In the 2000s Niueans were highly urbanised and disproportionately young – 39% were under 15 in 2013. While most early migrants were blue-collar workers, today’s New Zealand-born Niueans are more likely to have office jobs.
Niueans are in the main a religious people – a legacy of the London Missionary Society’s activities on the atoll from 1846. Niue’s main church, the Ekalesia Niue (Christian Church of Niue), was founded by the society, which established a New Zealand branch in 1994.
In 2013, 66% of New Zealand Niueans (most of them older or Niuean-born) were actively involved with church groups. Major denominations were Presbyterianism (27%) and Catholicism (9%).
Between 1846 and 1890 missionaries on Niue formalised the alphabet, translating the Bible (Ko e Tohi Tapu) and a hymn book (Ko e Tau Lologo Tapu). Efforts to preserve the language continued in New Zealand in the 20th century with the publication of a dictionary and revised hymnbook.
Unlike many Pacific peoples, Niueans did not initially give Niuean names to new objects based on the sound of English words. Instead, they invented names in terms that were meaningful to them. Examples include vakalele (flying canoe) for aeroplane, vaka-tavilivili (whirling canoe) for helicopter, mama pala (damp lungs) for tuberculosis, and mata-afi (fire fragment) for matches.
Retaining the language depends on the New Zealand Niuean population learning and practising it. Some New Zealand schools have had Niuean language materials since 1983. By the 1990s some early childhood centres and primary schools offered Niuean language programmes, and language guidelines were established for the New Zealand curriculum in 2003. Pockets of native-language speakers flourished in the community in Auckland and Wellington.
English has increasingly become the language spoken by New Zealand Niueans. Only 18% spoke their own language proficiently in 2013, down from 32% in 1996. Fears that the Niuean language might disappear, even on Niue itself, led in 2001 to the establishment of the Niue Foundation, which lobbies for government resources to promote language and culture.
Although Niue has fewer than 500 rugby players, the nation has competed on the world sevens circuit. Many participants are based in New Zealand, and some play for their adopted country – the famous All Black centre Frank Bunce is Niuean–Samoan. Other popular sports include kilikiti (Niuean cricket), netball and softball.
Despite being one of the world’s smallest rugby-playing nations, in 2003 the Niue sevens team beat both Japan and the US. But their debut at the 2001 Wellington Sevens was inauspicious, as rugby union president Toke Talagi recalls:
‘The problem the boys had in Wellington was that they were awestruck in front of the 35,000 screaming fans. … If you assembled the whole of our nation’s population in one place, they would only make up one small section of the crowd. And they also knew they were live on TV back home in Niue. So they dropped the ball so many times because they were nervous and a bit unfit’. 1
School students practise Niuean dances and songs in the lead-up to Polynesian festivals. Women keep alive the traditional skills of weaving and creating adornments, often experimenting with new materials such as plastic bread bags and nylon. In the arts, John Pule has established himself as both a writer and a printmaker – his novel The shark that ate the sun (1992) describes the journey, difficulties and bonds of a migrant Niuean family. Popular hip hop artist Che Fu draws heavily on his Niuean–Māori heritage for inspiration.
Niueans have a foot in two nations. Concerns for their island’s future and the survival of its language and culture are keenly felt, both by those in New Zealand and the one in fifteen who still live on Polynesia’s ‘rock’.
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of New Zealand residents born in Niue.
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
Chapman, Terry, and others. Niue: a history of the island. Alofi: Government of Niue; Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 1982.
Pointer, Margaret. Tagi tote e loto haaku/My heart is crying a little: Niue Island involvement in the great war, 1914-1918. Alofi: Government of Niue; Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 2000.
Pule, John. The shark that ate the sun. Auckland: Penguin, 1992.
Scott, Dick. Would a good man die?: Niue Island, New Zealand and the late Mr Larsen. Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton/Southern Cross, 1993.