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Tokelau, which comprises three atolls, was first settled by Polynesians around A.D. 1000. The three atolls operated relatively independently but had contact with one another, intermarrying and occasionally fighting wars. Fakaofo Atoll eventually subjugated the other two. British explorer John BYRON was the first European to see Atafu Atoll in 1765. British naval officer Edward EDWARDS saw Nukunonu Atoll in 1791, and ships occasionally continued to pass by Atafu and Nukunonu. In 1835, a US whaling ship became the first non-Pacific island ship to pass by Fakaofo. Catholic and Protestant missionaries arrived in 1845 and converted the population on the islands on which they landed. To this day, Nukunonu is predominantly Catholic while Atafu is mostly Protestant; Catholic and Protestant missionaries both worked in Fakaofo, and the population there is more mixed.

In 1863, Peruvian slave traders, masquerading as missionaries, kidnapped nearly all the men from Tokelau, and local governance moved to a system based on a Council of Elders, which still exists today. The atolls were repopulated when new Polynesian settlers and American and European migrants intermarried with local Tokelauan women. Tokelau became a British protectorate in 1889 and included in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate - later a colony - in 1908. In 1925, the UK placed Tokelau under New Zealand administration. The Tokelau Islands Act of 1948 formally transferred sovereignty from the UK to New Zealand and Tokelauans were granted New Zealand citizenship. In 1979, the US relinquished its claims over Tokelau in the Treaty of Tokehega, and Tokelau relinquished its claims over Swains Island, which is part of American Samoa.

Economic opportunities in Tokelau are sparse, and about 80% of Tokelauans live in New Zealand. Tokelau held two self-governance referendums in 2006 and 2007, in which more than 60% of voters chose to go into free association with New Zealand; however, the referendums failed to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to enact a status change. Tokelau lacks an airport and is only accessible via a day-long boat trip from Samoa, although a site for an airstrip on Nukunonu was selected in 2019. Because of its dependency on Samoa for transportation, in 2011, Tokelau followed Samoa’s lead and shifted the international date line to its east, skipping December 30 and becoming one hour ahead of New Zealand rather than 23 hours behind.