Tonga’s formal tsunami evacuation plans revive Niuafo‘ouans evacuation to ‘Eua after 1946 volcanic eruption

Kaniva Tonga News revisited this story about Niuafo'ou evacuation after Tonga’s Minister of Lands and Survey has announced that its last week’s tsunami survivors would be evacuated to the king, royals and the nobility’s other estates. He said the process was awaiting king’s royal assent.

This story has been adapted from ‘The Evacuation of Niuafo’ou, an Outlier in the Kingdom of Tonga’ by Garth Rogers, which originally appeared in The Journal of Pacific History, July, 1981.

On October 12, 1946, the New Zealand Herald  ran an article with five consecutive headlines: CALL FOR HELP . . . NIUAFO’OU ISLAND . . . MATUA DIVERTED . . . MOVING 1306 PEOPLE . . . COMPLETE EVACUATION followed by an article which gave the impression that Niuafo’ouans were on the brink of disaster and fiery death.

The powerful volcanic eruption in Tonga last week devastated the islands of Mango, Fonoifua and Nomuka and parts of the main island of Tongatapu. Photo/ Minister of Health, Dr Saia Piukala

Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the Tongan government decided to evacuate the 1300 people living on the island anyway. It was a decision that disrupted the lives of the evacuees for years, lost the government vital income and which eventually had to be rescinded.

The Herald’s dramatic headline came weeks after an eruption on Niuafo’ou on September 9, 1946. The island’s radio was put out of action and the Tongan government asked an aircraft flying from Fiji to Samoa to  detour to the island and see what was happening. The aircraft reported volcanic activity on the northern tip of the island, with part of a village being  destroyed. An SOS sign was visible from the air and people could be seen waving.

As soon as news of the plight of the Niuafo’ou people was announced, offers of advice and help came pouring in. It appeared that food was available, but additional medical supplies might be needed for the doctor.

The U.S. Air Force base in Tutuila offered to drop medical supplies and food. The ketch Hifofua was immediately commissioned by the Government to sail to Niuafo’ou. An emergency meeting of the Privy Council in Nuku’alofa decided to send the Minister of Lands, Hon. Havea Tu’iha’ateiho, together with a doctor, a radio technician, medical supplies, food and radio equipment to Niuafo’ou.

When they arrived on to Niuafo’ou, Hon. Tu’iha’ateiho and the Niuafo’ou noble faced a dilemma. The island was peaceful and root-crops, coconut palms and livestock were virtually unharmed. However, government workers, nearly all from other parts of Tonga, had lost their offices and buildings, their houses, and their personal possessions, and wanted to leave as soon as possible. Their departure would deprive the island of police, magistrate, jailor, radio operator, medical officer and teachers. The Government had lost nearly everything, including  all the government copra, several lighters used for loading copra, the wharf and port facilities.

Apart from some residents of Angahā village who had lost their houses and village allotments, there seemed no urgent demand from Niuafo’ou people to leave the island. However, three senior civil servants on the island were asked to organise a vote on what people wanted to do. There are differing accounts of what the votes were, but all accounts suggest that the majority wanted to leave.

However, there was far less damage than the government thought. The eruption had not destroyed the food supply and had only partially destroyed one village. Even in Angahā the Catholic mission, the government dispensary, one school-house, and about half of the private dwellings were left unscathed. The other seven villages were completely unharmed and their residents largely unaffected except for government services.

So why did so many people want to leave? Historian Garth Rogers suggested that many islanders were dissatisfied with conditions on the Island and had already presented seven petitions to Parliament calling for improvements in everything from representation in Parliament, a government store, better roads and a bicycle for the local medical practitioner.

“The possibility therefore that some Niuafo’ou people used the 1946 eruption to move to Nuku’alofa for personal advantages such as the opportunity of wage labour, better schooling, outlets for handicrafts, etc., cannot be dismissed,” Roberts wrote.

At the same time it was also true that a considerable proportion of the inhabitants wanted to stay.

Eventually, after weeks of delays about 1000 people were removed from the island with some difficulty. The lack of harbour faculties and seasonal wind and tide conditions worked against any hopes of an easy operation.

Some people refused to go, but eventually, in October 1947, the last holdouts left on a government vessel.  As Roberts wrote: “The people of Niuafo’ou had lost their island, the Government had lost an administrative centre and source of government finance, and the Tonga Copra Board had lost a large quantity of uninsured copra.”

The Niuafo’ouans met a hostile reception in Nuku’alofa. Very few Niuafo’ouans had been to the capital and the local people were worried they would compete for land and jobs. There was also simple prejudice based on the fact that the Niuafo’ouans looked and acted differently. They used different speech idioms and intonations, wore gawdy clothes and were regarded as being boisterous and uninhibited in public.

The Niuafo’ouans were resettled in the village of Vaikeli which offered ample shelter in old U.S. Army huts, but very little land for gardens or cultivation. The Niuafo’ou noble Fotofili sent cooked food to the camp; Dougald Quensell, former storekeeper at Angahā sent stores from his Nuku’alofa store and Prince Tu’ipelehake sent a cow for the New Year feasting. But the people felt humiliated for they had no means of reciprocating.

Early in January, about 100 people from Mata’aho were moved on Queen Sālote’s orders to her estate at Kauvai, Tongatapu, where the immigrants continued to depend on the charity of local residents and occasional government hand-outt. In January 1947 Fotofili invited the people of Niuafo’ou at Vaikeli to settle on his estate at Lapaha and ‘Alele.

The National evacuation Committee then decided to transfer all but the Petani people from the Vaikeli camp to the Queen’s estate at Matāliku where Queen Sālote had ordered a group of houses and huts for them. Eventually, in 1949, the NEC decided to resettle the migrants in permanent villages on ‘Eua. The plan was to provide land for each of the nine Niuafo’ou villages in the central valley on ‘Eua except Mata’aho, whose people were destined to take up land on a royal estate several kilometres north of the main Niuafo’ou settlements on ‘Eua.

The incomers and the local people clashed and this led to fighting.

By May 1950 the first batch of families had settled into their permanent homes in the new villages, and by 1955 most of the Niuafo’ou people had settled. By 1967, the Niuafo’ou people on ‘Eua had established their independence; they now had their own schools, churches, halls, shops, and lorries, and villages which were reputed to be the neatest in all Tonga.

But just as the immigrants were being settled on ‘Eua, the government was having second thoughts about Niuafo’ou. They realised the island was full of unharvested copra that could be sold to help pay for the costs of the evacuation. What is more, the government could reclaim control of the island and stop it either falling into foreign hands or  becoming a haven for foreign fishermen. In the following years larger and larger numbers of copra cutters were landed.

Despite their success in re-establishing their lives on ‘Eua, agitation for a return continued among the Niuafo’ouans scattered across the kingdom. Finally, in 1958 the Evacuation Committee admitted that the people had a right to return.

Niuafo’ou was permanently re-settled by families in 1958, and the Government Primary School was opened in 1959. However, the radio station was not re-established until 1963; medical services were revived only by a voluntary unpaid worker in 1960 and an acceptable system of marketing copra, the chief source of income for the inhabitants was delayed until 1967. Police were not sent to the island until 1969 and even in 1974 there was no prospect of title being given to individual holders of bush allotments.

By 1967 more than 300 adults in 113 households had chosen to return and resettle their home island in spite of lack of services, rather than accept land and Government assistance on ‘Eua. By 1976 there were 678 Niuafo’ouans in Niuafo’ou and 2108 or over three times as many in ‘Eua.

Had Niuafo’ou been destroyed by eruption in the years immediately following the evacuation, the evacuation order would now be regarded as a wise and timely act. However, apart from an outburst in January 1947 reported by a passing yachtsman, the island suffered no natural catastrophe, eruption or severe hurricane while its population was elsewhere. It is not surprising that many Niuafo’ou people blamed the Government for their hardships and losses during their displacement.


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