Until the beginning of the 18th century, there appears to have been no national government or national leader in Niue. Before that time, chiefs and heads of family exercised authority over segments of the population. Around 1700, the concept and practice of kingship appears to have been introduced through contact with Samoa or Tonga. From then on, a succession of patu-iki (kings) ruled the island, the first of whom was Puni-mata. Tui-toga, who reigned from 1875 to 1887, was the first Christian king of Niue. (See: List of Niuean monarchs)
Captain James Cook was the first European to sight the island, but he was unable to land there due to fierce opposition by the local population. The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica claimed this was due to native fear of foreign disease. In response, Cook named Niue the Savage Island.
Christian missionaries from the London Missionary Society converted most of the population circa 1846. In 1887, King Fataaiki wrote to Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, requesting that Niue be placed under British protection, but his request was turned down. In 1900, in response to renewed requests, the island became a British protectorate, and the following year it was annexed by New Zealand. Niue's remoteness, as well as cultural and linguistic differences between its Polynesian inhabitants and those of the Cook Islands, caused it to be separately administered.
Around midnight on Saturday 15 August 1953, Resident Commissioner Cecil Hector (Hec) Watson Larsen was murdered in his bed by 3 Niueans who had escaped from Niue's jail. Larsen (born 1908) had been Resident since 1943, and treated Niue as his own fief, using prisoners, whom he had arrested, convicted and jailed on minor charges, for labour in his own house and garden, or to chase and return his golf balls he hit on the prison farm. A 7pm curfew was imposed on all natives, and, although Niueans were prohibited (until 1964) from making, possessing or drinking alcohol (in early 1950 one Mohetu was given 90 days hard labour for possessing a bottle of yeast, an ingredient for home-brew beer), the European New Zealand colonial personnel often got drunk, and Larsen would taunt the prisoners while drinking in front of them. He also physically and verbally abused them (swearing was a jailable offence for Niueans), as did his wife Jessie.
In mid-1953, Folitolu (nicknamed Paoa (Power)), aged 26, had been frequently jailed or fined from his late teens for promiscuity and adultery offences, bad language, assault, escape from custody, and even ‘willful mischief taros’. Latoatama, nicknamed Suka (Sugar), was a 19-year-old first-offender, sentenced to 2 years hard labour for acting as lookout for a friend who had stolen sugar (another home-brew ingredient) from a Burns Philp store. A third prisoner, Tamaeli, was about 16, but had a much younger mental age, and little English, because of which he was more frequently physically abused by Larsen.
On the night of Saturday 15 August, Folitolu kicked out the fibro-cement roofing over the jail, and escaped, along with Latoatama, Tamaeli, Pelio Ikimotu, Taofitau and Loleni. A seventh prisoner, Laono, was asleep after drinking some whisky Tamaeli had stolen from Larsen. They escapees took a 21-inch machete from the jail cookhouse, and Folitolu cut the telephone wires. Taofitau and Loleni returned themselves to jail, while the remaining 4 approached Larsen's residency, and took two more machetes from his toolshed, leaving only Pelio, at his own choice, unarmed. The four men entered the residency via its garage and the three armed with knives slashed and stabbed Larsen in his bed. When Larsen's wife woke in the adjoining bed, her outstretched arm was also slashed. The Larsens’ 9-year-old son Billy was awakened by the noise and came out of his room, but was returned to it and locked in by Latoatama. The three murderers then escaped into the night, while the unarmed Pelio now returned himself to jail. Billy and his 17-year-old sister Telma raised the alarm, bringing the doctor and hospital matron, but Larsen died in his bed in the early hours of Sunday 16 August as they attended him.
The 3 murderers escaped to the southern coast of the island, evading a large and fairly chaotic manhunt, but gave themselves up to the native constable in the village of Vaiea at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday 20 August.
The three were tried on Niue by a rapidly constituted court and a panel of 2 European and 4 native assessors (this was not a jury, because it had no power to seek clemency) chosen by the local administration. The case was heard before Auckland magistrate Leonard George Herston Sinclair, made a judge of the Niue High Court for the occasion, and the government-appointed defence lawyer was Auckland lawyer Erl Travice Pleasants. The assessors took less than an hour to find the defendants guilty of murder, and they were sentenced to hang by Sinclair, whose normal powers in New Zealand were limited to maximum sentences of 3 years’ jail.
Local school teacher and returned serviceman Sitemi Luisi helped the defendants appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, which held a three-day hearing in Auckland, on Monday 27-Wednesday 29 October 1953. Three weeks later the court upheld the death sentences, even in the face of evidence that Tamaeli had a mental age of only 10, and denied further recourse to the Court of Appeal.
Niueans in Niue and New Zealand, King Koroki Mahuta (the Maori king), as well as churches, unions, and other groups, began to petition the government for clemency from late 1953. Public unease at the recent reintroduction of capital punishment was heightened when, in a single announcement, the Prime Minister Sidney Holland refused to commute the Niueans’ death sentences, but did commute to life imprisonment a death sentence on a European murderer who had strangled to elderly Napier women as part of a robbery to pay her gambling debts. The Auckland Star ran editorials suggesting latent racism in the justice system in both New Zealand and the Cook Islands, such that 3 Europeans convicted of the same crime would never be hanged. In February 1954, more fuel was added to this fire when another European, who had stabbed to death his pregnant girlfriend, was reprieved, while ‘Darkie’ Whiteland, a mentally disturbed Maori was hanged.
Niueans were solidly against the hangings occurring on Niue. The New Zealand government had already tried to enact legislation to allow the hangings to occur in New Zealand, but this fell through, so on 31 December 1953, the 3 were shipped to Samoa to hang, out of the way during the Queen Elizabeth II's coronation tour of the Commonwealth.
By March and April 1954, more organisations were petitioning the government for clemency: the Wellington Citizens Niue Islanders Committee, the United Committee to Save the Niue Islanders, the Australia-New Zealand Civil Liberties Society, the Howard League, the London Missionary Society, the YMCA, University Teachers’ Association, the Saddlers’ Union and even the British Anti-Slavery Society; authorities on the Pacific Islands weighed in too: historian Dr. J.C. Beaglehole and his brother, anthropologist Dr. Ernest Beaglehole.
On 11 May 1954, the Privy Council accepted two petitions for an appeal hearing, but the same day dismissed them both without comment, and this refusal was confirmed two days later by HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, HRH Princess Margaret and HRH The Duke of Gloucester.
With an election looming, and the opposition Labour Party under Walter Nash increasingly critical of the government's stance, Holland was desperate to end the drawn-out controversy. Attempts to have the hangings take place in the Cook Islands, on Aitutaki or the even more remote Manuae (a former prison island) were rebuffed by the Cook Islands resident. Then a landslide at a quarry at Hakupu on Niue killed two men and injured two others, so that local feelings there were redoubled against the hangings occurring on the island. Finally on Tuesday 18 May 1954, Holland capitulates, and acting Minister of Justice, Jack T. Watts, signs a commutation to life imprisonment for all 3 of the murderers, to be served in Mt Eden jail. They were shipped back from Samoa and entered Mt Eden on 28 May 1954.
A person under a life sentence at the time became eligible for parole after 7 years. Arrangements towards this began in 1960. In April 1960, after 6 years in Mount Eden working as a mailbag machinist, Tamaeli was moved to Paparua Prison, Christchurch, where he tended poultry. Then on 5 May 1964, was sent back to Niue aboard the Tofua. Initially quartered at Niue's Fonuakula prison, he was freed on 31 August 1964, to live in his home village of Liku, although still required to report weekly, later every 8 weeks, to police. He married and after a short stint in the Public Works department became self-employed, working with his adoptive father on a timber plantation. But before his probation was due to end in 1969, Tamaeli was swept off a rock ledge while fishing on 23 November 1968, and drowned.
In January 1961, Folitolu was moved to New Plymouth jail and then in February 1963 to Tongariro prison farm. In 1966 the parole board recommended he be returned to Niue, but later that year he was transferred back to New Plymouth for ‘misconduct’, which the Justice Department recognised was due to frustration at an imminent release increasingly delayed. In 1967, aged 40, he was again recommended for release back to Niue, but again delays occurred. Since 1961 his health had begun to decline. Official fears, including by Robert Rex, later a premier of independent Niue, that he would cause trouble on Niue resulted in the Niue Amendment Act 1968, which allowed former prisoners to be returned to New Zealand if they reoffended. bureaucratic wrangling continued and despite New Zealand being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which prohibited exile as a punishment, Folitolu was released at the end of 1970, after 18 years in custody, on condition that he remain in New Zealand, prohibited from returning to Niue. Scott (p. 159) notes “In effect a political prisoner for all the year endured after the standard sentence [7 years] had been served, he was held for those additional ten years for no other reason than for the convenience (or the satisfaction) of the officers and collaborators of a colonial power.” Even in 1992, several of Scott's interviewees were annoyed that the death sentences had not been carried out, and that the three had been released at all. A note in the Department of Island Territories file dated 28 January 1971 states Folitolu was “living in New Plymouth and appears to be doing alright”. His later fate is not recorded by Scott, but he appears to have died before 1991.
Latoatama elected to stay in Mt Eden because of a brother, Kakau Taupa, and sister in Auckland who visited him. But now separated from fellow countrymen, and with limited English, he became increasingly introspective and compulsive, spending 2 hours each night polishing his boots. In 1966 he was moved to Waikeria Youth Centre, and finally released in 1968, and allowed to remain in New Zealand. Living with girlfriend Mesulama (Inele) Soloutana, he began work in a Christchurch mattress factory, where he lost his left index finger in a machinery accident. He never returned to Niue and died of cancer in September 1991, according to Scott (p. 153) “the last survivor of the Niuean three”.
Niue gained its autonomy in 1974 in free association with New Zealand, which handles the island's military and foreign affairs. Niue had been offered autonomy in 1965 (along with the Cook Islands, which accepted), but had asked for its autonomy to be deferred another decade.
Niueans continue to be New Zealand citizens, and use standard New Zealand passports. Niueans who meet normal residence criteria in either country may vote or stand in that country's elections. Niue continues to use New Zealand currency, but issues its own postage stamps (New Zealand stamps are not valid for postage in Niue, nor Niuean stamps in New Zealand).
In January 2004, Niue was struck by a devastating cyclone (Cyclone Heta) which left 200 of the islands' 1600 inhabitants homeless. As a number of local residents chose afterwards not to rebuild, New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff speculated that Niue's status as a self-governing nation in free association with New Zealand might come into question if too many residents departed the island to maintain basic services. Soon afterwards, Niue Premier Young Vivian categorically rejected the possibility of altering the existing relationship with New Zealand.
The population of the island continues to drop (from a peak of 5,200 in 1966 to 2,100 in 2000), with substantial emigration to New Zealand.