Ask any Niuean as to why 19th October was chosen as the day to mark the return of the control of the island from New Zealand and the chances are that most will have no idea. Some may have an idea that it has something to do with New Zealand back in 1900. The answer lies buried in the records and writings of the 1900s and in the power politics of Britain and Germany and the ambitions of a colony.
Just before the turn of the century, when the big powers were taking possession of the islands in the Pacific, in an agreement known as the Berlin Convention, hatched between Britain and Germany, Niue was declared to be a neutral territory with neither having any formal claim to it. This meant that despite three petitions from the King and chiefs to make the island a British protectorate, Britain could not accede to that request. It was not until 1899 in yet another territorial carve-up that Britain was given Vava’u and Niue in return for dropping any claim to Samoa. Samoa became the possession of Germany and the United States. Niue was to come under the Western Pacific High Commission based in Fiji.
On Saturday 21 April 1900 Her Majesty’s Envoy Plenipotentiary Basil Thomson from the Western Pacific High Commission arrived on the island on board the HMS Porpoise to declare Niue a British Protectorate. The ceremony involved signing a Treaty and raising the flag of Great Britain to the accompaniment of a gun salute from the ship at anchor in Alofi. Niue may well have remained a protectorate of Britain and in time, a direct part of the Empire, were it not for the ambitions of New Zealand politicians.
Premier Richard Seddon had visions of creating New Zealand’s own Pacific empire, but when Samoa was split between the Americans and the Germans, that left only Niue and the widely scattered islands of the Cook group. Seddon wanted the islands to be formally annexed, but for this to happen it required the consent of the Secretary of State for Colonies in London and for legislation to be passed in the New Zealand Parliament. The legislation was to provide for the extension of boundaries of New Zealand to include Niue and the Cook Islands. The people of Niue were not made aware of these developments.
In October 1900, the Governor of New Zealand the Earl of Ranfurly arrived off the anchorage in Alofi for the sole purpose of taking possession of the island. On Friday 19 October 1900, just six months after Niue was declared a British Protectorate, Lord Ranfurly was able to persuade the King and chiefs to allow Queen Victoria to take possession of the island. After much discussion King Togia and eleven chiefs agreed to sign the deed of cession. Once more, the Union Jack was raised and the guns thundered on board HMS Mildura. As far as the Niueans were concerned, the island was now formally annexed to Great Britain.
It was of considerable surprise therefore for the people of Niue and their palagi advisors to learn later that on 11 June 1901 the governor in New Zealand, by Order in Council had issued a proclamation that the administration of Niue will henceforth shift from the Western Pacific High Commission to New Zealand. This must have been something of a disappointment to the Rev Frank Lawes of the London Missionary Society; he had been instrumental in advising the King and chiefs at the time to seek the protection of London. While some of the traders may have sided with Lawes in the beginning it was only a matter of time before the emerging colony of New Zealand became the obvious choice for trade with the island.
And so if anyone asks, tell them that the significance of 19th October was the date in 1900 that King Togia and 11 chiefs of Nukutaha agreed for Great Britain to take possession of the island; seventy-four years later, on the same date, the administration of Niue was handed back to the descendants of the original settlers.