Niue's first settlers arrived about 1000 years ago from Samoa and Tonga. European contact began in 1774 when James Cook attempted to land on the island during his second Pacific voyage. Cook left after trying to land three times, and the rebuffed explorer dubbed Niue 'Savage Island'. Niueans insist the islanders' unfriendly reception was simply a robust traditional 'challenge', but the name 'Savage Island' scared off visitors for many years.
The pioneering missionary John Williams wafted by safely in 1830, and in 1846 the London Missionary Society (LMS) secured a Christian presence on Niue through Peniamina, a Niuean who converted to Christianity in Samoa.
In 1900 Niue became a British colony and in 1901 was handed over to NZ. The islanders were not consulted on this imperial mandate, and protested when NZ proposed incorporating Niue with the Cook Islands.
Pressure for self-government began after WWII, but as the island's economy was dependent upon NZ aid and family remittances the Niueans were in no rush to go it alone. In 1974 Niue achieved self-government in 'free association' with NZ, and every three years Niue elects a 20-member legislative assembly. Niue has the dubious record of the world's highest per capita number of politicians - one MP for every 65 people. In 2005 the successful MP for the village of Toi was drawn out of a hat after the two candidates scored eight votes each. Congratulations went to Lilivika Muimatagi and commiserations to Dion Taufitu.
Niueans have held NZ citizenship since 1974 and opportunities offshore have seen the population decline from a 1966 high of 5200. The government claims the current population is over 1700, but according to islanders around 1300 is more realistic.
The most serious threat to Niue's survival as an independent state came on 5 January 2004 when Cyclone Heta devastated the island with winds up to 300km/h and sent 30m waves crashing over Niue's cliffs. Recovery is under way with offshore investment funding processing plants for fish and noni juice. Private entrepreneurs are developing the island's tourism infrastructure to complement the improved air access links.
Despite the ongoing cost to NZ of subsidising Niue's economy - reckoned to be around NZ$6000 per island resident per year - the island's status as an independent state was not threatened at the time of writing and NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark reassured Niueans in 2004 by stating that 'our special relationship is cemented and there will be no changes to that'.