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Tokelau's atolls have been populated by Polynesians for about 1000 years, but it wasn't until the 18th century that 'Tokelau' came to exist. A series of wars at this time united these previously fiercely independent atolls. At the end of the wars, Fakaofo had conquered Atafu and Nukunonu, bringing them under the rule of the god Tui Tokelau and creating the first united entity of Tokelau.

Soon afterwards, Tokelau came to the attention of English and US ships sailing by. Whalers frequented the atolls in the 1820s, and in the middle of the 19th century missionary groups began devoting time to the spiritual wellbeing of the Tokelauans. From the 1840s to the 1860s, first Catholic, then Protestant missionaries from Samoa converted the people of the three atolls to Christianity.

Conversion was a mixed blessing. The French missionary Pierre Bataillon transported 500 reluctant Tokelauans to Wallis Island in the 1850s because he feared they would otherwise die of starvation. Then Peruvian slave traders seized about 250 people - half of the atolls' population - in the 1860s. The combined effect of missionaries, slaving and disease reduced Tokelau's population from 1000 to only 200. Desperate to save the remaining people, Tokelauans pleaded with the UK for protection as a British colony, and in 1889 Tokelau was annexed into the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Protectorate.

In the early 20th century, large numbers of Tokelauans left their homes to work the phosphate mines of Banaba (Ocean Island) in the Gilbert Islands took over responsibility for Tokelau in 1925, the flow of emigration shifted to Western Samoa (then also a NZ territory). Following Samoa's independence in 1962, Tokelauans relocated to NZ.

In recent years, Tokelau has been moving towards self-government in free association with NZ (like the Cook Islands and Niue), but a referendum in February 2006 failed to result in independence for the tiny territory. Despite this, government and administration has been increasingly based in Tokelau itself in the last decade or so, instead of in NZ and Samoa. Recent improvements in infrastructure have included the creation of a reliable telephone system and direct Internet services.

Tokelau's local government comprises three village councils called the taupulega - one on each atoll - made up of the heads of family (including women). Every three years, each atoll elects a pulenuku (village mayor) and a faipule (atoll representative), who form the Tokelau Executive Council. Annually, the position as Tokelau's ulu o Tokelau (head of government) rotates amongst the three atolls until the following election. Delegates from each atoll are also elected every three years to serve with the pulenuku and faipule on Tokelau's 21-member parliament, the General Fono. The number of delegates from each atoll is determined by population density, thus ensuring a representative government based on the varying size of each village.

In early 2005, Tokelau was hit not only by Cyclone Percy but also by a spring tide that inundated the villages of Fakaofo and Nukunonu. Homes were under a metre of seawater, and important crops such as coconuts and bananas were hard hit by the winds. Nobody was seriously injured, but the damage was extensive.