In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about 180 kilometers south of the Fakaofo Atoll, which belongs to Tokelau, and 300 kilometers north of Savai’i, the largest of the islands in American Samoa, is Swains (or Olohega in the Tokelauan language).

It is a small atoll of 3.5 square kilometers with an inner lagoon about 12 meters deep separated from the sea (the channel that connected it was closed around 575 AD) that is sporadically visited by about eight people, all from the same Jennings family who have owned it since 1856.

Politically, it has belonged to American Samoa since 1925, and therefore to the United States, of which it is an unincorporated territory. However, Tokelau continues to claim the island as its own.

Location of Swains Island in Oceania
Location of Swains Island in Oceania. Credit: CIA / Avenue / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

To complicate matters, Tokelau is not an independent country but a territory that depends on New Zealand, composed of three atolls and about 125 islets (all of which together do not exceed 12 kilometers of surface area).

The name was given by Captain William L. Hudson, who sighted it on February 1, 1841, from his ship, the USS Peacock. Hudson claimed to have found the island thanks to directions given to him in Tahiti by a Captain Swain, who has never been identified but was likely a whaler from Nantucket.

In 1856, a whaler from New York named Eli Hutchinson Jennings, who had settled in Samoa and married a Samoan woman named Malia, bought the title to Swains Island from a British captain named Turnbull who claimed to be the owner (for the equivalent of about one hundred euros today, plus a bottle of gin).

Photograph of Swains Island taken from the International Space Station on October 11, 2006
Photograph of Swains Island taken from the International Space Station on October 11, 2006. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center / Public domain / NASA / Wikimedia Commons

It is unknown how many inhabitants the atoll had at that time, but Jennings established a copra plantation there and played a dark role in supporting slaver ships that roamed the atolls in the area, which ultimately caused its depopulation.

Although Eli Hutchinson Jennings died in 1878, his family remained on the island in charge of the plantation until it closed in 1967. They lived in the village of Etena, which means Eden, in the south of the atoll, with rainwater as the only source of drinking water. The family residence is still there, abandoned after a cyclone seriously damaged it in 2005.

It was precisely the family who caused the atoll to pass to U.S. sovereignty. In 1909, the United Kingdom demanded the Jennings pay 85 dollars in taxes, claiming Swains was British territory.

View of Swains Island from the sea
View of Swains Island from the sea. Credit: United States Coast Guard / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The family appealed to the U.S. State Department, which refunded the money, instructing the governor of American Samoa to annex the island, which was officially done in 1925.

But in 2007, the regional parliament of Tokelau proposed a constitution and a flag for the future independence of the country. The flag includes four stars arranged in the shape of the three islands of Tokelau…plus Swains Island at a proportional distance from the others (although it was finally agreed that they represent the constellation of the Southern Cross).

Although the island is deserted today, it remains a paradise full of coconut palms, fine sandy beaches, and clear waters. Members of the Jennings family still visit it sporadically and continue to own it.

View of the inner lagoon of Swains Island
View of the inner lagoon of Swains Island. Credit: United States Coast Guard / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 17, 2024: Isla Swains, el atolón paradisíaco que pertenece a una sola familia desde 1856 y se disputan Estados Unidos y Tokelau


Henry Evans Maude, Slavers in Paradise: The Peruvian Labour Trade in Polynesia, 1862–1864 | A Brief History of Swains Island (Office of Insular Affairs) | Swains Island – One of the Last Jewels of the Planet (Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society) | Wikipedia

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