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Swains Island (American Samoa)

11 03 S, 171 06 W (-11.05, -171.1)

Swains Island is a very small atoll. Swains, also known as Olohega is considered to be part of American Samoa. It is actually part of the Tokelau group but is owned by the Jennings family and administered by the United States. The politics are very complicated. Getting to Swains is difficult or nearly impossible.

Swains Island, also called Gente Hermosa and Quiros, lat 1103' S., long 17105' W., is about 4 miles in circumference and 10 to 15 feet high; its area, including a central lagoon of one-third square mile, is one square miles. The region is geologically inactive and there are few seamounts or guyots in comparison to other Polynesian states. The majority of islands rise from deep (4,000 m) oceanic depths. Two coral atolls are part of the political group, albeit not exactly part of the geological archipelago. They are Swains Island, presently essentially uninhabited and Rose Atoll, uninhabited. Swains Island is geographically part of the Tokelau group.

The island is unusual as the atoll is an unbroken circle of land and as such it features a lagoon closed off from the sea. The fate of such a lagoon depends on the amount of rain. No rain: it dries up; some rain: it changes into a small, strongly saltwater lake; lots of rain: it changes into a freshwater lake. The latter has happened here. There is a brackish lagoon in the center of the island, having in places a depth of 8 fathoms; but there is no entrance to it. There is no anchorage. The sea breaks constantly on all sides, but good landing will be found on the west side by means of passages blasted through the reef.

It was discovered by Pedro Fernandez de Quiros Quiros in 1606 and named by him La Peregrina. It was later conquered by a raiding party from Fakaofo, 100 miles to the north, who killed the men, took the women as wives, and incorporated the atoll into Tokelau. In his dying moments, the island's last chief is said to have placed a curse on the island.

But the position given by Quiros for it was so much in error as to lead an American whaling captain W.C. Swains of New Bedford, Massachusetts to assume the right of discovery upon landing there. It was examined in 1840 by the United States exploring expedition under Wilkes and renamed Swains Island. However, a British captain, Capt. Turnbull, who also claimed to have discovered the island. It was settled by an American, Eli Jennings, in 1856. Jennings flew the American Flag and Swains was claimed for the United States by Jennings and by the United States Guano Company under the Guano Islands Act. For many years thereafter it was occupied by an American family named Jennings, engaged in raising coconuts. About 800 acres are planted with coconuts, and roads are made throughout the island. Copra is exported. Supplies are scarce, and no water can be obtained. There is a church and native missionary teachers.

An official communication regarding this island from the British Government, dated January 30, 1918, stated that it was understood "that the island in question is United States territory." Swains Island was annexed in 1925. A joint resolution of Congress, approved March 4,1925 (43 Stat. L. 1357), asserted sovereignty of the United States over this island and made it a part of American Samoa.

The oldest of his six children, Eli Hutchinson Jennings Jr., inherited the island and managed the estate and its copra plantation (copra is the dried meat of the coconut, used as food and for extracting coconut oil). His son, Alexander Hutchinson Jennings inherited the island, and his daughter inherited the estate.

Lieut. J. F. Finnegan, Medical Corps, United States Navy, accompanied the Governor of American Samoa and official party for flag-day exercises, made the annual inspection of May 13, 1930. The USS Whippoorwill arrived at Swains Island May 13, 1930. Mr. Jennings came on board and reported that there were no contagious or infectious diseases on the island. Three weeks ago a few cases of a mild-type influenza occurred. The cleanliness of the island generally was good. Flies were present in considerable numbers. Water supply was of good quality. The present population of the island was 98, divided as follows: Males, 45; females, 53. All people were superficially examined and found to be exceptionally healthy and well nourished. Difficulty was experienced in collecting the people due to use of abbreviations, Christian, and Samoan names in a varying manner.

The 1981 Treaty between the United States of America and New Zealand on the Delimitation of the Maritime Boundary between the United States of America and Tokelau. The treaty was necessary to settle the overlapping claims of jurisdiction resulting from the establishment of a 200 nautical mile fishery conservation zone off the coasts of American Samoa in accordance with the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, and the establishment by the Government of New Zealand of a 200 nautical mile zone around Tokelau.

In this connection, the status of three Tokelauan islands was also resolved and the sovereignty of the United States over Swains Island was confirmed. The Treaty protected United States interests by confirming United States sovereignty over Swains Island, which had been claimed by Tokelau, and by securing a maritime boundary in accordance with equitable principles. It further serves United States foreign policy interests in the area by promoting friendly relations with New Zealand and with Tokelau.

But in 2006, drawing up a draft constitution, the Tokelaun assembly, the General Fono, defied the wish of embarrassed officials in Wellington by including Olohega as an integral part of its territory. "At the dawn of time the historic islands of Atafu, Nokonunu, Fakaofo and Olohega were created as our home," the territory's new constitution declares. Tokelau's leaders even asked the leader of a well-known South Pacific pop group, Opetaia Foa'i, to write a song about the struggle to have Olohega returned.

Swains Island is truly a special place, not only for its unique biological diversity but also for its rich cultural heritage. Many also find the vivid blue color of the water to be breathtaking. Divers find the unlimited visibility and warm water to be particularly inviting and ideal for visitors. It is still covered by a circle of coconut trees; however, it is not run as an active plantation. An 18 inch stone altar sits on top of a four foot stone structure in a clearing. No one knows the origin of the idol although some of the family members have speculated about its purpose. One residentr suspects that in the past the ocean water flowed into the lagoon through a small channel at high tide. They suggest that the idol may have been a marker to show travelling Polynesians how they could enter the lagoon and seek shelter on their journeys throughout the Pacific. A similar account suggests that the idol was used to communicate directions to other island chains. However no one knows for sure and so the idol continues to be a mystery.

Swains Island is 200 miles north of Tutuila and has a very small fluctuating population that ranges from zero to 20 people throughout the year. There are complicated issues with addressing Swains Island, as Swains Island is a privately owned island with a population that would not normally warrant government investment in the infrastructure. Swains Island energy, however, has a costly price tag for the government; fuel and other supplies are delivered to the island by an American Samoan government vessel on a regular basis. For the purpose of this plan, the Swains Island strategy will be to focus on attractive private sector investment options, such as a low- to no-cost renewable energy revolving loan fund as mentioned in the Private Sector Investment section.

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Page last modified: 30-06-2017 19:32:52 ZULU