…and Swains Island

I came across a document for a government program recently that restricted its eligibility to "All United States citizens and nationals (residents of American Samoa and Swains Island)." In the United States all citizens are nationals but not all nationals are citizens so the distinction needs to be clarified parenthetically. Truly it’s not an issue for the vast preponderance of the three hundred million people living within the country’s boundaries. However, sixty-five thousand or so inhabitants of American Samoa and Swains Island have a unique status. They are not citizens of the United States but they have many of the same rights and privileges of citizens including the ability to participate in various government programs.



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I’m obviously familiar with American Samoa, a U.S. territory within the vast expanse of the South Pacific. It’s one of those places that American schoolchildren learn about routinely in their basic geography classes. If they don’t happen to remember it from there, they may be familiar with the numerous American Samoans who play professionally in the National Football League. But enough about American Samoa. It’s an interesting place and someday I’ll have more to say about it, but today I’d rather focus on the other group of non-citizen nationals, the residents of Swains Island.

Take a second glance at the map above, and draw your attention somewhat north of American Samoa about two thirds of the way up to where the map has the label Tokelau. If you look closely you may see a tiny white dot on the screen, perhaps a single pixel, sitting all alone by itself. Just a speck. Barely discernible. That is Swains Island.

The Tokelau reference is not a coincidence since Swains Island is a part of the Tokelau chain of tropical coral atolls. It is the southernmost of the island group and the only one that is not part of New Zealand, although surprisingly this question was not settled definitively until 1979. Swains Island is administered by the closest sizable United States locale, namely American Samoa some 370 kilometres (230 miles) away. Thus, even though geographically and culturally the island is part of Tokelau, administratively it is part of Samoa.



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Here is Swains Island, all 1.865 km2 (0.72 mi2) of it. I do have to give credit to the folks at Google Maps for this one, presenting even this tiny outcrop barely above sea level in glorious high resolution. It looks much like the stereotypical "tropical paradise" with those shimmering blue waters, lush vegetation, and enclosed lagoon, doesn’t it? Oh – do I spy a little island in that pond? Yes, I do believe we have an instance of an island-on-an-island here (and you all know I have a thing for islands-on-islands).

Swains Island has an odd background. I won’t spend much time on that but if you would like to know more you should feel free to open a more comprehensive history on a U.S. Department of the Interior website, in another tab or window. The name comes from Captain W.C. Swains, a New Englander who stumbled across this spot sometime around 1840 in search of whales. He wasn’t the first person to see the island, but he thought he was and the name stuck. Ownership fell into the hands of the Jennings family in 1856 and Jennings descendants have retained title to the entire island all the way through the present. That’s right, they’ve held onto it for more than a hundred and fifty years. No doubt I’d do the same if I owned a piece of paradise.



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People actually live here; some but not many. There are about 35 inhabitants clustered closely in Swains Island’s only village, Taulaga, which is pictured above. It includes a few homes or "fale" built in a Tokelauan style, a church, a school, and a copra shed where coconut oil can be extracted. The structures ring an open green called a "malae." Agriculture underlies this economy, primarily coconut palms but also bananas, taro, breadfruit and papaya along with whatever creatures can be pulled from the sea. The enclosed freshwater lagoon is too brackish to drink but cisterns collect abundant rainfall. Cyclone Percy struck the island hard in 2005, damaging or destroying much of the village, but many repairs have since been made and life goes on.

The Jennings family remains the proprietor while the majority of residents tend the crops as tenant farmers. The Jennings once ruled their domain from a mansion known as The Residency. The structure had declined over time and apparently took a fatal blow during the cyclone. You can still see The Residency in the satellite image by scrolling around (look for the small circular clearing south of the prong of land jutting into the lagoon).

United States citizens and nationals do not need a passport to visit Swains Island. However they require something much more difficult to obtain, permission from the Jennings family. This is rare but not impossible. Once again I tip my hat to amateur – "ham" – radio enthusiasts who have an uncanny knack of reaching the most unusual places imaginable (like this and this). They consider Swains Island to be a distinct entity because of its remoteness. Their most recent "DXpedition" took place in 2007. During their effort they made 117,000 contacts worldwide in their few days of operation on the call sign N8S, working out of tents in primitive conditions. This set a record for number of contacts from a station fully under generator power. You can read more about this expedition on its website.

There are so many dimensions to this geographic oddity that I have a hard time determining which one I like best. I think it may be the unique way the United States government categorizes its residents. Anyone born on Swains Island island is a U.S. national but not a U.S. citizen. With a total population of less than forty, how many people could that possibly be? Think about it: U.S. government documents and forms that describe an applicability to nationals will likely include the phrase "… and Swains Island." The value of the ink just to print those those three words on all those documents must be dozens of times greater than the entire economy of the island itself.


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