Tokelau consists of three true coral atolls in the South Pacific Ocean, located between 171° and 173° W longitude and 8° and 10° S latitude, approximately 500 km north of Samoa and 1000 km east of Tuvalu. The islands are Atafu, Nukunonu, and Fakaofo. The total land area of the three is only about 11 km².
There are no true ports or harbours. Tokelau lies in the Pacific typhoon belt and has been hit hard several times over the past 150 years.
Archaeological evidence indicates that Tokelau was settled about 1,000 years ago, probably by Polynesian voyagers from from Samoa, Futuna and Tuvalu. Oral history traces local traditions and genealogies back several hundred years. The three atolls then functioned largely independent of each other. Tokelauan society was governed by chiefly clans on each island. There were occasional inter-atoll skirmishes and wars, within the group and with other Polynesian islands such as Tonga and Tuvalu.
The name Tokelau is a Polynesian word meaning "northerly wind" and the group may have been given that name by the settlers who travelled from the south (Samoa) or south-west (Futuna). Another legend says that "Toke (tail)" and "lau (leaf)" refer to the tail end of the pandanus leaf, of which the islands resembled from a distance.
The islands were officially named the Union Islands up until 1946. The origin of that name probably came from the Union Steamship Company, whose ships visited the atolls in the mid 1800's. The name Tokelau Islands was officially adopted in 1946, which was contracted to just Tokelau in 1976.
A fourth island that is culturally, historically, and geographically, but not politically, part of Tokelau is Olohega, currently called Swains Island. It has been under United States control since about 1900 and administered as part of American Samoa since 1925. The island was claimed by the United States under their Guano Islands Act, along with the other three islands of Tokelau. The claims to Atafu, Nukunonu, and Fakaofo were ceded to Tokelau by a treaty in 1979, but the treaty also ceded Olohega to the United States.
The first European to sight Tokelau was Commodore Byron with H. M. S. Dolphin in 1765. Other explorers to sight the islands were Captain Edwards aboard H. M. Frigate Pandora in 1791 and Captain Smith of the whaler General Jackson in 1835.
In 1877 the islands were included under the protection of Great Britain by an Order-in-council, which claimed jurisdiction over all unclaimed Pacific Islands, known as the British Western Pacific Territories Act. Commander C. F. Oldham on HMS Egeria landed at each of the three atolls in June 1889 and officially raised the Union Jack, declaring the group a British protectorate. No British officials came to live in Tokelau, although Commissioners and Consuls occasionally made visits from Samoa, starting in 1893.