It appears originally there was no national government or national leader in Niue. Chiefs and heads of family exercised authority over segments of the population. In the early eighteenth century century the concept and practice of kingship appears to have been introduced through contact with Samoa or Tonga. From then on, a succession of putu-iki (kings) ruled the island, the first of whom was Puni-mata.
Tui-toga, who reigned from 1875 to 1887, was the first Christian king of Niue.
Captain James Cook was the first European to sight the island, but he was unable to land there because of fierce opposition from the local population. It is claimed that this was due to native fear of foreign disease. Consequently, Cook named Niue the "Savage Island".
Christian missionaries from the London Missionary Society converted most of the population circa 1846. In 1887, King Fataaiki wrote to Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, requesting that Niue be placed under British protection, but his request was turned down. In 1900, in response to renewed requests, the island became a British protectorate, and the following year it was annexed by New Zealand.
Niue's remoteness, as well as cultural and linguistic differences between its Polynesian inhabitants and those of the Cook Islands, caused it to be separately administered. 150 Niuean men, 4% of the island's population, served as soldiers in the New Zealand armed forces during World War I.
Niue gained its autonomy in 1974 in free association with New Zealand, which handles the island's military and foreign affairs. Niue had been offered autonomy in 1965 (along with the Cook Islands, which accepted), but had asked for its autonomy to be deferred another decade.
In January of 2004, Niue was struck by a devastating cyclone (Cyclone Heta) which left 200 of the islands' 1600 inhabitants homeless. As a number of local residents chose afterwards not to rebuild, New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff speculated that Niue's status as a self-governing nation in free association with New Zealand might come into question if too many residents departed the island to maintain basic services. Soon afterwards, Niue Premier Young Vivian categorically rejected the possibility of altering the existing relationship with New Zealand.
The population of the island continues to drop (from a peak of 5,200 in 1966 to 1,398 in 2009), with substantial emigration to New Zealand.