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Discoverers of the Cook Islands and the Names They Gave

14. Suwarrow

page 51

14. Suwarrow

A black and white sketch of the island Suwarrow.

An atoll, quadrilateral in shape, or irregularly circular.

Lagoon: 15.3 × 12.8 km. Land-area: 0.4 km2 (estimate).

Position: 13°14′40″S, 163°06′15″W.

Population: 1966: 0, 1971:1, 1975: 1.

Suwarrow to Equator: 1468 km, to Rarotonga: 950 km, to Aitutaki: 713 km, to Manihiki: 385 km, to Pukapuka: 398 km, to Palmerston: 533km.


The most southern atoll of the Northern Cooks does not have a Polynesian tradition, and no Polynesian name of the island has been found. However, the atoll became famous, first in the 19th century as a “treasure island”, and in the 20th century as the habitat of a modern Robinson Crusoe, Tom Neale (1).

In October 1813 a Russian vessel, the “Suvorov” under the command of Mikhail Lazarev (or Lazareff), sailed, presumably from Kronstadt, for the Russian settlement in Alaska. No details are known of the course of the vessel after entering the Pacific. But on Sept. 17, 1814 an uninhabited atoll was discovered, and the captain named it after his ship: Suvorov (2). Suvorov was a muscovite general, famed for his siege of Ismael (3). The Russian name was often spelt as Suvarow, or Suwarrow, the latter is the spelling adopted by New Zealand, and now the official spelling (4). It was also spelt as Souvarov (5), Souvaroff (6), Souwaroff, Souworoff (6a).


However, the island must have been visited by the Papaa much earlier. In 1855 (or 1848) an American whaler “Gem” was wrecked on its reef. The Captain and crew went to the Navigators Islands (Samoa) and later to Tahiti. Here the wreck was sold to Messrs Hort Brothers. One of their vessels, “Caroline Hort”, was sent to salvage the cargo, of oil. It was then that the supercargo, Lavington Evans, dug up a box with 15,000 dollars. Some years later another man from Tahiti unearthed 2,400 dollars. These coins were from a date coincident with the era of Commodore Anson (7), who crossed the Pacific in 1742 (8).

In 1860 an Englishman, Tom Charlton, six natives from Rakahanga and a woman from the Paumotu drifted to the atoll on their voyage from Manihiki to Rakahanga (or vice versa). During their stay a schooner, “Dart”, called at the island. Its Captain, Samuel S. Sustenance, landed thirty Penrhyn Islanders to collect pearl shell. In charge of the work-force was Joseph Bird. A short time later, Captain Thomas F. Martin of the armed schooner, “Tickler”, put ashore one Jules Tirel. Ten days later, trouble developed between Bird and his Penrhyn men, which ended in the murder of the three white men (9).


The island was surveyed by H.B, Sterndale for the Pacific Trading Co. in 1867 (10). In 1874 Sterndale returned as agent of the Auckland firm of Henderson and Macfarlane, who gave formal notice of their position page 52 on the atoll to the British Consul in Samoa in April 1877 (11).

While clearing the centre of one of the islets, Sterndale found lime kilns, stone and concrete walls and platforms, skeletons, flint lock, iron bolts, and a musket. It all pointed to the occupation of the islet by some Europeans long before the visit of Lazarev (12).

Sterndale thought it not impossible that they may have been Spaniards, making their way to the Indies by the Straits of Magellan (13). He added, that these Europeans might have exterminated some tribe of aborigines, for human bones and fragments of barbarian implements were distributed all over the islet, even to a depth, in some places, of eight feet beneath the surface of the soil. He also mentioned that “there is a tradition among the neighbouring Polynesians of an inhabited island, called Malo, which cannot now be found. We may well be justified in supposing this to have been the place, if the abundance of relics of mortality, and the rotten stumps of ancient coconut groves, are reliable data whereon to construct such a theory” (14). Another theory is that the musket and iron artifacts are from the crew of the Pandora's cutter, which disappeared off Palmerston in 1791 (15). The “Pandora” was the frigate sent by the Admiralty to search for the mutineers of the “Bounty”.


Captain W. McF. Castle of H.M.S. “Rapid” annexed the island to Great Britain on April 22, 1889, and part of Anchorage island was set apart as an Admiralty Reserve, because of its land-locked harbour (16). On Oct. 20, 1900 the New Zealand House of Representatives added the island of Suwarrow to the list of islands to be annexed by New Zealand (17). The atoll was included in the extension of New Zealand's boundaries in 1901, after the qualms of the Admiralty had been removed (18). The population of the island in 1902 was 30 (19).

In 1903 a lease was acquired by Lever Brothers, who attempted to introduce gold-lipped pearl shell from Torres Straits, but without success (20). A.B. Donald Ltd were the lessees in 1923 (21).

Tom Neale lived on the island from October 1952 to June 1954, and from April 1960 to December 1963 (22). In July 1967 he returned to the atoll as caretaker appointed by the Government of the Cook Islands (23). In 1969 he was installed as postmaster (24).




19:73; 63:112–113
















391:197, 199, 201–204, 269–271


383; 68:561












76:171; 66:287








68:561; 17:130-131