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Ethnology of Manihiki and Rakahanga


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This study of the culture of Manihiki and Rakahanga represents part of the material gathered on the Cook Islands Expedition of Bernice P. Bishop Museum in 1929.

I landed in Manihiki on May 31 on the schooner Tiare Taporo under Captain Viggo. While I was in Rakahanga, Judge Hugh Ayson, Resident Commissioner for the Cook Islands, convened the Native Land Court to inquire into family pedigrees for the purpose of forming bases for land claims. Through his courtesy and the assistance of Stephen Savage, Registrar of the Court, I was able to acquire a complete set of island pedigrees. To Henry Williams, Jr., I am under obligation not only for maps of Manihiki and Rakahanga, but also for assistance in recording anthropometrical measurements. To Tupou-rahi, Sergeant of Police at Rakahanga, and his family thanks are due for accommodation, hospitality, and much information. The hospitality of the kindly people of Rakahanga manifested itself in feasts and presents of artifacts. The people were eager to impart what they knew, but owing to the exigencies of inter-island transport three weeks were all that could be devoted to the atoll. Only two nights were spent in Manihiki before the schooner moved on to Tongareva. In Manihiki the people of the villages, Tauhunu and Tukou, were also most hospitable and would not let their visitors go without weighing them down with food and presents. The gratitude of Bernice P. Bishop Museum is due to the people of the two atolls whose gifts have materially enriched the Polynesian collection. I have also to thank Mr. Murray of Rakahanga for the replica of a club and Henry Williams, Sr., and his family for hospitality and assistance.

The time spent in the two atolls was all too short to do justice even to the abridged field information available. This study can only hope to record some of the main points in the culture of the people. Details as to spread of the coconut and the ownership of land await the further investigator of land claims, when more information is available.

Meanwhile, the Huru-awatea waves its fronds in the shade of Arai-awa— “Tera pa te Huru-awatea te tahirihiri mai ra i te maru o Arai-awa.”

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Manihiki and Rakahanga, atolls 25 miles apart, are occupied by a people sprung from one family of settlers. The whole population once lived on one atoll at a time and moved back and forth from one atoll to the other when forced to do so by depletions of the coconut and puraka (species of taro) supplies. Manihiki and Rakahanga are so low that one atoll cannot be seen from the other, but from a point halfway between them both are visible. The people, in going from one atoll to the other, used the Magellan clouds (Na Mahu) as guides. The voyages were made in fleets of double sailing canoes, and the Whakaheo ariki (p. 52), because he was believed to control the weather conditions that insured a successful voyage, took command. Now and again the voyagers were unexpectedly overtaken by storms, but such disasters did not deter the people from making their inter-atoll voyages, for they were impelled by an important need, the urge for food. The occasional loss of life was regarded merely as the natural toll of the sea which the ancestors had paid from time immemorial. It remained for outside influence, in 1852, to use the loss of life as a means of dividing the population into permanent settlements on each atoll. Thus, though Manihiki and Rakahanga are two atolls, the culture is one. References in this text to the culture of either atoll may be taken to apply to the culture of both areas.


Manihiki and Rakahanga are atolls now politically included in Cook Islands, but, together with Tongareva (Penrhyn), Pukupuka, Nassau, Suvarov (Suwarrow), and Palmerston, they are not geographically part of Cook Islands. References in the text to Cook Islands apply to the geographical division unless it is otherwise stated. Manihiki lies 650 miles north of Rarotonga. Rakahanga is 25 miles north northwest of Manihiki. The two atolls are south of latitude 10° S. and west of longitude 160° W. (See fig. 1.)

Manihiki is the larger of the two atolls and contains about 1,250 acres of land. It has a fine lagoon abounding in pearl shell and Tridacna, but there are no large natural passages through the reef. The boat passages opposite the two villages are short and boats or canoes must be run up onto the reef, from which they are dragged to the deeper water on the inner side of the reef flat. Shallow passages through which the tide reaches the central lagoon separate the islands. (See fig. 2.)

Many of the islands shown in figure 2 are named in pairs with the qualifying terms rahi (large) and iti (small), as in Hohahake rahi and Hohahake iti. Some receive the name motu (island) with a qualifying term, as in Motu-roa (Long Island), Motu Fara (Pandanus Island), and Motu-o-poia (Poia's Island). The large island, Porea, has a fishpond in its interior.

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Brigham (3, p. 106)1 has given the atoll the incorrect name, Monahiki, and in writing of model double canoes inlaid with pearl shell he has evidently confused the correct name, Manihiki, with Manihi in the Tuamotus.

Rakahanga, with an area of 1,000 acres, is smaller than Manihiki. It is written “Rakaanga” on the maps, from a failure to appreciate the presence of the h sound. Gill, who did not visit the atoll, makes the curious statement that there is no lagoon (11, p. 12). Brigham (3, p. 35) has evidently copied the erroneous statement. Rakahanga is an atoll, and the inclosed lagoon is a characteristic feature. (See fig. 3.)

Figure 1. Map of part of the central Pacific Ocean showing the position of Manihiki and Rakahanga.

Figure 1. Map of part of the central Pacific Ocean showing the position of Manihiki and Rakahanga.

The small island, Te Kainga, in the southwest, was the original home of the people, but the site of the single village was changed to Rakahanga across the inter-island channel to the south. Opposite Te Kainga is the shallow boat passage. The reef has no deep passages. The presence of the place names Tongareva and Tua-i-Omoka on the south coast suggests some connection with the Tongarevan atoll, in which Omoka is the principal village. The historical connection is further supported by the name Tua i te Ara o Mahuta (the back of the path of Mahuta) on the northeast. Mahuta, the Tongarevan ancestor, is stated by both Tongarevan and Rakahangan traditions to have lived in Rakahanga prior to his voyage to Tongareva.

Contact With Western Culture

Bellinghausen, the Russian explorer, visited Rakahanga in 1820 and named it Grand Duke Alexander. In 1822 Captain Patrickson in the Good page 6
Manihiki Islets 1. Rangahoe 2. Name unknown (not recorded) 3. Hohahake-rahi 4. Hohahake-iti 5. Te Motu-o-Poia 6. Tima 7. Tapa 8. Paeke-rahi 9. Paeke-iti 10. Hiropotiki 11. Tikapai 12. Name Unknown 13. Moturoa 14. Mairere-tou 15. Motu-fara [Motu-whara] 16. Te Motu-o-Pae 17. Fakifaki [Whakiwhaki] 18. Taingaru-iti 19. Taingaru-rahi 20. Topuaikaha 21. Name Unknown 22. Raukotaha 23. Rifa-iti [Riwha-iti] 24. Toruerue-iti 25. Toruerue-rahi 26. Punganui-rahi 27. Punganui-iti 28. Name unknown 29. Nafarakura [Nawharakura] 30. Tavahavaha 31. Tarakite-iti 32. Kopu-Ngaha 33. Tarakite-iti 34. Hakari-manu 35. Motu-tou 36. Toputangaroa 37. Aratini 38. Nuku-Hiro 39. Iotia 40. Moina Figure 2. Map of Manihiki showing villages Tauhunu and Tukou. (Based on a sketch by Henry Williams, Government Surveyor, Cook Islands.) The spelling “Tukao” on the map should be “Tukou.”

Manihiki Islets
1. Rangahoe
2. Name unknown (not recorded)
3. Hohahake-rahi
4. Hohahake-iti
5. Te Motu-o-Poia
6. Tima
7. Tapa
8. Paeke-rahi
9. Paeke-iti
10. Hiropotiki
11. Tikapai
12. Name Unknown
13. Moturoa
14. Mairere-tou
15. Motu-fara [Motu-whara]
16. Te Motu-o-Pae
17. Fakifaki [Whakiwhaki]
18. Taingaru-iti
19. Taingaru-rahi
20. Topuaikaha
21. Name Unknown
22. Raukotaha
23. Rifa-iti [Riwha-iti]
24. Toruerue-iti
25. Toruerue-rahi
26. Punganui-rahi
27. Punganui-iti
28. Name unknown
29. Nafarakura [Nawharakura]
30. Tavahavaha
31. Tarakite-iti
32. Kopu-Ngaha
33. Tarakite-iti
34. Hakari-manu
35. Motu-tou
36. Toputangaroa
37. Aratini
38. Nuku-Hiro
39. Iotia
40. Moina
Figure 2. Map of Manihiki showing villages Tauhunu and Tukou. (Based on a sketch by Henry Williams, Government Surveyor, Cook Islands.) The spelling “Tukao” on the map should be “Tukou.”

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Figure 3. Map of Rakahanga, much of the land area shown without the shallow channels which divide the small islands. (Based on an uncompleted survey by Henry Williams, Government Surveyor, Cook Islands.)

Figure 3. Map of Rakahanga, much of the land area shown without the shallow channels which divide the small islands. (Based on an uncompleted survey by Henry Williams, Government Surveyor, Cook Islands.)

page 8 Hope saw both atolls. He gave Rakahanga the name Reirson and called Manihiki Humphrey.

According to Gill (10, vol. 2, p. 266), the first person to tell the islanders of the “white man's God” was a Tahitian lad who ran away from a whaling ship that called at Manihiki to get a supply of coconuts. Some of the young men of Manihiki set out in a canoe expedition in the hope of getting to some of the islands of which they were told. “In this and other enterprises of kindred character,” writes Gill, “many of them lost their lives, and on one occasion some were taken to the distant islands of Samoa.”

The first actual contact with Western culture was brought about by an accident which befell a party sailing from Manihiki to Rakahanga in 1849. A canoe was blown out of its course and was picked up by a whaling ship 80 miles from land. The whaler picked up the crew of five men and four women. Gill (10, vol. 2, p. 268) states that the captain intended to land the Manihikians at Aitutaki or Rarotonga, but that, not being able to make either island, he landed them at Manuae, where an American salesman was living, collecting coconuts, and feeding swine for the Tahitian market. The missionary ship John Williams eventually called at Manuae and took the Manihikians to Aitutaki, which had come under Christian influence in 1821. After a fortnight on Aitutaki they were returned to Manihiki on the mission ship, accompanied by two native teachers named Aporo and Tahiri. The people allowed the teachers to land, and the London Missionary Society thus established itself on Manihiki.

The teachings of the missionaries were accepted; in less than twelve months after the missionaries landed, most of the material representations of the native gods were destroyed. Churches and schools were established, and the foundations of Western culture were laid by the native teachers. Gill, on a voyage to Sydney in the mission ship, visited Manihiki in 1852. He remarks (10, vol. 2, p. 276) that in the space of three years all the inhabitants, with the exception of one hundred persons, were under Christian instruction. After the establishment of the teachers, twenty persons out of two hundred who were overtaken by a storm were drowned in a voyage to Rakahanga. As a result of missionary representations in 1852, the Christians in Sydney purchased a boat for the teachers, and the Aitutakians purchased another. With the introduction of European boats commenced the passing away of the old-time double sailing canoes in which the voyages between the two atolls had been made. Gill and the native teachers also used their influence in persuading the people to abandon the voyages between the two atolls. To prevent the necessity for the voyages, the population was divided, and each atoll was occupied permanently. The religious influence of the introduced culture resulted in the destruction of the maraes and of page 9 the native gods and in the loss of the priestly functions of the two ariki known as the Whainga-aitu and the Whakaheo (p. 48). Houses and clothing were affected by the introduction of new modes and materials. The abandonment of the inter-atoll voyages with permanent occupation of the two atolls by the divided people led to further changes in social organization in which the power of the high chiefs lessened as the influence of the missionaries increased. One of the Whakaheo even offered the succession of the title to the missionary teacher, Tahiri. Tahiri refused the title but later used his influence to have succession conferred on the female line, as his selected candidate was a deacon in the church (p. 54).

The missionary teachers, following the procedure adopted by the London Missionary Society in Aitutaki, Rarotonga, and Mangaia, formulated a number of moral laws, the infringing of many of which we would regard as “sins” to be dealt with by moral teaching or church discipline. The chiefs, however, who had become deacons of the church, could not let such offences go without inflicting material punishment. A list of fines to be paid in money and trade was instituted. Some elements of the Western culture of the early white missionaries were evidently adopted, for accused persons were put in the stocks to await trial, and women found guilty of sex offences were drummed through the village after they had been fined. If an offender was caught on a Saturday evening, he or she remained in the stocks all day Sunday, for the Sabbath could not be desecrated by the holding of a court on that day. The administration of the laws was in the hands of people termed Turimen who were elected annually by the heads of households. A Turiman held the double office of police and judge. In Manihiki, Turimen were divided into four vigilance committees which took alternate weeks of duty. An offender was reported by a Turiman to his committee, and the committee promptly exacted the fine laid down for the offence. There was no formal trial and the accused had no appeal. Half of the fines went to the ariki, and the other half was divided among the Turimen. The system led to espionage of sexual behavior in order that the amount of fines might be increased as much as possible, and a mean spirit foreign to Polynesian psychology was engendered. However, in the curious adjustment that took place was the retention of a Polynesian trait, inasmuch as the relatives of the offender shared his burden by assisting him to pay the fine in order to save the family name.

Moss (20, pp. 117, 118) sums up the situation as follows:

The laws are objectionable, and their modes of enforcing them, putting men and women in the public stocks or drumming them through the public street, are bad enough; but the methods of prevention and discovery which these Turimen adopt, are worse. If a Turiman suspects a man of having taken liquor, he will stop him at any time and order him to “blow” so that he may discover if his breath has lost its normal sweetness. page 10 The decision then come to is conclusive, adopted as a judgment by his fellow Turimen and the culprit fined accordingly. A “curfew” drum is beat at eight o'clock, and after that hour if anyone is seen abroad the Turimen are down upon him with a heavy fine next day. Their lovely moonlight nights bring no enjoyment to these people.

Henry Williams, Sr., informed me that three Peruvian slavers visited the atolls, but as one ship came within an ace of being wrecked by drifting onto the reef, the slavers withdrew without effecting depredations as they did in Tongareva.

The notorious Captain Bully Hayes in the brig Rona foundered at sea near Manihiki, according to Moss (20, p. 86). Captain Hayes was kindly treated by the Manihikians, who helped him to build another small craft. The vessel completed, he started with a party of Manihikians for a marriage feast at Rakahanga. He purposely missed Rakahanga, however, and made Samoa. He induced the Manihikians to work on one of the plantations and charged their employer a good round sum for bringing laborers to Samoa.

In marked contrast to scoundrels of the Hayes type were men of the stamp of Henry Greig and George Ellis. Greig employed Manihikian labor on Fanning Island. He married a Manihikian woman of high rank, and his descendants on Manihiki are respected people. George Ellis was a trader on Manihiki and taught the people much in the way of useful crafts. His two sons, Ben and Dan, are leaders in the atoll.

A certain amount of friction existed at one time between the supporters of the native missionary and a faction opposed to him. The French at Tahiti were invited to annex the atolls, but when the French warship appeared for this purpose the native missionary hauled up the British flag and dared anyone to lower it. The crisis passed, and French annexation did not materialize.

In the copra and pearl shell trade which developed, trading firms established touch with Manihiki and Rakahanga from Rarotonga. Thus for both religious and commercial purposes the atolls were connected with Rarotonga. As the result of a petition in 1900 by the ariki of the Cook Islands, Manihiki and Rakahanga were included in the boundaries of New Zealand by an Imperial Order in Council in 1901. The atolls are governed by New Zealand through the Resident Commissioner at Rarotonga. Henry Williams, Sr., who is of part-Manihikian blood, is Government Agent for the two atolls. He is assisted in each atoll by a council of eight nominated persons. The villages in the two atolls are models of orderly arrangement and cleanliness and are not surpassed in any of the Cook Islands.

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The People

The population given in the last five government censuses is as follows:

1906 1911 1916 1921 Males Females Whites Total
Manihiki 521 444 493 432 214 199 3 416
Rakahanga 352 315 295 310 172 153 2 327

Although during the 20 years from 1906 to 1926 the total population of the administrative territory of the Cook Islands has shown an increase, the population of Manihiki has decreased by 115 and that of Rakahanga by 25. Part of the decrease has been due to emigration to Rarotonga, where the better opportunities of obtaining employment have attracted settlers. This emigration has resulted in a Manihikian colony in Rarotonga.

The Language

The language is a pleasing dialect and has closer affinities with Maori than with the dialects of Tongareva, Tahiti, and the Cook Islands. The dialect differs from Tongarevan in using h instead of s and wh instead of h, from Tahitian in retaining k and ng and using wh instead of f, and from Cook Islands dialects in the presence of wh and a more definitely sounded h. All these differences are shared by the Maori dialect. Also, a number of words that are not shared by the Rarotongan and Tahitian dialects are common to the Maori and the Manihiki-Rakahangan dialects.

The native pastors, educated by the London Missionary Society in Rarotonga, have introduced the alphabet adopted for Rarotonga. This alphabet is without the letter h, and v is used instead of w. Thus both the h and wh sounds which are present in the dialect have no letters to represent them. No organized effort has been made by the church or the state to remedy the deficiencies. As in others of the Cook Islands, the local dialect is being assimilated rapidly by the Rarotongan dialect. The Bible, which is printed in Rarotongan, exercises a great influence in standardizing Rarotongan as the accepted dialect.

The alphabet in use contains the vowels a, e, i, o, and u, and the consonants k, m, n, ng, p, r, t, and v.

The consonants not represented are h and wh, and the v should be w. Stephen Savage, official interpreter to the Cook Islands Administration, holds that w should have been adopted for the Rarotongan dialect instead of v. This applies with even more force to Manihikian. At the same time, there may be some such words as vero (stern piece of a canoe) that are pronounced with a v sound. The older people pronounce the words with a w and write them with a v. With the modern method of teaching by alpha- page 12 betical sounds, the tendency is for the younger people to adopt the v sound as taught to them. Europeans have recorded the h sound in Manihiki on official maps and have omitted the equally obvious h sound in Rakahanga by printing it “Rakaanga.” The people pronounce the name of their atoll “Manihiki” and write it “Maniiki” because the schools do not include the h when teaching the alphabet. An extra emission of the breath gives h the sound hi before the regular vowel, and it has become usage to say “hi,” as in “Hiuku,” for Huku, a word variously written as “Iku,” “Hiku,” and “Huku.” Smith, in editing Gill's account of the origin of Manihiki (13, p. 140), states that the name should be spelled “Hiku”; but though this represents the name as it would appear in other dialects, the local pronunciation is “Hiuku.” The people, not having been provided with the letter h by the teachers of the Rarotongan alphabet, usually spelled it “Uku,” or even “Iuku.” It is, perhaps, more convenient to spell it “Huku,” but the correct pronunciation must be borne in mind (see page 14). This usage resembles that of the Rarawa tribe of the Maoris of northern Auckland, who have a tendency to use he, as in “Heone” for Hone, a pronunciation used by older people but not followed by the younger generation of Maoris.

The wh sound has been recorded for New Zealand and the Chatham Islands by the double letter wh. Of this consonant Williams says (31, p. 568):

Wh represents the voiceless consonant corresponding with w, and is produced by emitting the breath sharply between the lips. It is a mistake to assimilate the sound to that of f in English, though it has become fashionable in recent years with some of the younger Maoris. In some words wh and h are interchangeable, as kohatu, kowhatu; mahiti, mawhiti. In a few words there is confusion between wh and w, but this may be due to the fact that in early works printed in Maori no distinction was made between the two, both being printed as w. Wh is never found in Maori followed by o or u.

It was evident to both natives and Europeans that an extra sound not provided for by the Rarotongan alphabet was present. The mistake of assimilating the sound to that of f in English was committed by Europeans, and the few natives who write have followed suit. Thus we have the word for hala (Pandanus) written as “fara” and it appears in figure 2 as Motu Fara (Pandanus Island). A certain amount of influence may have come from Tahiti, where the sound exists as an actual f, and the word is pronounced “fara.” Knowing this, I was prepared to accept the sound as f until I heard the words pronounced in the atolls. While I was recording pedigrees in the Land Court at Rakahanga it became evident to me that the sound was not the English or Tahitian f but resembled the Maori wh. However, lest my own Maori background might have influenced me, I asked Stephen Savage and Henry Williams, Jr., who is of Manihikian extraction, page 13 to check up on the words containing the sound. They agreed that the sound was wh and not f.

The remarks of Williams (31) about the confusion between the Maori wh and w apply with still more force to the Manihikian wh and v. The v is wrong in the first place, but it was the only letter that could be used to represent both the w and wh sounds, until a few people began to use f.

The interchange in some Maori words between wh and h, noted by Williams, applies also to inter-dialectical variations. Although the distinction between wh and f is marked as regards sound and the position of the lips and teeth, the fashionable interchange in recent years by the younger Maoris has evidently followed a general Polynesian tendency. K. P. Emory of Bernice P. Bishop Museum informs me that the Tahitian f sound prevails over most of the Tuamotuan archipelago, but that at Reao in the east the wh sound is used. This was checked by Mr. Emory and F. J. Stimson, both of whom were accustomed to the Tahitian f. Interchanges have thus occurred between h, wh, and f. A good test word is the widespread Polynesian name for house, which consists of one of the three interchangeable consonants followed by are or ale, according to the dialectical selection between r and l. The main dialects interchange as follows:

Hare Whare Fare
Cook Islands New Zealand Society Islands
Tongareva Chatham Islands Tuamotus
Hawaii (hale) Manihiki Marquesas (fa'e)
Reao (Tuamotus) Samoa (fale)
Tonga (fale)

Although wh occupies the intermediate position between h and f, a direct interchange between h and f is seen in the eastern Polynesian word aroha and the western word alofa. It is tempting to think of h as the simplest, oldest form, retained in the northern remote area, Hawaii, and surviving in Tongareva and Cook Islands; of the wh as an old form retained in the southern remote area of New Zealand and Chatham Islands, the remote eastern area of Reao, and surviving in Manihiki; and of the f as coming in as a later intrusive element from the west, establishing itself in the Society Islands, when it spread through the Tuamotus and Marquesas, displacing the wh but failing to extinguish it in the far east at Reao.

Some inconsistency in the spelling of native words will be observed in this study. In quotations from manuscripts or printed works the original spelling has been kept, but in my own observations the h and wh have been used in words in which they were sounded. As in Tongareva, a study of the dialect and local vocabulary awaits the linguist.

1 Numbers in parentheses refer to Literature Cited, page 232.