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Discoverers of the Cook Islands and the Names They Gave

1. Aitutaki

page 8

1. Aitutaki

A black and white sketch of the island Aitutaki.

A triangular near-atoll, reflecting the contours of the surrounding ocean floor at about 4,000m deep.

Total land area: 18.05 km2 Circumference of peripheral reefs: 45 km.Lagoon: 50 km2; maximum depth: 10.5 m; 75% is 4.5 m deep.

Three volcanic islets: Aitutaki, Moturakau, and Rapota. Aitutaki: 16.8 km2; max. altitude 118 m (Maungapu); 8 km N-S, 2.8 km E-W.

Twelve coral isles along the eastern reef, with a total area of 2.2 km2, varying in length from 150 to 2,250 m. The isle of Maina at the south-west corner is a sandcay. The Ootu peninsula is 3 km long.

Eastern reef: 600 to 1,000 m wide; Western reef: 800 to 1.700 m wide; Southern reef: 800 m wide.

Thickness of coral limestone over basalt: 13 to 20 m at the Ootu peninsula; 150 plus/ minus 30 m at Tavaerua iti.

Position: 18°51′45″S, 159°48′10″W.

Population: 1966: 2,579; 1971: 2,855 1975: 2,685

Aitutaki to Rarotonga: 259 km, to Manihiki: 946 km.


Aitutaki, settled as early as A.D. 900 (1), has three great ancestors: Ru Te Erui, and Ruatapu, who are alleged to be descendants of Atea and Papa (2), the primeval parents in many Polynesian myths.

According to a tradition, recorded by W. W. Gill, Te Erui was the first “Adam” of the island. He lived in utter darkness in the shades of Avaiki, the netherworld. His father was Te Tareva (The Expanse). Hearing about a land of light, Te Erui set out with his brother, Matareka (Smiling Face), to visit it. What they found was a half-sunken island. They struggled with the ocean, and the shallow waters vanished, leaving an island elevated far above the surrounding ocean. Te Erui called it Aitutaki, that is “God-led”: aitu — god, taki — led (3).


The more common tradition begins with Ru, who was a powerful, young man and a chief navigator of his home island, Tupuaki, far to the east and north. He sailed with his four wives, four brothers, and twenty “tamaine tapairu” in search of an uninhabited land. After many days and a severe storm, they found a new land, which is appropriately called Enua-O-Ru, Land of Ru (4). page 9 When Ru had already grown-up sons, a young ariki from Kuporu and his three brothers landed at the island. His name was Te Erui. Ru welcomed them, for the island needed an ariki and husbands for the tamaine tapairu. Ru's daughter pitoroa, became the wife of Te Erui, and she gave him a son, named Taruia. At the time of Taruia's ariki-ship, a young chief, named Ruatapu, left his island of Taputapuatea (probably the place of that name on Raiatea) in search of a land where he could become an ariki. He was a descendant of Iro (Whiro). He went to Rarotonga at the time of Tangiia, and from there sailed to Tonga Tapu. After some years he returned to Rarotonga, and from there went to Mauke and Atiu. Setting out again, he discovered Manuae, and finally came to Aitutaki, where he tricked Taruia into leaving the island for Rarotonga. Ruatapu, then became ariki of Aitutaki.

Taruia, after leaving Rarotonga, reached Tongareva. His great-great-grandson, Urirau, returned to Aitutaki from Tongareva and settled there (5).


There is another account, which gives the first five canoes that arrived at Aitutaki. The first canoe, Te Uatoaua, with the Tongan chief, Te Munakorero, entered the Avaroa passage. Te Muna named the small islet of Maina by throwing himself down in the sand to enjoy the heat of the sun: mainaina ra. The second canoe, Katopa-enua, with the chief Kai, entered the Vaimotu passage and landed at Taravao. The next voyager was Ui-tario in the canoe, Irakau, who came through the Taketake passage. Then the double-canoe of Te Erui arrived and made its landfall through the Avatapu passage. Finally Ruatapu stepped ashore at Ava-kopuanua from his canoe, Tue-mona (6).


When the great-grandson of Ruatapu, Maeva-kura, was ariki, the island was invaded by a strange tribe, named Te Aitu. It is said that they came from Mangaia. Maeva-kura sent messengers to his daughter, Maine-marae-rua, who lived on Rarotonga, to ask for help. Her son, Maro-una, went with a war-party to Mangaia, Atiu, and Niue to obtain warriors from these islands. With their help he exterminated the Aitu people. Another account says that the invaders came from Upolu.

Maro-una divided the island into districts. He married Ua-nuku-kaitai, by whom he had a son, Te Au-kura. The son of Te Au-kura, named Tapu-o-Rongo, took three wives, from whom branched the three ariki families of Aitutaki: Vaeruarangi, Tamatoa, and Te Uru-kura (7).

A Niue tradition states that one of their ancestors, Fao, left that island in old age, and settled in Aitutaki (8).


When Ru sighted the island, he called it Te Ararau-Enua-O-Ru-Ki-Te-Moana, that is: Ru's Search for land over the ocean (9), or Ru Looking for land over the ocean, as “ararau-enua” is said to mean: to search for land (10). One tradition tells that one of Ru's wives was named “Ararau-enua”, and she gave birth to Ru's first son, who was named: Ararau-enua-o-Ru-ki-te-moana (11). The proper name given to the island by Ru after landing was Utataki-Enua-O-Ru-Ki-Te-Moana. Two meanings are given: A Land Searched for and Found upon the Sea by Ru (12), or The Leading of a Cargo of people by Ru over the Ocean, as “uta” is a shortened form of “utauta”, that is a cargo of people, and “taki”, that is to lead (13).

page 10

A third name given by Ru was Ara'ura, which Gill translated as “Fragrant wreaths for dancing” (14). [unclear: P]akoti says “Tare te aiteanga, ko te araure matangi ua anga o Ru i te kimi enua aere,” and this is translated as “where the wind drove Ru in his search for land” (15). According to Buck it is a shortened form of “Ararau”, although he adds that it is difficult to see how the two words are connected (16).

The origin and meaning of the present-day name Aitutaki is disputed. One tradition says that a warrior, named Utataki-enua, gave the island the name of “Aitutaki” (17). Others state that Ru's “Utataki-enua” became “Ututaki”, and this was changed by the early missionaries from Raiates to Aitutaki(18). Kelly gives the name as Tu-Tataki-Enua, and adds that this was corrupted by Europeans to Aitutaki(19).


The European discoverer of the island is William Bligh. He was master of the “Resolution” during Cook's third voyage. In 1787 he was given the command of the “Bounty” and its complement of 44 men and officers to go to Tahiti to procure breadfruit trees for the West Indies. The “Bounty” sailed from Spit-head on Dec. 23, 1787, and reached Tahiti via Cape the Good Hope on Oct. 26, 1788. The ship left Tahiti on April 4, 1789, and after calling at Huahine, she came upon Aitutaki on April 11, 1789. A native came out in a canoe, rubbed noses with Bligh, gave him a pearl-shell breast ornament suspended with human-hair braid, and told him that the island was called Wytootackee (20).

The Admiralty sent the frigate “Pandora” under the command of Captain Edward Edwards to search for the “Bounty”— mutineers. Leaving Tahiti on May 8, 1791, the “Pandora” reached Aitutaki come days later (21). William Bligh visited the island again on July 25, 1792 (22).

Captain Goodenough of the “Cumberland”, who left Rarotonga on Aug. 12, 1814, reached Aitutaki two days later. He left the two kidnapped women of Rarotonga on the island, where they were found by John Williams (23).

The turning-point in the history of the island and of the whole group now known as the Cook Islands was the arrival of John Williams, who landed two native teachers from Raiatea, Papehia and Vahapeta, to preach the Gospel. That was on Oct. 26, 1821 (24).

It was the beginning of the “Tuatau Marama”, i.e. the era of the light (of the Gospel), and the end of the “tuatau Etene”, i.e. the era of the heathen. The population at that time was 2.000 (25).

In 1822/23 Tupu ariki brought the Manuas people as captives to Aitutaki and took possession of that island (26). In 1839 the first European missionary, Henry Royle, took up residence (27). In the 1850s hundreds of whaling ships called at Aitutaki every year.


Because of rumours that the French intended to annex the island, the ariki made a formal request for British protection (28). Captain Bourke of H.M.S “Hyacinth” hoisted the British Flag on Nov., 1888, and annexed the island to Great Britain (29). Later the island was included in the Cook Islands Federation for administrative convenience (30). In 1901 it was included in the boundaries of New Zealand (31). Population in 1902: 1,170 (32).


William Bligh spelt the name Aitutaki as Wytootackee and Whytootackee (33), and Charles Darwin, who visited the island in the “Beagle” on Dec. 3, 1835, page 11 wrote Whylootackee (34).

Other spellings are: Itotake (35), Aitutake (36), Aitoutaki (37), Uaitutate (38), Aitutaike, Aitotake, Wytootach, Whytootacke, Vaitutake (39).

The Tahitians called it Tootate (40).






192:17, 139–141




230; 234; 333; 228; 231; 20: 101–103, 110; 222:XIX; 125; 159: 3–7; 149f




234:217–219; 233; 230:70; 86b:2; 198:61–63












115:12; 222:XIX


138:193, 194; 192:17


169:59, 65




230:61, 67; 233:note 9


228c:266; 223:19




8:319; 19:36; 466:158


313: 14; 19:40




332:14; 118:46


218:51–53; 204:253; 190: 200




233:note 5; 234:215note


187:10note 1


66: 285






66:296; 76:241














61:214; 73:65





Aitutakian god. After Willians' Narrative, P. 65

Aitutakian god.
After Willians' Narrative, P. 65

Aitutakian goddess. After a photograph in Buck's Arts and Crafts, plate 13, A, B.

Aitutakian goddess.
After a photograph in Buck's Arts and Crafts, plate 13, A, B.