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Discoverers of the Cook Islands and the Names They Gave

10. Penrhyn

page 33

10. Penrhyn

A black and white sketch of the island Penrhyn.

The largest atoll in the Cook Islands on the highest volcano: 4,876 m.

Lagoon: 20.9 × 11.3 km2, circumference: 64 km. Land-area: 9.8 km2.

Position: 8°59′45″S, 157°58′50″W.

Population: 1966: 684, 1971: 756. 1975: 592

Penrhyn to Equator: 994 km, to Rarotonga: 1364 km, to Manihiki: 363 km, to Aitutaki: 1111 km.


The most northern atoll of the Cooks was fished up by Vatea, the eldest son of the great mother in Avaiki. He went out fishing, using a great fish-hook baited with a star. When he caught nothing, he tore off a piece of flesh from his thigh, and used it as bait. He, then, pulled up the island of Tongareva, after which he hung up his fish-hook in the sky. From the time of creation the atoll had been inhabited by the descendants of the mythical Atea (Space) and Hakahotu (Coral Upgrowth) (1). Another tradition says that their ancestors came from Hawaiki-tautau, that is New Zealand, before Tangiia and Karika came to Rarotonga (2).

Other legends tell about visitors from Savai'i and Kupolu. A certain Uenga, who came from Savai'i, called at Tongareva, before settling in Tahiti. In Tahiti his name was changed to Ruatea. His son was Tangiia-ariki, whose son was Kaukura, who in turn fathered a child, named Tangiia-nui, a contemporary of Tangiia-nui of Rarotonga (3). Another Kau-kura, an ancestor of Tangiia-nui of Rarotonga, had his home at Tongareva. His marae was Tuarea (4).

Te Aru-tanga-rangi, the son of Te Aru-tanga-nuku, sailed from Kuporu to Savaii and after some time returned to Kuporu. There his son Rira was born. The son of Rira was Papa-runga, who went to Tongareva, where his son, Papa-raro, was born. Papa-raro went to Iva (Marquesas). His son Tupa went to Tahiti. He too is an ancestor of Tangiia-nui of Rarotonga (5).


A voyaging ancestor was Taruia, the Aitutakian ariki deposed by Ruatapu. One account made him a permanent settler, another made him leave, after his son, Titia, had settled on the islet of Tokerau. Shortly, after Taruia, another voyager arrived. It was Mahuta, who was originally from Rakahanga, but who came to the island via Tahiti. At that time Takatu was a descendant of the original inhabitants (6).


The original name of the island was Tongareva, translated as: Floating Tonga (7), Tonga Floating in Space (8), Tonga-in-the-skies (9), and Away from the South (10). Lamont never mentioned this name (11).

Gill gives as an old name Fararanga, said to mean: Land (12), and given by Mahuta, when he first sighted the atoll. Buck thinks that it is a mistake, as the dialect has no ‘f’ sound. One of the genealogies mentions the word “Raroranga”, and this might be Gill's Fararanga (13).

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Lamont, who spent almost one year on the atoll before the introduction of Christianity, called the island Te Pitaka, that is: The Ring, or The Circle. It was not, however, a name used by the natives: “Their idea of the whole group (of islets) was doubtless too great for them to dream of calling the islands collectively by one name” (14).

The present-day native name is Mangarongaro. Originally it was the name of one of the divisions of the large islet to the southwest (15). According to the Aitutakian tradition Taruia settled in this part, and its name, Mengarongaro, was used by the Aitutakians for the whole island (16). There is no translation of this name, but “mangaro” is a particular kind of coconut (17). In another Aitutakian tradition the island is called Rapukatea in the Maori text, and Puka-Tea in the English translation. It is also written as Raupukatea. It is said to be the name of an islet (18).

Tongareva was often spelt as Tongarewa. It was called Tongaliliva, or Tongaleleva in Pukapukan legends (19). Lamont spelt Mangarongaro as Mangerongaro (20).


Tongareva was discovered by Captain William Cropton Lever and Lieutenant Watts of the “Lady Penrhyn” on Aug. 8, 1788. The “Ledy Penrhyn” was one of a fleet of eleven ships which sailed from the Isle of Wight to found the earliest convict-colony in Australia. The island was named Penrhyn, presumably after the ship (21). Sometimes the name of the Captain is given as “Sever” (22) “Severn” (23), or “Stavers” (24).

The next Papaa visitor was Lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue in the Russian ship “Rurick”, or “Rurik” on May 1, 1816 (25), not 1815 (26).

Captain William Endicott of the “Glide” sighted the island on Nov. 6, 1830 (27). Captain Macy of the American whale “Peruvian” reached the island on July 21, 1827 (27a)

In 1839 the Government of the United States sent a scientific expedition to the Pacific under the command of Captain Charles Wilkes. One of the six vessels, the “Purpoise” under the command of Lieutenant Commandant Cadwalader Ringgold called at Penrhyn on Febr. 15, 1841. Barter took place with the people who came out in canoes, and the position of the island was corrected on the chart (28). It might have been on this occasion that a solitary white man went ashore and was speared and slain by the natives (29).

On Jan. 6, 1853 the brig “Chatam” was wrecked on the reef and some of the crew lived on the island for almost one year. One of them was the trader, E.H. Lamont, who was adopted into the community, lived as an islander and married three times, while on the island. His book “Wild Life among the Pacific Islanders” is “the best first-hand account of an atoll community.” One of his companions, called Dr. R. in his narrative, was Dr Longghost, immortalised by Herman Melville in his story of Omoo (30, 31).

Another European name was: Bennett Island (32a)


Christianity was introduced in March 1854, when three native teachers came ashore (32).

In 1862/63 the island was almost depopulated by Peruvian slavers, who left only 88 people of a population of perhaps 500 (33). The story goes that the four native teachers of the Hervey Group sold their congregation to the Spaniards for five dollars a head. Three of them took passage to Callao as interpreters page 35 and overseers at 100 dollars per month. Because of this the island became known among the slavers as the Island of the Four Evangelists (34).

The island was annexed by Captain Sir William Wiseman of H.M.S. “Caroline” on March 22, 1888 as possible landing-station for the Pacific Cable (35). In 1901 the island was included within the boundaries of New Zealand. The population in 1902 was 445 (36).

The first plane arrived in July 1942. It was a U.S. Catalina. The first U.S Troops arrived on Nov. 8, 1942. The last group departed on Sept. 30, 1946.

The U.S. code name for Penrhyn during the Second World War was Ostler. The camp near the airfield was “Camp Durant”, or “Point Durant Camp”.


290:17–19; 20:109, 132–134; 192:75; 230:63, 69; 228b:83–84


263:265 note 173




371:142; 3a:180




as in note 1
















291:149; 294:87


290:5; 291:125


20:17; 230:69




230:63, 69; 233 note 10; 234:211, 217






8:319; 19:36


19:36; 17:126


133:3; 107b:16












19:108; 290:7; 190:278










190:280; 64:185


193:12; 290:8; 66:286; 155







Food pounders (reru or penu) were made of basalt, calcite coral, and wood. Both specimens (basalt: left; calcite: right) are on display in the Cook Islands Museum.

Food pounders (reru or penu) were made of basalt, calcite coral, and wood. Both specimens (basalt: left; calcite: right) are on display in the Cook Islands Museum.