Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Discoverers of the Cook Islands and the Names They Gave

11. Pukapuka

page 36

11. Pukapuka

A black and white sketch of the island Pukapuka.

A three lobbed atoll, 10.5 × 10.5 km, with three islets and a sandbank.

Land-area: 1.2 km2 (estimate). Maximum elevation: 12 m.

Position: 10°53′S, 165°49′W.

population: 1966: 684, 1971: 756. 1975: 784.

Pukapuka to Equator: 1207 km, to Rarotonga: 1324 km, to Nassau: 88 km, to Manihiki: 529 km.


Tamayei, a god from Tonga, searched the ocean until he saw a rock rising from the bottom of the sea. When he returned for the fourth time, the island had come to the surface. Suddenly a man from inside the rock burst through. His name was Mataliki. Another god, Vaelua, sent Mataliki to Tongaleleva (Tongareva or just Tonga?) to seek a wife. He found a girl, named Vaopupu, and he brought her to Te Ulu-o-Te-Watu, that is: The Head of the Rock (Te Katu-o-te-toka in Rarotongan), which had grown Mataliki (1). Another account written by one of the Rarotongan native teachers to Pukapuka simply stated that Matariki was a god, the son of Tamaei, who came from Tonga. Matariki's mother was a “vatu” that is a stone. The creation of heaven and earth is attributed to Matariki, who founded the villages of Muriutu, Matanga, Angari-pure, Akovika, Amaunga, and Aronga. It was in these places that men grew and increased to great numbers, for in those days men did not die (2).


Probably more than one voyager reached the island, for a man, called Uyo, is also said to be the ancestor of the people. Pukapuka was a rock in the ocean. A god, named Tamaye watched the rock, and thought it of no use. The rock, however, burst open and a man appeared. As there was hardly standing room, the man, Uyo, made the island of Pukapuka. His wife, Te Vao-pupu, came from To-nga. Their son was named Tu-muri-vaka, and their daughter, Te Mata-kiate (3). In very ancient times two warriors came from Tonga, one was named Tokai-pore, the other Taupe-roa. They settled the people in three districts: Avarua, or Kotiporo, Te Awea, or Pana-uri, and Takanumi, or Ure-kava (4).

The island knew happiness and peace during the reign of Akau-te-vaka ariki, when there were no wars. This lasted until the days of Akamora, who was detested by his people, for he was beloved by one of his granddaughters, named Akovika. When she had reached womanhood, Akamora delegated to her the chieftainship. The girl herself was in doubt, and went to her father, Kui, to ask for advice. Kui replied: “We (maua) will take it.” This made the people angry, and they decided to kill Kui. That is how war started in Pukapuka (5).


Pukapuka was settled at about A.D. 1300. About 250 years later the island was struck by a seismic wave, due to the wickedness of the daughter of the king. Her name was Anuna. Only two women and fifteen men survived, and they, in a communal effort, repopulated the island (6).


The most ancient tribe, descended from an ancestress, called Te Raio, was Te Ua-ruru. Other tribes were Te Mango, Te Uira, and Te Kati (7).

page 37

Mataliki, using his right as discoverer, named the island Te Watu-A-Ma-Taliki, that is: The Rock of Mataliki (8). Another ancient name was Nu-Kuloa (Nukuroa in Rarotongan), that is: Large Land (9).

The present-day name of Pukapuka, also written as Bukabuka (10), was originally the name of the main island (11), which is now called “Wale”, that is: House, Pukapuka has no meaning (12), but Robert and Johnny Frisbie translated it respectively as: Little Hills and Fat Land (13).

The island name O Poopooa, or O-Popooa on Forster's map may refer to Pukapuka (14).


According to Pukapukan tradition the first white man's ship was sighted during the time of Alatakupu, the fourth chief after the seismic wave (15). That must have been Mendana and Quiros.

A quarter of a century after his first voyage across the Pacific (1567/68) and almost three quarters of a century after Magellan (1521), Alvaro de Mendana left Callao (Peru) for another voyage of discovery on April 9, 1595. His chief Pilot was Pedro Fernandez de Quiros. At dawn on Sunday Aug. 20, 1595, four small and low islands, with sandy beaches, and many palm and other trees were sighted. On the South-east side, towards the North, was a great sandbank. Quiros stated in his narrative that it was not known whether the islands were inhabited, although the people in the galeot said that they had seen canoes. The island was named San Bernardo. Saint Barnard, Abbot of Clairvaux, was the guiding light of the Church in the 12th century. He died in 1153, and Aug. 20 is his feastday in the Roman Catholic calendar. Both Beaglehole and Maude accept that San Bernardo is Pukapuka (16). The fact that Quiros mentioned four islets is not a too serious objection. Hurricanes and tidal waves could have denuded the fourth island of vegetation, and reduced it to the size of the present-day sand-cay, Toka. Buck mentions San Bernardo without attempting to locate it, and Ernest Beaglehole does not mention it either (17). Blanc says that it was either Pukapuka or Manihiki (18).

A fleet of British war vessels crossed the Pacific in 1742 under the command of George Anson. This voyage made the British Government aware of the fact that Pacific exploration would add to England's prestige as a maritime power. The first expedition consisted of a copper-sheated ship, the “Dolphin”, under Commodore John Byron, and the sloop, “Tamar”, under Captain Mouat. The ships sailed from the Downs on June 21, 1764. Exactly one year later, on June 21, 1765 an island was sighted and named Island Of Danger, because the high surf made it too dangerous to land (19). Pukapuka is still known as Danger Island. The Atoll was named Îles De La Loutre by Captain Peron of “La Loutre” on April 3, 1796. Captain Louis de Saulces de Freycinet on “L'Urania” fixed the position of the Atoll on October 19, 1819 (19a).


Native tradition mentions another white man's ship in 1850 (20). The first native teachers were landed in Dec. 1857 (21). Gill visited the island in 1862 (22), and in 1865 the missionary ship “John Williams” was wrecked on its reef (23).

Early in 1863 the island was twice visited by Peruvian slavers, who took away about 140 men and women (24).

The U.S.S. “Tuscarora under the command of J.N. Miller examined the atoll in 1876. Observations were made in 1880 by H.M.S. Alert. The Hawaiian bark “R.W. Wood” under Captain English made a cruise from Sept. 6, 1869 to Dec. 19 in page 38 search of Polynesian labourers for Hawaii. The ship reached Honolulu with about 14 men and 28 women from Pukapuka. They were under contract for two year but as they proved neither good plantation labourers nor good household servants, twenty were sent back soon after on the schooner Annie under Captain Babcock (25).

Captain H.W.M. Gibson of H.M.S “Curaçao” proclaimed it a British protectorate on June 2, 1892 (26). The island was included in New Zealand's boundaries in 1901 (27), not in 1914 (28). The population in 1902 was 505 (29).


299:376–377; 305:8; 304:13


295:120, 122–123


306:173, 175


306:173, 175


295:120–121, 123


299:378, 386; 306:174


306: 174, 176




305:8; 306:173–175


306:173, 175












19:68; 118:9; 63:64–66


19:8; 299:5










204:372; 213:228; 193:12




213:228; 192:60


299:5; 64:188






299:5; 305:7; 306:173





Pukapukan Canoe, donated by the people of Pukapuka to the Cook Islands Library and Museum Society.

Pukapukan Canoe, donated by the people of Pukapuka to the Cook Islands Library and Museum Society.