Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Discoverers of the Cook Islands and the Names They Gave

12. Rakahanga

page 39

12. Rakahanga

A black and white sketch of the island Rakahanga.

A rectangular stoll [sic]. Lagoon: 4.5 × 2.5 km. Land-area: 4.04 km2.

Position: 10°02′30″S, 161°05′30″W.

Populations 1966: 323, 1971: 339. 1975: 365.

Rakahanga to Equator: 1111 km, to Rarotonga: 1248 km, to Manihiki: 44 km.


Rakahanga and its sister-island Manihiki ware discovered by Huku (or Hiuku, Hiku, Iku). Names, said to be ancient names of both islands, are part of the legend of discovery: Whakahotu, Tapua'Ua, Te Huru-Awatea, and Hotu-Rangaranga(1).


Huku came from Rarotonga, although this is questioned by Sharp (2). He was a son or grandson of Hiro (Ira, Whiro), a contemporary of Tangiia, the great Rarotongan ancestor (3). On a fishing expedition Huku came to a part of the ocean known as Te Tukuanga I Whakahotu, that is: The Fishing ground of (owned by) Whakahotu. Whakahotu does not appear elsewhere in the tradition, but Hakahotu in Tongareva, Fa'ahotu in Tahiti, and Hd'ohoku in Hawaii, is the primary female parent of coral atolls; the word means: to grow up like a coral growth (4).

At Te Tukuanga i Whakahotu Huku noticed an upgrowth of rock and land (tapua whenua) still beneath the surface of the ocean. He renamed his canoe Tapua, that is: Upgrowth, or Tapua'ua, that is: An Upgrowth only (5), and returned to Rarotonga.


This more or less historical narrative is now interpolated by the myth of Maui-mua fishing up this upgrowth of coral. The three Maui brothers, Maui-mua, Maui-roto, and Maui-potiki, or Maui-muri, arrived at that particular spot in a canoe. First Maui-mua let down his fish-hook, and he caught a shark (mango). Then Maui-roto caught an “urua”. Now it was Maui-muri's turn. Before letting down his hook, Maui-muri went down to visit the woman, who dwelt down below, Hina-i-te-papa (Hina of the rock). She fastened Maui-muri's hook on to the coral. When he hauled up his line, the sea was agitated, and finally land came to the surface. Maui-muri sprang on to the rocks, while his two brothers drifted ashore in their canoe. The canoe split up and both were drowned (6). In the Manihikian version, Maui-muri named the island Manahiki (7). Some versions attribute the breaking up of the land into two parts, called Rakahanga and Manihiki, to Maui (8), but this is denied by Buck (9).


In a dream Huku saw that his upgrowth had reached the surface, and in that dream the name Rakahanga came to him (10). He sailed back and met Maui on the new land. Huku attacked him to expell the intruder, and in the struggle that followed a portion of the land broke off and it floated away to become Manihiki (11).

Finding a drift coconut, Huku planted it at a spot which he named Te Maru-o-Araiawa. To the nut, or to the plant that was to grow from it, he gave the name of Te Huru-Awatea (12). Then he returned to Rarotonga.

page 40

On a third (or fourth) voyage in a canoe, named Hotu-Rangaranga, Huku took with him a supply of coconuts and two paddlers, who died and were buried on the isle of Te Kainga (13). Once again Huku went back to Rarotonga.


Although Huku kept his discovery a secret, a man named Wheatu (or Featu) guessed that Huku had found new land. He set out in his canoe and arrived at Manihiki, and from there at Rakahanga, where he started to cut out a channel in the reef. Having a premonition of what was happening, Huku set sail again together with his sister, Tapairu (Tapaeru-taki-etu) and her husband Toa. Wheatu was driven off the island, and Huku went away too. Tapairu gave birth to four girls: Kae, Poe, Naunau, and Nanamu. To get the island populated Toa had no other choice but to take his daughters as wives. That is the origin of the Rakahanga-Manihiki people (14) at about the middle of the fourteenth century (15).


Another version of the discovery is given in a Rarotongan tradition. A man, named Are-ariki had settled on Tongareva. His wife was Takareu and his son Toa. They went to Rarotonga, but a fish-hook that Toa had let down into the sea, was left behind. Are-ariki sent his son back to fetch the hook. At his arrival Toa took the hook and angled for fish. The hook got entangled in something down in the sea. He hauled it up and saw a thing with branches. Leaving it there, he returned to Rarotonga to tell his father. Are-ariki said to him: “Return and pull it up, for it is land”. When Toa arrived once more at that spot, he found that Maui had already pulled up the land. They wrestled together and in that struggle the land was broken up into pieces through the treading of Maui's feet. There were three fragments: Raka-anga, Mani-iki, and Tukao (16).


The islet of Te Kainga (the Home) was the original dwelling place of the people, but later the site of the single village was transferred to Rakahanga across the inter island channel to the south (17). The regular passages back and forth to Manihiki were established when the food-supply of Rakaanga grew short (18). At the beginning of the 19th century a drift boat from Rurutu found all the people at Manihiki, while Rakahanga was uninhabited (19).


One pamphlet says that it is generally believed that Magellan may have discovered the island in 1521 (not 1561 as printed) (20), but no other reference has been found to substantiate it.

The last of the great Spanish voyages of exploration set sail from Callao on Dec. 21, 1605 under the command of Pedro Fernandez de Quiros. At dawn on March 2, 1606, the two ships, Capitana and Almiranta, came to a small island, 3 to 4 leagues in circuit, covered with coconut palms, but no other trees. The island was inhabited, with a village under a grove of palm trees, near a lake which the island has in the middle. Quiros wrote: “The land is divided among many owners, and is planted with certain roots, which must form their bread. All the rest is a large and thick palm grove, which is the chief sustenance of the natives. Some 500 inhabitants were seen assembled on the beach.” They were “the most beautiful white and elegant people that were met during the voyage”, “especially the women, who, if properly dressed, would have advantages over our Spanish women.”

Juan de Torquemada, a Franciscan friar, was so struck with admiration, that he called the discovery: The Island of Gente Hermosa, the island of Beautiful Peo- page 41 ple. Quiros called it Peregrina (Pilgrim). Another member of the expedition, Luis Vaes de Torres, named it La Matanza (Slaughter). Torres went ashore on March 3.

The accounts (there are seven published accounts) speak clearly of a permanent settled island, with a well-built village, consisting of houses with “gables and high lofts where they sleep.” Also mentioned are “soft and very fine mats” used for clothing and “knives, saws, chisels, punches, gouges, gimlets and fish-hooks” made of pearl-shell, large wooden fish-hooks, needles of bone and adzes. The Spaniards were struck by the outrigger canoes, in which most of the natives eventually fled across the lagoon, and large double canoes for inter-island navigation, seventy feet long, with a deck between, capable of carrying fifty people, masts like cross-trees, and sails of matting.

Manihiki was not permanently settled until 1852, and this island is also much more cut-up. We also know that the islet of Te Kainga was the original dwelling place of the people of Rakahanga, so that there is no doubt that Quiros' discovery was Rakahanga (21). Others, however, identify it as Manihiki (22). In Buck's opinion it was Olosenga or Swains Island (23).

A Russian expedition of two sloops, the “Vostok” and the “Mirnyi”, sailed from Kronstadt on July 4, 1819 under the command of Admiral Thaddeus Bellingshausen. On Aug. 8, 1820 Rakahanga was discovered and named Grand Duke Alexander Island. The inhabitants came out in canoes and challenged the white men to fight by throwing stones and spears at the ship. The date is according to the Russian calendar, and twelve days must be added for the English calendar (24).

Captain Patrickson of the “Good Hope” named it Reirson Island on Oct. 13, 1820. Captain JoshuaCoffin [sic] of the Nantucket whaler “Ganges” called it Little Ganges Islano in 1828 (25). Other names of the island were: French or Francis Island, Prinzess Marianne Island, Rierson Island, Alliconga Island (25a).


The native teachers, Aporo and Tairi, who landed on Manihiki in August 1849, crossed over to Rakahanga seven months later. During the passage some of the party were drowned (26). The teachers persuaded the people to divide themselves between the two island, because of the danger to life in crossing over. This was done in 1852 (27).

Commander A.C. Clarke of H.M.S “Espiègle” declared Rakahanga a British protectorate on Aug. 9, 1889 (28). The island was included in New Zealand's boundaries in 1901 (29). The population in 1902 was 400 (30).


Rakahanga was often spelt Rakaanga (31). An informant said that it was originally Hakahanga. The Pukapukans pronounce it as Lakawanga (32).

Wooden bowls made of tamanu or miro were oval, round, or elliptical in shape, with or without legs. General name; kumete; uete in Mangaia. Round bowls are termed: kumete taupupu in Aitutaki; apua in Atiu; uete raukaka in Mangaia. Oval bowls: kuete in Atiu; kumete roroa in Aitutaki.

Wooden bowls made of tamanu or miro were oval, round, or elliptical in shape, with or without legs.
General name; kumete; uete in Mangaia. Round bowls are termed: kumete taupupu in Aitutaki; apua in Atiu; uete raukaka in Mangaia. Oval bowls: kuete in Atiu; kumete roroa in Aitutaki.

page 42

259:14–22; 192:72–75; 20:55–58; 266:140–151


83:II 103–104


259:19; 266:144


259:15; 21:529; 20:133








192:72–75; 2:216


259:16; 20:58




259:15; 171c






259:17–19; 266:143–144


259:22; 20:126


366b:72, 85; 275




259:57; 20:127


82:I 38–39; 83:II 62–63




8:88; 118:9; 63:74, 76


113:10; 133:3; 107b:15




19:78; 259:5; 63:118


259: 5, 8; 63:116; 17:122






259:4; 267:325 note 4











Canoe paddle in traditional style from Manihiki-Rakahanga; made of coconut wood with pearl-shell discs. (On display in the Cook Islands Museum; on loan from the Dominion Museum).

Canoe paddle in traditional style from Manihiki-Rakahanga; made of coconut wood with pearl-shell discs.
(On display in the Cook Islands Museum; on loan from the Dominion Museum).