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Discoverers of the Cook Islands and the Names They Gave

13. Rarotonga

page 43

13. Rarotonga

A black and white sketch of the island Rarotonga.

A high volcanic island, described as elliptical in shape, oval-shaped, and kidney-shaped.

Area: 67.2 km2. Circumference: 32 km. Diameter: 11.2 km E-W, 7.2 km N-S. Radius: 4.98 km. Max. altitude: 652 m; original height, may have been 900 m.

The central mountainous area is deeply dissected by numerous streams with steep valley sides, separated by razorback ridges.

The central core is surrounded by a narrow belt of terraces, fans, lowland flats and swamps: 880 to 1200 m wide. There are three sand-cays and one volcanic islet (Taakoka) in the Muri lagoon, and a sand-cay in the north opposite the airport.

The lagoon within the encircling reef is very small except on the southern, and south-eastern sides.

The submerged volcano is 50 km in diameter at a depth of 4,000 m. Depth of ocean floor 4,500 m.

Position: 21°12′06″S, 159°46′33″W. Population: 1966: 9,971, 1971: 11,437. 1975: 9,495.

Rarotonga to Auckland: 3447 km, to Tahiti: 1260 km


Rarotonga, the largest island of the group and its administrative centre, is certainly one of the most praised islands of the South Seas since its discovery by Europeans: “The Jewel of the Southern Seas” (1), “Queen-island of the Hervey Group” (2), “Summer Isle of Eden” (3), “Island of Flowers” (4), and with regard to the language of its inhabitants: “The Vowal Island” (5). Rarotonga was already of great importance in pre-historic times, for “it appears in almost every list of islands known outside the Society group. This is probably an indication that Rarotonga was as important in the eyes of the Polynesians outside the Cooks, as it was to the Cook Islanders themselves” (6). This is true only, if the Rarotonga of the Polynesian legends and traditions is identical with modern Rarotonga as accepted by Smith (7). Sharp, however, doubts it, and is of the opinion that Rarotonga was a traditional placename like “Hawaiki” (8). If we accept the identification, Rarotonga did welcome many visitors to its shores in olden days from all over the Pacific.


Tu-te-rangi-marama, that is Tu-(bathed)-in-the-light-of-heaven, or Erect-in-the light-of-heaven (9), is said to be the first discoverer of the island. That was about A.D.450. From him descended Tamarua (10). During a temporary absence of Tu, the island was visited by Tangaroa (not the god) and Au-make from Iva (Raiatea or the Marquesas?). Au-make chopped the hill overlooking Arorangi, Rae-maru, in half. Later Tu returned (11).

The next visitors, also from Iva, were Ngare and a woman, named Toko. Ngare gave his name to a stream in Arorangi: Vai-o-Ngare. Toko named the passage through the reef at Arorangi: Vai-Toke (12).

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The god Tonga-iti found the island still floating on the ocean and his wife, Ari anchored it firmly. However, the land was taken away from them by Toutika, who diverted the Avana stream (13). Another tradition calls the wife of Tongaiti: Mei-ove or Rangatira (14).

At about A.D. 650 Ui-te-rangiora came to Rarotonga. He was the first to sail far to the south into the Tai-uka-a-pia, the ice or frozen sea (15).


In the ninth Century two canoes arrived; one from Iva with Ata-i-te-kura and one from Haapai (Tonga) with the two brothers: Apopo-te-akatinatina and Apopo-te-ivi-roa (16).

The traditional discoverer of Ao-tea-roa, Kupe, paid a visit to Rarotonga too, according to the New Zealand Maori tradition. That was in the tenth century (17) At about 1050 Toi from Iva built Rarotonga's backroad, called Te Ara-nui-o-Toi (18). This road follows generally the foot of the hills, cutting across the mouths of valleys, leaving the level flat outside, or seaward of it. It is paved for about two-thirds of its length with flat volcanic or coral stones. Its width is about 5 to 7 meter (19).

Other visitors after the Apopo brothers were Nga-Peina, Te Marangai-ariki, and three more canoes (20). Arekea, an ancestor of Karika, came from Uea, that is Wallis Island (21).

The famous Rata ariki, who lived either at about 725 or about 1100, resided for some time at Vaiakura. His descendants held possession of the land up to the period of Tangiia. Rata is an ancestor of Ruatapu of Aitutaki and of the Tinomana family of Puaikura (Arorangi) (22).


Another famous voyager, who visited Rarotonga, was Iro-nui-ma-oata (Whiro). With him came Kaukura. Iro's son, Tai-te-ariki, was later adopted by Tangiia, who renamed him: Te Ariki-upoko-tini. He is the ancestor of the Pa-ariki family of Takitumu (Ngatangiia) (23). Iro visited also Mangaia, Aitutaki, Mauke, Atiu and Mitiaro (24).

The final and definitive settlement of Rarotonga took place in the thirteenth century with the coming of Karika from Samoa and Tangiia-nui from Tahiti (25). Usually this event is placed at about 1250, but Gill gives 1223 or possibly 1198 (26).

Other visitors at that time were: Tutapu (27), Te Aia (28), Naea (29), Tui-ka-va (30), Ava Peinga, Ou-rua-riki, Rakau-katau and Rakau-kaui (31). Two sons of Iro settled at Rarotonga: Tautu-te-apa-rangi, and Tautu-tapuae-mokora (32). Later visitors were Tui-A'ana (33), Uenuku (34), and Ruatapu, who became ariki of Aitutaki (35). Smith gives a list of Rarotongan genealogies (36).


New Zealand traditions tell that the canoes, Takitumu, Te Arawa, Tainui, Matatua, Tokomaru and Kura-haupo called in at Rarotonga on their way to Ao-tea-roa (37). The ancestors of the New Zealand Takitumu migration, Paikea, Ira, Ruatapu, Hakiri-rari, and others, are sons or grandsons of Motoro, a son of Tangiia (38). The tribes of the East Coast of New Zealand's North Island, and the Hawke's Bay tribes are descended from Rarotongan ancestors (39). Tamarau, the ancestor of the Hapu-oneone, might have come from Arorangi (40). The Ngutu-au people were used, it is said, to sail to and fro Rarotonga (41).


An island, whose lofty mountains and fertile shores welcomed so many voyagers, could not escape being named many times.

The first to arrive, Tu-te-rangi-marama, named the island Te Tupua-O-Avaiki, page 45 that is The Upgrowth of Avaiki (42). In the genealogy of the Tamarua family Te Tupua-o-Avaiki is said to be a son of Te Tumu, the Polynesian primal father, and he himself the father of Tu-te-rangi-marama (43).

A New Zealand tradition says that Tu named the island Tipu Hawaiki (44). “Tipu” is “tupu”, that is “growth” (45). Another N.Z. tradition calls Rarotonga's first discoverer Tutu-te-aroaro, or Turangi-marama, who named the island Tipu-Aki Hawaiki (46).


Tonga-iti, who found the island floating around, named it Nuku-Tere, that is Floating Island. He climbed onto it and trod it to make it firm. His wife, Ari, dived down to fix its foundations. It was then named Tumu-Te-Varo-Varo (47).

One tradition claims that Tu-te-rangi-marama gave the island the still favourite name of Tumu-Te-Varovaro (48). Slightly different is a New Zealand account which says that Timu-te-varovaro was an atua (god), who made known the existence of unknown lands. He guided Tu-te-rangi-marama to Rarotonga (49).

In any case both Tu-te-rangi and Tongaiti are connected with this ancient name in the story of Tangiia. Before Tangiia came to Rarotonga, he went to Avaiki and had an interview with the gods. Tu-te-rangi and Tongaiti decided to give him great powers, and to set aside some particular land for him to dwell in. Then the two gods said to Tangiia: “There is a home for us two, named Tumu-Te-Varovrro; go to that land and live there until you die” (50).

Karika too is said to have named the island Tumu-Te-Varovaro-O-Tonganui, that is Tumu-te-varovaro-in-the south (51). Another legend mentions that the island was so called before Karika, for he told his parents, and later Tangiia, that he was going to Tumu-Te-Varovaro (52).

Gill gives as the meaning of this classical name: echo (53). Kiva interpreted it as “ko te manava o te enua”, and this was translated as: The Heart or Source of life (54). This is a faulty translation as “enua” does not mean “life” but “land”. Both translations are unsatisfactory. “Tumu means “cause” or “source”; “varovaro” means “continous sound”, especially “deep, hollow, booming sounds” (55). A literal translation is: Cause, or Source of Booming Sounds. This might refer to the sound caused by the waves breaking upon the reef, clearly heard by someone approaching the island by canoe. The name of Nuku-Te-Varovaro (56) would mean: Land of the Booming Sounds.


The honour of naming the island by its present-day name Rarotonga is claimed for four of its discoverers. One tradition simply states that it was Tongaiti, who gave this name to the island that he found floating around down to the south (57).

The famous navigator, Iro, visited the island once, and then returned to Tahiti. Some years later he decided to go back to the countries of the south. On his way down he met Tangiia at Mauke. In reply to Tangiia's question: “Where are you going?”, he answered: “I am going (down) to the south.” ‘Raro’ is ‘down’, and ‘tonga’ is ‘south’ (58).

Others claim that Tangiia declared the name of the island to be Rarotonga (59). In his first attempt to locate the island, Tangiia sailed too far to the south: “Tei raro aia i te tonga”, that is: he was down (too far) to the south (60). But he picked the island up on his way back to the north. Hence the name Rarotonga, that is: down, or below south (61). Seen from Tangiia's point of departure (Tahiti) the island was to the west and to the south. Thus another expla- page 46 nation is that Tangiia gave the name to the island because of his south-westerly course (62). Smith stated that the terms “raro” and “runga” were applied by Eastern Polynesians to the direction from which the trade wind blows, that is “raro” for the west, and “runga” for the east (63).

Karika too is said to have named the island Rarotonga, when he first sighted the island on coming from the north-east, because it was to leeward (raro), and towards the south (tonga) (64). Another reason for Karika's naming the island Rarotonga is that it was the name of his marae at Manu'a (Samoa) (65), or the name of the district in which his marae was situated (66). On his second voyage to Rarotonga (he is said to have made 8 voyages to the island), Karika brought with him a relation, named Tu-Rarotonga (67). According to a Pukapukan tradition, Rarotonga was a mountain of Yaiake; their name for Tahiti and surrounding islands. Once two ariki, Turi-yauora and Tuyimate, quarrelled and the land was divided. One piece was carried to the south. Hence the name Rarotonga, that is Tonga to the West, for it was once located further to the east (68).

An old priest told John Williams that Rarotonga was formerly united to the southern extremity of Raiatea. The natives of Rarotonga at that time had made a large drum, called Tai-moana, which they sent by the hands of two priests as a present to the great marae of Oro, the god of war, at Opoa. After the drum was dedicated to Oro, the two priests were killed by the Raiateans. This enraged the gods so much that they took up the land with its population, and carried it completely away. It was believed that the gods had taken it to the south (69).

Fata-fehi, the father of Tonga's king at that time, said that the name Tonga was carried to Rarotonga, or Lalotonga as he called it, by Ruatapu. The meaning of it is “under-Tonga”, for the people gave the name “Tonga” to some elevation, hill, or mountain, under which they lived on the sea-beach, or on flats surrounding the hills. So it was a Tongan canoe, manned by Tonga men, who took the name Tonga with them, and landing at the base of a hill, called the spot Lalo-Tonga (70). Gill translated Rarotonga as “Western Tonga”, a name given in loving memory of Western Tonga, or Tonga Tapu (71).

It is interesting to note that Sharp questions the identification of Tumu-te-varovaro with Rarotonga. He claims that they were two different islands in the Tahitian tradition, but that John Williams erroneously took them for being one and the same island. Thus modern Rarotonga became the happy hunting ground of European Myth-makers (72).


Savage in his Dictionary says that the first name of the island was Pu-Kaikai-O-Papa, or Pukai-Taringa-O-Papa; the last name meaning: The Ear Lobes of Papa (73). No other reference to this name has been found, but an explanation is possible.

The Polynesian gods had been human ancestors before they were made divine (75). In addition to gods and demi-gods, certain natural phenomena and evolutionary concepts were added to the pantheon in the personifications of Atea - Space, Papa - Earth foundation, Te Tumu - The Source or The Cause, and Hakahotu - Coral Upgrowth. At one stage in their theological development the priests made up a story to provide the divine family with supernatural parents. The earth provided the lower recumbent female partner, page 47 and the space above extending to the sky supplied the upper male partner. The earth was personified as the female Papa, and the upper space as the male Atea (76). In the light of this myth of origin the name Te Pukai-Taringa-O-Papa defines Rarotonga as a part of the anatomy of Papa, the earth-stratum, which became the Earth-mother.


In a booklet written by a Papaa an old name of Rarotonga is said to be Tumu-Whenua (77). “Whenua” is not Rarotongan, but N.Z. Maori; the Rarotongan word is “enua” =land. Thus the meaning of that name is: Cause (of the) Land. The reason for giving it as an old name is probably the N.Z. Maori tradition that the god Timu-te-varovaro, who guided Tu-te-rangi-marama to Rarotonga, was also known as Timu (or Tumu)-Whenua (78). Two other ancient names of which nothing more has been found are said to be Tangi-Maki-Oki-Rangi (79), and Pukai-Tangitangi (80).


The spelling of Tumu-te-varovaro in the Tahitian lists is Toometoa-Roaro, and Toometo-Roaro (81). In the same lists Rarotonga is spelt as Rarotoa, Rorotoa, Orarothoa, O-Rarotoa (82). The Tahitian spelling is Raroto'a (83). Captain Goodenough wrote Loratonga (84), Lamont: Rorotonga (85), and Ellis Rarotogna (86). It was also printed as Raritonga (87). The Tongans say Lalotonga (88).


The official European discoverer of Rarotonga is the missionary John Williams, for it was he who placed the name of the island on the maps of the pacific. However, he was certainly not the first Papaa to find the island. But those who came before him had their reasons to keep their visits a secret, or they were unable to tell it to the world.

Long before the coming of the Gospel a pirate ship was wercked [sic] outside the Ngatangiia harbour, according to a Takitumu tradition. Only the captain and three of his crew were saved. The Maori pronunciation of the ship's name was “Kora”, and that of the captain “Koni”. The “pirates” lived for some time at Kainuku's marae, Vaerota. Then one night, they stole one of the big canoes and sailed away (89).

There is enough evidence that the mutineers of the “Bounty” reached Rarotonga, although no landing was made (90). That was not immediately after the mutiny and on their way to Tahiti in May 1789 (91), but between Sept. 23, 1789, when the “Bounty” left Tahiti, and Jan. 15, 1790, when she arrived at Pitcairn Island. Christian sailed the ship west from the Society Islands as far as the Tongan Islands. In between these two groups at least one island was sighted. One of the Tahitian woman, known as Jenny, said that the natives called the island Purutea, but this might have been Mangaia. According to local tradition a man named Maia stole a box in which were found oranges and motini. That was how Rarotonga got its oranges (92). The statements that the “Bounty” came to Rarotonga in 1788 (93), or in 1897 (94) are clearly mistaken.

An American whaler reported an island, named Drotoi, about the position of Rarotonga, and placed it on American charts, but Captain Hervey of H.M.S. “Havannah” failed to find it (95).

Captain Henry of Tahiti is said to have discovered an island, which he called Druruiti, in 1811. It is shown on French charts at about the position of Rarotonga (96). Others spelt the name as Druruti (97).


In September-October 1813 the brig “Endeavour”, sailing from Ta- page 48 hiti to Sydney under the command of Captain Theodore Walker, passed Rarotonga. It was noted in the logbook with the remark that the island abounded in sandalwood. A Sydney magistrate, D'Arcy Wentworth, and three merchants formed a Sandalwood Company, and sent the “Cumberland” with Philip Goodenough as captain to what they called Walker's Island. It turned out to be Rarotonga, where the “Cumberland” arrived in May 1914. As no sandalwood was found, they collected the yellow dye wood, nono, and helped the Takitumu tribe to make an attack on the Tinomana people. A European woman who travelled on the ship was kidnapped by the natives, and eaten. The “Cumberland” left on Aug. 12, 1814, taking with her two Rarotongan women; Tapaeru Ariki and her companion, Mata Kavaau, and one man, Kupauta. They were dropped at Aitutaki a few days later (98). There existed quite a confusion about the year in which the “Cumberland” arrived: 1818 (99), 1820 (100), 1821 (101), 1820/21 (102).

On May 23, 1814 the vessel “Seringapatam” came close to Rarotonga, and the next day some natives, who came out in their canoes, were permitted to come aboard (103).

On Aug. 25, 1814 the “Campbell Macquarie” under Captain Richard Siddons called at Rarotonga (104). The “Governor Macquarie” left Sydney on Aug. 28, 1814 “for Otaheite and the neighbouring islands”. She called at Rarotonga too (105). On American charts an island is found on the approximate position of Rarotonga. It is called Armstrong Island, and said to be discovered by Captain Reynolds in 1817 (106).


After one unsuccessful search, John Williams in the schooner “Endeavour” under the command of Captain John Dibbs, discovered the island on July 25, 1823 (107), not in April/May 1822 (108). Papeiha, a Tahitian teacher, went ashore and started the preaching of the Good News (109). The population at that time is estimated as 6-7000 (110).

The first permanent missionary, Charles Pitman, arrived on May 6, 1827 (111), followed by Aaron Buzacott on Febr. 16, 1828 (112).

On March 5, 1824 Captain White of the “Medway” found Rarotonga, and as it was not shown on any scart, he called it Roxburgh Island (113).

In the 1830's and 1850's many whaling ships and trading schooners called at Rarotonga for supplies and merchandise. In the season 1850/51 seventy-five vessels - fifty-five whalers - visited the island (114).


The British Flag was hoisted on Rarotonga on Oct. 26, 1888 by Captain Bourke (115). The proclamation of annexation to New Zealand was read by Lord Ranfurly, Governor of New Zealand, on Oct. 8, 1900 (116), The population in 1902 was 2,060 (117).


On January 28, 1974 the Rarotongan International Airport was offically opened by Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth II.

Regular air services to Rarotonga began in 1945 after the New Zealand Public Works Department built an airstrip in 1944. The New Zealand National Airways Corporation operated a fortnightly Dakota service via Fiji, Tonga, Western Samoa and Aitutaki. Tasman Empire Airways Limited later opened a monthly island service known as the “Coral Route” flying Solent sea-planes between Auckland and Papeete via Fiji and Aitutaki. The N.A.C. services ceased in 1952 and the monthly Solent flight became fortnightly until it closed in 1960. Since then the Rarotongan airstrip was used infrequently by the R.N.Z. page 49 A.F. The Western Samoan company, Polynesian Airways Limited began regular flights from Apia in 1963, but this service had to cease in 1966, when international restrictions were placed on the use of smaller aircraft for long distance flights. In 1969 an agreement was reached between the Cook Islands Government and the New Zealand Government for the construction of a new airport.

The new International airport is situated at Nikao, some 2 miles west of Avarua. The size of the airfield is 166 acres, the length is about 2400 m (7,800 feet) and the width about 230 m (756 feet) (118).
















83:76, 80–81, 103–104; 39:107




351c; 339a:1, 2; 358:201–209; 366f:62, 64, 69; 311; 78:40


339a: 1, 2; 366b:75, 87–88; 111:3


339a:2, 3; 316:123


366i:2–4, 7–9; 20:119; 78:40




358:209; 366g:137–139, 147–148; 377:426; 2:38–40; 336; 309


351d:274, 276; 358:29; 366i:4–6, 9–11; 20:119; 78:41; 149k


21:5; 13:7


365; 358:144–145: 18; 366j:14–15; 3a:177–182; 120:8




351d:274, 276; 358: 29–30; 366i:6, 11; 115:11




362:153, 157, 167, 308:196; 357


351a:22–24, 25–26; 358:40–43; 232; 369; 366 1:113–127; 343:209 note 11; 3a:168–170; 21:460




351a:22–24, 25–27; 351b:65–67; 351d:275–276, 276–277; 372:104–108, 119–125; 339: 3–9; 358:202–209, 30–40; 366e,f, h, j; 20:119–121; 78:41–45; 368; 171a; 343:202–205; 335a; 125d; 95:1 263–282




372:104, 121–122; 364; 366k:45–50, 52–59




358:195, 37; 366j:14




351b:69, 73; 339b:5, 8; 3a:185–186






358:188,38–39; 21:461; 3a:196–197, 199


358:200, 203; 362:157; 3a:197–199


358:facing p. 48; 369a


3a:205, 211, 215; 41a:249; 34:113










339a:1, 2


366b:64, 69








366i:2–4, 7–9; 115:11; 20:103, 118; 78:40


339a:1, 2


316:122; 138:183


366h:190, 203


339b:3, 6; 316:123


351b:66, 67, 70, 72




339a:1, 2




369:46, 54: 316:134; 35:56




351a:22, 25–26


343:203; 78:44


351a:23, 26


358:36; 366h:195; 115:11






358:194; 377:427


364; 358:194; 366j:16; 193:23




339b:4, 7


306:174, 175






192:16; 329:634


82:86–88, 112; 83:87






21:528–529; 39:1, 11; 2:367–374; 11


366e; 21:529; 74:31; 20:114




316:122, 125; 138:183




349:21; 169a:16








348:46; 332:13




189:I 102, 126








8; 319; 313:12: 218:201–202; 377:428; 332:9–10; 342:191–195
















348; 119; 190:6–8; 332:12–14; 342; 63:343–371


169a:22; 122:10


346:13; 190:6–8; 193:11; 342


378:5; 317:261




313:13; 332:10–12



page 50



332:9; 348:50


119:49; 332:14




218:97–98; 187:4




204:275; 190:29; 218:113




332:14–15; 348:50


68:522–523; 66:281