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Discoverers of the Cook Islands and the Names They Gave

7. Mitiaro

page 27

7. Mitiaro

A black and white sketch of the island Mitiaro.

A roughly circular or quadrilateral low raised-reef island. Area: 22.25 km2.

Diameter: 6.4 × 4.8 km. Radius: 2.76 km. Depth of ocean floor: 4,500 m.

The central volcanic core is formed by four “islands”, 3 to 12 m high, in an area of swamp-land; radius: 1.3 km. There are two lakes.

The coastal makatea belt: 6 to 9 m high; 400 m wide in the east, and 800 m wide in the N.W and S.W; at the seaside is a cliff face of 3 m high.

Position: 19°51′ S, 157°43′W. Population: 1966: 293, 1971: 331 1975: 352.

Mitiaro to Rarotonga: 263 km, to Mauke: 59 km, to Atiu: 50 km.


The gods drew this island up from the depth of the ocean, but it was bare rock, without any soil. One of the gods, Tane, decided to beautify the island. Suddenly two iron-wood trees sprang out of the rock near the sea: one on the east coast, facing Mauke, the other on the west coast, facing Atiu. Both trees touched the skies. No wonder, for they were embodiments of Tane-tarava, Tane the all-sufficient. The trees bowed down until their tops rested on the neighbouring islands. Fairies collected soil in coconut-leaf baskets, which they put in the branches. The trees raised themselves and the soil in the baskets was poured out over the island. This process was repeated many times until the island was fit for human habitation. One can still see the glens from which the fairies took the soil on Atiu and Mauke (1).

The island was settled from Atiu (2). An ancestor was Kutikuti-rau-matangi, and an ancestress Te Rongo-te-maeva (3).


The ancient name of the island is Nuku-Roa, translated by Gill as “Vast Host” (4), not “Vast Boat” (5). An old meaning of “Nuku”, however, was “Land” (6), and a better translation seems to be “Large Land”. This meaning is in any case substantiated by the facts. Aerial photographs taken in 1959 showed that Mitiaro is twice as big as previously thought, and 1,000 acres bigger than Mauke. It is the fourth island qua size of the whole group (7). The present-day name Mitiaro is translated by Gill as “Face of the Ocean” (8). “Aro” can mean “face”. “Miti” for “ocean” is unknown today, although. Savage gives it as a second meaning; the first being “salt” (9). But “miti” is the Tahitian word for “ocean” (10).

Another explanation is that Mitiaro is a shortened form of Motia-Aro (11), also spelt as Motea-Aro (12). “Motia” means: settlement, village, region (13). Mitiaro is also said to mean: L'Île en lutte contre la mer (14). The Isle in combat with the sea.

The late Tangata Nekeare explained the name of his home island as follows: The original name was Miti-Vai-Aro. “Aro” is the immature coconut; “vai aro” is the fluid of the “aro”, and “miti” is “to lick”. This name is said to refer to a battle with the Atiuans, when the blood of the victims was licked up like “vai aro”. page 28 Mitiaro was sometimes spelt as Mittiero, Mitièro, Mattiaro (15), and Metiaro(16).


Shortly before the arrivel of the Gospel, Rongomatane ariki of Atiu attacked the island. The brave warriors of Mitiaro held their stronghold Te Pari against the invaders, until it was captured by stratagem (17).

The island was discovered by John Williams on June 20/21, 1823, not in 1822 (18) On arrival, Rongomatane sent for the resident chief of the island and asked him and his people to burn the maraes, abandon the worship of their gods, and place themselves under the instruction of Taua, the native teacher (19). The population was then less than 100 (20).

During the 1840s the island was attacked at least twice by the Atiuans (21). Captain Bourke of H.M.S. “Hyacinth” hoisted the Union Jack on Oct. 31, 1888 (22). The island was included in the Cook Islands Federation until its annexation to New Zealand in 1901. In 1902 the population was 165 (23).


193:171; 195:39






192:17; 230:64, 70


95:I 2580




















29:495; 61:214; 73:65; 51:48


189:I 359




190:255; 332:5


218:87–88; 204:259, 264









A ceremonial version of a fighting club (korare) from Manihiki-Rakahanga. Made of Tou with pearl-shell discs. (On display in the Cook Islands Museum; on loan from the Canterbury Museum).

A ceremonial version of a fighting club (korare) from Manihiki-Rakahanga. Made of Tou with pearl-shell discs.
(On display in the Cook Islands Museum; on loan from the Canterbury Museum).