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The mystery of Elizabeta Pitiman

Saturday August 25, 2018 Written by Published in Weekend
March-past at the Juvenile Missionary Festival at Maupiti, May 1850. The tapa cloths are carried by the children as identifying fl ags or banners. (The Missionary Magazine and Chronicle, January 1852). 18081502 March-past at the Juvenile Missionary Festival at Maupiti, May 1850. The tapa cloths are carried by the children as identifying fl ags or banners. (The Missionary Magazine and Chronicle, January 1852). 18081502

The 2018 Oceania exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts opens in London on September 29, bringing together 250 Pacific works of arts to celebrate the 250th anniversary year of Captain Cook’s first exploration of the Pacific. Included among the exhibits is a tapa cloth from Rarotonga with an interesting story. Local researchers Rod Dixon and Mike Tavioni, wrote this feature, which provides background information on the cloth for its current owner, the University of Cambridge.     


People in Titikaveka may recognise the building shown in the picture of the tapa cloth at the top of this page. It shows the Titikaveka church when the church still possessed its three gabled roofs. The cloth has an old label attached to it, which reads –

“A flag made by a little boy for the juvenile May meeting. These are not fair specimens of native manufacture as all have been injured by the hurricane. Rosanna E Corrie March 1853. Wheeler gave it me.”

To establish with confidence that the cloth indeed depicts the Titikaveka church requires identifying if “Rosanna E Corrie” had any links to Titikaveka and secondly, who was the ‘Wheeler’ who “gave it me” and his links to Rosanna Corrie.

Our efforts to establish these facts turned up an intriguing mystery, the fate of a young Rarotongan girl, Elizabeta Pitiman, a daughter of Manavaroa mataiapo.

Who was Wheeler?

Detailed research presented by Michael Graham-Stewart (Jesus in the Pacific, 2016) suggests that “Wheeler” who gave the cloth to the unidentified donor may have been Daniel Wheeler, a Quaker who visited Rarotonga from June 31 – July 9, 1836. Daniel Wheeler was hosted by the London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries, Rev. Charles and Elizabeth Pitman at their mission station at Ngatangiia.

During his visit, Wheeler and Pitman visited the neighbouring mission at Arorangi, and stopped on their way “to examine a new place of worship, 60 feet square which is a building of coral, or agglomerated sand and shells, and is nearly complete to the roof. The structure is carried out under the direction of Alexander Cunningham,” a LMS worker who had been sent to develop sugar planting in Rarotonga.

This building was the current square-shaped Titikeveka Church. But in 1836 the building was still five years away from its opening on June 11, 1841. Daniel Wheeler’s possession of a cloth depicting the fully completed church is therefore most unlikely.

Who is Rosanna E. Corrie?

On November 8, 1838 the Rev Charles Pitman’s wife Elizabeth, after a recuperative holiday in England, set sail from London on the Lord William Bentinck, accompanied by “Miss Corrie and master.” They arrived in Sydney on March 22, 1839. Mrs Pitman then crossed the Tasman on the brig Nimrod in June 1839, before continuing to Rarotonga. It appears that Miss Corrie may have had relatives in New South Wales and travelled to Rarotonga by a later vessel. We learn from the Rev. George Gill (Gems from the Coral Islands, 1856:76) that Mrs. Pitman established a boarding schools for girls at Ngatangiia, “which for some time was efficiently conducted by her sister, Miss Corrie.”

The school was for girls of ranking families and began with eight girls and several day scholars (Pitman to LMS, September 5, 1843).

Maretu in his journal, records that after his son, Opura, married Mere Pa Ariki in 1841, “Obura (sic) attended Rotana’s school and Pitman took him into his own class to train him as a teacher” (Cannibals and Converts, 1993; 140). ‘Rotana’ is a transliteration of ‘Rosanna’. A letter from Buzacott (March 19, 1846) confirms the name of Mrs. Pitman’s sister as Rosanna. Genealogical records indicate that Rosanna Elizabeth Corrie (1825 – 1861) was the daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Corrie, born February 2, 1825 at Carrisbrooke, Isle of Wight. Rosanna was the sister of Elizabeth Nelson Pitman (nee Corrie) the wife of the Rev. Charles Pitman. Rosanna is mentioned by Maretu in his description of the 1846 hurricane when he writes “Pitman and his wife, and the latter’s sister Rotana (were) guided inland by the wife of Teki of Arorangi” (Cannibals and Converts 1993; 185).

The 1846 hurricane is presumably the one referred to on the label of the tapa. It is fascinating to speculate that the water stains and the smudged black borders of the tapa may be evidence of a hurricane, 172 years ago.

What were the cloths made for?

The label mentions that the tapa cloth originated as “A flag made by a little boy for the juvenile May meeting.”

May was the anniversary of the founding of the LMS in May 1795. It was also the month traditionally associated with the collection of church contributions. The May celebrations included a Juvenile Meeting, at which local children, organised by school, made their contributions.

In 1841, Mrs George Gill described such a meeting in Arorangi: “We held our annual meeting with the children of the station and those of Avarua. Early on the morning of Wednesday, May 17…. After singing a hymn they (the children) were formed into ranks; and, with their native banners, painted all colours, and decorated with leaves and feathers, they marched in procession from one end of the settlement to the other.”

In 1831 Pitman described the annual Rarotonga inter-village Sunday School competition, that was followed by a feast and parade.

“Each class had its own flag made from native cloth, and in the procession, the boys were followed in order, by the principal chiefs, the judges and their wives” (Gray, 1975; 274).

Another ‘Wheeler’

The information previously mentioned confirms that ‘Rosanna E Corrie’ was the sister of Mrs Pitman, that the cloth was a banner used in one of the annual juvenile May meetings and the slight water damage to the cloth may have resulted from the 1846 hurricane. This suggests a date of manufacture between 1841 (the completion of the church) and 1846 (the date of the hurricane).

One question remains unanswered - who is the ‘Wheeler” who donated the cloth? As we have seen, the Quaker Daniel Wheeler visited Rarotonga five years too early to collect a cloth illustrating the finished Titikaveka church. 

Rosanna’s marriage records provide the answer. They show that in mid-1850, a few years after returning from Rarotonga to her family home near Newport, Isle of Wight, Rosanna Elizabeth Corrie married George Wheeler of London, a “master manufacturing jeweler”. She was 25 at the time. He was 28.

The census for 1851 shows Rosanna and George Wheeler at home in St Pancras, Middlesex with a housemaid and a cook. Rosanna died in 1861, aged 37, giving birth to her fifth child. A year later the five children were orphaned when George Wheeler himself died, aged 40 years.

The mystery of Elizabeta Pitiman

A final puzzle remains. Shipping records indicate that in February 1837, Mrs Elizabeth Pitman travelled from Rarotonga to Salem on the American ship Tybee (Captain Millet) then on to London on the James (Captain Wrangles) arriving in England in early October, 1837 (The Missionary Magazine, December, 1836; 609).

The following month, a Quaker lady called Elisabeth Dudley, recorded in her journal, that during a visit to the Isle of Wight, on November 2, 1837, “some of us called on an interesting female of the name Corrie, mother-in-law to Charles Pitman, missionary to the South Sea Islands.

We also saw a little native girl, a Rarotongian (sic), brought over by (Mrs) Corrie’s daughter.” Further information on this Rarotongan girl appears in Pitman’s journal, where he records the death of “Manavaroa a great chief”, describing him as “the Father of the child we have adopted.”

Pitman’s protégé, the Rarotongan missionary Ta’unga identifies this little girl in one of his letters as “Elizabeth” (Elizabeta), apparently named after her adoptive mother and grandmother.

The shipping records for 1839 note that when Mrs. Pitman returned to Rarotonga from England, via Sydney (8th November 1838 - 22 March, 1839) she was accompanied by her sister Rosanna Corrie “and master”. “Master” here refers to a young male child. There is no reference to a young girl accompanying Mrs Pitman in the passenger lists.

Whatever, then, became of Elizabeta Pitiman? Was she wrongly listed as a young boy (‘master”) on the passenger lists?

Was she left behind on the Isle of Wight with her adoptive grandmother Mrs. Elizabeth Corrie? (Mrs Corrie, died on July 21, 1849, aged 63).

We know of several other Cook Islanders who made the trip to England in the mid -19th century, some of whom returned (Kiro [1847-50] and Isaia Papehia [1853-6]) and others who did not return, like Akatu Vaine of Mangaia. Akatu died in England in 1877, aged 70 years, still in the service of Rev. and Mrs George Gill, and lies buried in Burnley, Lancashire.

But what became of Elizabeta Pitiman?

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