In 2003 she wrote an essay called “Ei’s Forever Floating” for her honours Degree. This was the first major work done on the Cook Islands soldiers. “I have not stopped researching the Cook Islands soldiers of World War One, and my goal is to make sure every man that served has a headstone,” she says. “My research buddies and I have located around 200 graves. We have organised two new headstones for men that did not have them - one was unveiled in Porirua last July and one in Brisbane in April. We know of at least three more graves in New Zealand that need headstones.”
Tamatoa Tepai (age 15) is the first Cook Islander in over 100 years to lay his eyes on a recently-discovered national taonga – a brass artillery shell made into an engraved tankard.
He is the first Cook Islander other than the original owner to have seen it when I took it on its next journey to Auckland on August 16.
To date, this in the only known World War One artefact of this type with a Cook Islands connection that has been located.
I had spent over two years negotiating to get the piece to New Zealand. It was found in Middlesbrough, England, some 260 miles north of Walton-on-Thames, where 16/1202 Pte Taura is buried. It belonged to a gentleman by the name Brynn who was a neighbour of the parents of the person I got the shell from.
Brynn collected a lot of old, weird and wonderful things such as antique guns and wall-mounted animal trophies. He passed away around 10 years ago and it wasn’t until his partner Brenda also passed away two years ago that the shell tankard was discovered. It is thought likely Brynn bought it at a car boot sale without ever knowing the full history behind it.
The story behind Private Taura is that on January 7, 1917, he died of a tubercular illness. He had been admitted to a field hospital in France after reporting sick. He was evacuated on the hospital Ship St Denis to the 2nd NZ General Hospital in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, England.
He was buried on January 8, 1917. Originally he was going to be returned to New Zealand but was too ill to travel.
Records show Taura enlisted on September 28, 1915 in Rarotonga. He named Atiu as his place of birth.
He was born around 1894 and was living in Avarua at the time. He listed his occupation as a casual labourer.
His next of kin details give his father’s name as Tuakina of Atiu. His will left everything to his widow, Ua Maratai of Takuvaine. I believe his father’s name may have been Terekia, and Taura wasn’t Atiuan, but a Rarotongan married to an Atiuan woman.
It is not known when the shell was engraved. It may have been done while Taura was in France. The shell itself is a relatively common Mark II shell case for a British 18-pound field gun manufactured in 1916 by the Royal Laboratory in Woolwich, England. It had a reloaded full charge, meaning that it was used and reloaded and reused. It is quite possible that it was used on the Western Front during 1916. The largest expenditure of artillery ammunition during 1916 was on the Somme. The lot number relates only to the primer, not the whole round. The primer was made by ALCO – the American Locomotive Company.
And the shell’s journey has not ended. On August 17 I showed it to the Atiuan community in Auckland. I am hoping to bring it with me to Rarotonga in October. I have tried to contact the National Museum, but have not heard from them at the time of writing this article. I am also hoping to take it to the couple of schools while I am there, including Tereora College.
With permission from the family and the people of the Cook Islands, I am planning to donate the shell to the Auckland War Memorial Museum, so it can be viewed by as many Cook Islanders as possible.
If all goes well then, the people of Rarotonga may get to view this national taonga for themselves in October.