On Christmas Eve, 1916, Maitai on her last trip from San Francisco, became stranded on the Avarua reef with passengers, several hundred tons of cargo, and 1400 bags of mail.
Among the items the rescuers managed to salvage from the shipwreck was the ship’s Bible. It was gifted to a Cook Islands family and has been passed down for generations.
Tepaeru Whitta (nee Tepuretu) gently took the Bible out from its protective bag and placed it on the table at Trader Jacks where she dropped for lunch with niece Mary Lou Herdson and restaurant owner Jack Cooper.
And then she narrated the story behind it.
The Bible was signed to her half-sister and Herdson’s mother, the late Mary Emona Harvey (nee Davis), who at the time of the shipwreck was only three years old.
Mary Harvey’s parents were on the ship the night it wrecked. Whitta said there was a ball on the ship on Christmas Eve.
“When the ship was wrecked, they took the captain and the engineer to their homes in Ruatonga and accommodated them until a ship came and took them away,” Whitta said.
“That was when they gave the Bible to Mary Lou’s (Herdson) mother, signed to Mary. She was only three years old then. She was the eldest in the family but a baby at that time.”
Harvey kept the Bible, which was passed down to her daughter Herdson, who brought it back to Rarotonga to show her Aunty Tepaeru that she had been taking good care of the family treasure.
Herdson said the Bible had been professionally rebound keep it from falling apart.
“I kept asking ‘where is the Bible where is the Bible?’ We were not allowed to touch it when growing up,” an excited Whitta said.
“The first person I thought to show the Bible was Jack, because he has been so involved with the ship.”
Cooper said he was privileged to have the opportunity to see the Bible.
He said it could be well over 100 years old.
“I met a cabin boy of the Maitai in 1993. I have his discharge papers framed up on the wall here (at Trader Jacks),” Cooper said.
Herdson said the Bible had become part of the family.
She intends to pass it down to the next generation, keeping memories of the Maitai alive.
“So Jack’s got the boiler and we got the Bible,” she said with a hearty laugh.