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Christianity lands on Mangaia

Saturday 5 August 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Art, Church Talk, Features, In Depth, Memory Lane, Weekend


Christianity lands on Mangaia
The church on Mangaia. COOK ISLANDS TOURISM/ 23080337

Historian and author Howard Henry has been fascinated by the birth of Christianity in the Cook Islands for many years. In a weekly series, Henry chronicles the arrival of Christianity to the Cook Islands and its role in building the nation. In this article, he talks about the arrival of Christianity on Mangaia.

The first attempt to place Christianity on Mangaia was a failure.

On this occasion, Reverend John Williams arrived at this island on board the Mission Ship on either the 17th or 18th July 1823. After being assured by one of the locals that both the Gospel and Christianity would be welcome on Mangaia, Papehia was then instructed by Rev Williams to take two “Native Teachers” and their wives ashore.

Once they had been suitably received, Papehia was then to return to the Mission Ship.

However, when Papehia and the two “Native Teachers” stepped shore, they were set upon by a small group of men with hostile intent. Following a short period of confrontation, Papehia and the “Native Teachers” managed to affect an escape and return to the Mission Ship.

Rev Williams then decided to abandon any further attempt to have Christianity introduced to the people of Mangaia. So he told the skipper of the Mission Ship to hoist sail … and head for Atiu.

While Papehia and the two “Native Teachers” had left Mangaia in great haste, they did leave behind a few possessions, with the most prized being two little piglets. These were the first such animals to be seen on Mangaia.

The two piglets were then taken to a local Marae where they were treated in the most hospitable manner possible. One piglet was called “Tauiti” or “Little pet”, and this animal grew up to be a boar. The other piglet was called “Makave” or “Ringlet”, who grew up to be a sow.  

It was the general perception these two pigs were of divine origin. But as they grew up, no one was able to have a conversation with these two animals. They either “grunted” to themselves, or they “grunted” at each other.

The second aspect that caused the locals to be suspicious was because these two pigs were so dirty and unorganised. The older the pigs got, the worse they became. But they were still treated with great care out of fear of what might happen to humans living nearby, should the animals be taken to another place of residence.  

In due course “Makave” gave birth to piglets. And so a new generation of piglets continued to make an awful mess on the Marae. But people were too scared to remove them for fear of what the consequences would be. 

However, both “Tauiti” and “Makave” did make a significant contribution to the eventual acceptance of the Gospel by causing dysentery on Mangaia which made a large number of people extremely ill. This illness had never been known before. The “superstition” was made that this illness, to so many people, was a “punishment” for the way some of their number had treated the visitors who had landed on Mangaia several months previous.

With that superstition in mind, various Ta’unga and other community leaders, made a vow that should any visitor, or visitors arrive in the near future, these visitors would be protected from any insult and safeguarded from any sort of injury. The “punishment result”, for such action, was simply not worth it.

On 15 June 1824, eleven months after the departure of Rev Williams and Papehia, the European Missionaries, Reverends Tyerman, Threlkeld and George Bennet, arrived at Mangaia enroute to Sydney. A small group of men then went out and boarded the Mission Ship where they were asked if it was possible for two “Native Teachers” to land on this island.

The men of Mangaia agreed to this proposal and then pledged protection and assured the three Missionaries that no harm would come to either Davida or Tiere. On the basis of that guarantee, the two “Native Teachers” from Tahaa were then escorted ashore where several hundred people had gathered to witness their arrival.

No sooner had the two men stepped ashore, did a warrior then come forward. He objected to the arrival of these two men and raised his spear and aimed it directly at Davida. He was about to throw his weapon when Numangatini, the young King of Mangaia, intervened and disarmed him. So bloodshed was avoided.

King Numangatini then took Davida and Tiere by the hand and escorted them to his Marae. There he introduced them to Rongo, who was the Paramount God of Mangaia. A short time later Numangatini took the two men inland to his residence where a large feast was prepared in their honour.

It was at this function that Davida and Tiere began their religious teachings. They spoke about the God called Jehovah, they talked of Adam and Eve, the angels in heaven and the concept of the “Everlasting”. However, none of those present showed any inclination to change their “Religious Allegiance”.

As the days turned into weeks, Davida and Tiere continued with their efforts to spread the word of God. But somehow, they could not make the sort of progress they thought they should. While people continued to be hospitable, very few people on Mangaia actually took them seriously.

It took Davida and Tiere several months before they finally made a major break-through. This happened when two renowned warriors, known as Metua-aru-toa and Rongo-inga, approached the two “Native Teachers” and told them that they wanted to turn their backs on their traditional gods of the past and embrace the Christian faith.

Davida told them that in order to do so, they first must get a haircut. This was to indicate that they had changed their “Religious Allegiance”. So from that point forward, a man with short hair was a public indication that he had changed his “Religious Allegiance” to that of the Christian faith.

Others in the nearby community then started to change their “Religious Allegiance” as well. As a small group of Christians began to be established, Davida then started introducing various “Church Laws” by way of proclamation. There was no debate, discussion or consultation. These “Church Laws” came into existence on the say-so of Davida and Tiere.

Beside getting a haircut, there was no more loin-cloths. Men had to wear a wrap-around that was fastened around their waist and extended down to their knees. No more ‘ongi or the rubbing of noses. No more new tattoos. One man could only have one wife. Women had to have their body “private parts” covered at all times.

All new Christian converts had to live in the Christian village. They had to also attend all church related activities which happened on every day of the week. There were several other “Church Laws” that Davida and Tiere introduced, in which people who had changed their “Religious Allegiance” had to abide by.

But those mentioned above are but a few examples as Davida and Tiere set about establishing a “Christian Colony” on Mangaia in which the two “Native Teachers” were the “Paramount Rulers” of the Christian village they were in the process of creating.  

On a portion of land near the sea, Davida and Tiere supervised the construction of a Chapel. A school-house and various homes were also constructed to house the small Christian community. This village was called . . . “God’s Town”.

In September 1825, almost 15 months after Davida and Tiere first landed on Mangaia, the Mission Ship returned under the control of Reverend Robert Bourne. He stepped ashore to become the first European to set foot on the island. He was indeed pleased with the progress the two “Native Teachers” had made.  

The following year, 1826, Tiere died. So Davida was left as the only “Native Teacher” on Mangaia.

Sometime after this, one of King Numangatini’s family became seriously ill. The “superstitious view” was taken that this sickness was another “punishment”, similar to the “punishment” that had been handed out by dysentery a few years previous. This illness was because so many people in the community were refusing to change their “Religious Allegiance” to that of the Christian faith.

As a result of this perception, King Numangatini, along with senior elders including Parima and Simeona, concluded the time had come for them to change their “Religious Allegiance”. They therefore decided to abandon their traditional gods of the past and to embrace the Christian faith as being promoted by Davida.  

While the Christian population was very much in the minority and based at “God’s Town”, the heathen majority continued to be hostile towards Christianity. But they did not have the courage to take up arms and go into battle against Davida or any of those people now living within the Christian Village.

There was only one major conflict on Mangaia between the “heathens” and the “Christians” during the early years of Christian consolidation. This happened in February 1828. On another part of the island, those opposed to the arrival of the Gospel began preparations to attack all those living in the Christian Village at “God’s Town”.

But a problem here was, that while the “heathens” were large in number, they were distinctly unorganised and even divided among themselves. So when they finally did make their attack on “God’s Town”, in February 1828, the Christians were much better prepared for the conflict which followed.

This “little up-rising” was a short sharp affair. But no records are available to indicate how many died or what the total casualty count was. What is available suggests that this conflict was a one-off battle during which the Christians quickly gained the upper hand. So the “heathens” then retreated in great haste.

In the years following the conflict of 1828, Christianity slowly began to consolidate itself on Mangaia.

In late 1829 or early 1830, the Missionary Reverend Platt arrived at the island on a Mission Ship and left a second “Native Teacher” from Raiatea to assist Davida as a replacement for Tiere. His name was Vaaruea (or Faaruea) who, along with his wife, originated from Raiatea.

Rev John Williams returned to Mangaia on board the “Messenger of Peace” where he then stepped ashore in the later part of 1830 to be met by Davida and Vaaruea. The Missionary was very happy to see a large chapel had been constructed. He was also impressed with a lengthy main road that had been built with various homes for the Christians scattered on both sides to the right and left of the chapel.

A church service was held that afternoon at which Rev Williams gave the main sermon. In attending this church service, the Missionary was surprised as to how well both the men and women were dressed. It was obvious to him how well the locals had been taught in regard to decorum.

Later that day, Rev Williams and the “Messenger of Peace” left Mangia and headed for Rarotonga.

Rev Williams and the “Messenger of Peace” returned to Mangaia in 1831. Travelling with him at the time were Reverend Aaron Buzacott and Makea Pori Ariki from Rarotonga. Rev Williams also brought with him Havaire and his wife who were from Raiatea. There were now three “Native Teachers” stationed at the Christian village now known as Oneroa.

On the following day, a congregation gathered for a Church Service in the new Chapel that had just been built. Rev Aaron Buzacott read a portion of the scripture and led a prayer. Rev Williams then gave the sermon in his normal usual fashion. All the Christian community attended this service and were delighted to hear Rev Buzacott and Rev Williams address them in the language dialect of Rarotonga.

Over the following days, Rev Williams and his entourage visited a number of chiefs, and their tribal communities, in an attempt to encourage these people to abandon their traditional idols of the past and to travel to Oneroa and embrace the Christian faith. However, not one chief, or tribe, accepted this invitation. So no new Christian recruits came about as a result of these visits . . . at this particular time.

But the visits of Rev Williams and his entourage, to these heathen parts of Mangaia, did firmly plant the “Christian Seeds” in the heads and minds of many people. The Missionary had spoken at length to many non-believers about the positive aspects of the Christian faith and how God was a ‘Loving God’ who cared about his subjects in a loving sort of way. In the fullness of time, these visits by Rev Williams and Rev Buzacott proved to be extremely successful.

However, it was going to take a few more years yet before that success would eventually happen.

During the early Christian years, the Mission Station on Mangaia was not responsible to the Missionaries on Rarotonga. But rather, the “Native Teachers” were responsible to the London Missionary Society Headquarters at Raiatea. It was from there that the Reverend C. Barff landed on Mangaia in 1834. It was during this visit that the “Ekalesia of Mangaia” was established with 12 Foundation Members. These individuals became eligible as a result of the tutelage previously given to them by Davita, Vaaruea and Havaire.

For the next few years, the consolidation of the Christian faith on Mangaia was extremely slow. The main reason for this was because many people did not want to leave the land upon which they were residing in order to relocate their residence to be inside the Christian village at Oneroa.

In pre-Christian times, the population of Mangaia was widely scattered all over the island. People did not live in villages. But rather, they lived in family clusters. Just like they had been doing for generations.

But for many men and their families, to “uproot” themselves from their traditional land in order to live in Oneroa, many miles away, was simply something many people did not want to do. By refusing to relocate, many people were therefore refusing to change their “Religious Allegiance” to that of the Christian faith.

Sometime during the early part of 1839, an American vessel called at Rarotonga, having previously visited Mangaia. On board was a man of Rarotonga who had been living with Havaire at Oneroa. His name was Tukupa. Soon after stepping ashore, the captain of the vessel told Rev Buzacott there was serious trouble brewing on Mangaia and that hostilities had broken out within the Christian community. The skipper said that it was his fear that matters could only deteriorate and get worse.

In response to this information, Rev Buzacott sent for Tukupa and asked him what was happening on Mangaia. The man replied that the trouble had started as a result of a dispute between two of the “Native Teachers”. According to Tukupa, it all began when Vaaruea accused Havaire of having a “secret affair” with his wife.

Havaire claimed this was not true.

But Vaaruea did not believe him.

Tukupa then told Rev Buzacott that the dispute between the two “Native Teachers” was the start of all the trouble that followed. He went on to say that as a result of the conflict between Vaaruea and Havaire, a small group of Christians had abandoned Oneroa and gone back to live on the southern side of Mangaia at Tamarua.

Tukupa said a second group of Christians then abandoned Oneroa and went to live on the eastern side of the island at Ivirua.

Rev Buzacott was told the Christian village at Oneroa still had three “Native Teachers” who refused to even talk to each other. And their wives did not talk to each other either. The Missionary was told that the Christian community at Oneroa was now split into three factions. And each of these factions supported a different “Native Teacher” and his wife.

Rev Buzacott was told that those Christians who had gone back to Tamarua had no “Native Teacher”. Those Christians who had gone back to Ivirua had no “Native Teacher” as well.

Rev Buzacott then asked Tukupa as to when this “split-up” of the Christian community at Oneroa start to happen.

“About a year ago.”

How this whole situation was later resolved is “another story”, to be told at another time.


John Williams: “A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands”, Published by John Snow and Co., London, England, 1837.

Edited by Rev. J. P. Sunderland and Rev. A Buzacott: “Mission Life in the Islands of the Pacific”. John Snow and Co., London, England, 1866.

Howard Henry: “Christianity created a Nation”. Sovereign Pacific Publishing Company, Rarotonga, Cook Islands, 2021.