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Christianity brings hope to Tinomana Ariki as Gospel arrives in Rarotonga

Saturday 24 June 2023 | Written by Losirene Lacanivalu | Published in Church Talk, Features


Christianity brings hope to Tinomana Ariki as Gospel arrives in Rarotonga
Te-Pou: A Mataiapo at Avarua. At the time Papehia and the Gospel landed at Rarotonga on 25 July 1823, Pe-Pou was a Mataiapo in the District of Avarua and its surrounding area. He was one of the early converts to the Christian faith. Two or maybe three generations after Te-Pou, the five Ariki on Rarotonga concluded that the person carrying the “Vakatini Title” should be elevated to be of equal status to the other five Ariki. And so Vakatini Ariki came to be recognised as being of equal standing on Rarotonga to Pa, Kainuku, Makea Nui, Karika and Tinomana Ariki. This island now had six Ariki in residence. (Source of Illustration: “From Darkness to Light in Polynesia”, by Rev. William Wyatt Gill, LL.D. First Published by William Clowes and Sons, London, England, 1894.)/ 23062337

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 how the Gospel arrived at Rarotonga.

Reverend John Williams, and those on board the Mission Ship, returned to Atiu from Mauke on the morning of 24 July 1823. The purpose of this return visit was to drop off Rongomatane Ariki, as well as two “Native Teachers” and their wives, to begin their Christian work on Atiu.

Before Rongomatane Ariki left the Mission Ship, Rev Williams asked him for the sailing directions they needed to take in order to reach Rarotonga. 

Rev Williams now takes up the story – “When we inquired the position in which it lay, (meaning Rarotonga) he at once pointed in one direction, and at another in the quite opposite. But this was soon explained; for the natives, in making their voyages, do not leave from any part of the island, as we do, but, invariably, have what may be called starting-points. At these places they have certain land-marks, by which they steer until the stars become visible and they generally contrive to set sail so as to get sight of their heavenly guides by the time their land-marks disappear. Knowing this we determined to adopt the native plan and took our vessel around to the ‘starting point’. Having arrived there, the chief was desired to look to the land-marks while the vessel being turned gradually around, and when these ranged with each other he cried out ‘That’s it; that’s it’. I looked immediately at the compass and found the course to be S.W. by W.” (SOURCE: “A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands”, by John Williams. John Snow and Co., London, England, 1837)

The fact that Atiu had a “starting-point” to indicate the sailing direction to reach Rarotonga is not unusual.

Read more:

Letter: Living under God’s blessing

‘Let us worship but one (true) God’

Death of Ariki’s daughter, an attempt to introduce Christianity to Mangaia

‘The Spirit of God is forever present … everywhere – all the time’

Seeds of Christianity: The Gospel Pioneer to Aitutaki

‘They called this island Wytootakee’

Christianity created a Nation: The arrival of the Gospel

Spreading the Gospel of history     

> ‘You’ve been worshipping nothing but pieces of wood’

Rongomatane Ariki knew of the two land marks of the island that needed to be “lined up” in order to indicate the sailing direction to reach Rarotonga. Once the Mission Ship was in place and the two land marks were in line to the rear, then the sailing direction to Rarotonga was directly in the opposite direction.

The Mission Ship left Atiu later that same morning. As dawn broke the following day, a mountainous volcanic island was seen slowly rising up from below the horizon directly ahead.

And that island was Rarotonga.

Following the departure of Captain Goodenough and the “Cumberland” from Rarotonga in August 1814, civil disorder broke out when, for whatever reason, Pa Ariki of Takitumu (on the east and southern side of Rarotonga) invaded Tinomana Ariki and his tribe on the western side of Rarotonga.

What followed was a six-year period of “off and on” conflict.

During this time, the tribe of Tinomana Ariki suffered greatly. Many people had died, while those still living were occupying a mountain retreat at Maungaroa. This place was located where the Highland Paradise is situated today.  

There they were in relative safety being protected by the rugged mountain slopes that protected this environment. For this apparent six-year period, Pa and his associate Kainuku Ariki reigned supreme until the “Battle of Vai-o-kura”. This was fought in the area around where the Muriavai Stream enters the lagoon now known as Betela.

At that location, thought to have been around 1820, the warriors of Tinomana Ariki confronted the warriors of Pa Ariki in a fight that was extremely brutal. A lot of blood, from both sides, ran down the Muriavai Stream and into the lagoon as a result of those who had been killed.

While neither side could claim victory. Neither side could say they were defeated.

In the end, Pa Ariki concluded that the time had come to call an end to all hostilities. The fighting had gone on long enough and so peace should now be brought to Rarotonga. There was no point continuing this particular battle any more.

So Pa Ariki made a “peace-offering” to Tinomana Ariki in which he announced the end of hostilities. He also advised the tribe of Tinomana they were free to return to their traditional land on the coastal plain of Puaikura.

However, Tinomana Ariki was not convinced this “peace-offering” was completely genuine. So he and his tribe remained secluded in safety at Maungaroa. True to his word, Pa Ariki did not carry on with hostilities. So a fragile peace had descended upon Rarotonga at the time Rev Williams arrived with the Gospel on 25 July 1823.

The reaction Rev John Williams received from those people who first came out to the Mission Ship was a friendly one. So he concluded it was safe to send a landing party ashore. This comprised of Papehia, as well as Teiro and Tairi who were the two fishermen who had initially come from Takitumu. Also included in this group was Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki of Aitutaki.

As their small craft passed through the reef passage to enter Avarua Harbour, it could be seen that a large crowd had gathered on the foreshore.

As the new arrivals approached the beach, Tamatoa-Uma-tetiki Ariki stood up in the bow of the vessel where he announced their arrival and stated the purpose of their visit. Tamatoa told of his island of origin and said that he and his colleagues on the visiting ship had come in a friendly manner. They had not come with any hostile intent.

When the new arrivals first landed, they were met by Makea Pori. For all intended purposes he was the “acting” Makea Ariki of the district. His father, Makea Tinirau Ariki or Makea Metua, was an elderly man who was living at the time with Tinomana Ariki in the mountain retreat at Maungaroa.

When Papehia told Makea Pori that his long-lost cousin Tepaeru-Ariki was on board the Mission Ship, after living for nine years on Aitutaki, relations between the two groups became very cordial. Later that day, Makea Pori went out to the Mission Ship. The reunion between he and Tepaeru-Ariki was a very emotional one.

They rubbed noses as a traditional greeting … and then fell into each other’s arms and wept.

Later that afternoon Makea Pori returned ashore. He took with him Vaineino (or Vahineino) and another “Native Teacher” along with their two wives. He also took Tepaeru-Ariki and her Aitutaki husband along with Mata Kavaau as well.

Rev Williams had given specific instructions for Papehia to make arrangements for the two “Native Teachers” and their wives to be settled on the island and for himself to remain on Rarotonga overnight.

Once the “Native Teachers” and their wives had been settled, Papehia was to return to the Mission Ship the next day after which they would leave Rarotonga and return to Aitutaki before the vessel would make its way back to Raiatea.

When Papehia and his entourage landed on Rarotonga, Makea Pori gave them a place to sleep and made sure they had enough food to eat. However, during the night an “unruly person”, who has never been clearly identified, tried to abduct Vaineino’s wife and demanded the right to take the woman as a wife.

When Papehia and company refused to allow the woman to be taken, hostilities broke out and so the small group of arrivals came under siege from various night-time marauders. No one in the landing party slept that night and it was only the persistent intervention of Tepaeru-Ariki that kept the hostile elements away.

As soon as the sun had risen the next day, Papehia, Vaineino and his wife, along with the other “Native Teacher” and his wife, made a hasty retreat back to the Mission Ship. Those of origin from Rarotonga, who had landed from Aitutaki the previous day, did not return to the Mission Ship.

When Papehia told Rev Williams what had happened, the Missionary concluded that the situation was too dangerous to leave any “Native Teachers” on Rarotonga. So he made the decision to abandon the island. A second attempt to place “Native Teachers” here would be made at another time.

However, Papehia objected to this. He told Rev Williams that he was not afraid to remain on Rarotonga because he wanted to bring Christianity to the people of this island.

To begin with, Rev Williams dismissed the idea.

But Papehia was most insistent. He told the Missionary that his several very good friends now living on Rarotonga, whom they had brought over from Aitutaki, would stand by him and make sure that no harm came to him. On the basis of what Papehia had to say, Rev Williams then changed his mind and agreed for Papehia to go ashore and remain on Rarotonga.

In regard to the events of that day, Rev Williams later wrote of Papehia: “… and leaving his property in the vessel, after taking an affectionate farewell from us, this truly devoted man got into a canoe and went ashore, carrying with him nothing but the clothes he wore, his native Testament, and a bundle of elementary books. The two men and women, natives of Rarotonga, whom we had brought back from Aitutaki, had embraced Christianity some time before, and promised steadfastly to maintain their profession among their heathen countrymen.” (SOURCE: “A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands”, by John Williams. John Snow and Co., London, England, 1837)

Once Papehia had landed, he accepted an invitation from Makea Pori to stay at his home. While this man was not an instant convert to Christianity, he was certainly sympathetic to Papehia on the basis of apparent wealth and material goods this “New God” had to offer.

Various sources from the time suggest that soon after Papehia landed on Rarotonga, he was taken by a “Chiefly Person” known as “Te-Pou” to a large stone which was called “Avaiki-Tautau”. This was located at a place known as Ruatara. Upon arrival, Te-Pou presented Papehia to his Traditional Gods in the same manner Tamatoa Uma-tetiki Ariki had done to him on Aitutaki, two years earlier.

In doing so, Te-Pou paid Papehia the highest compliment possible in terms of pre-Christian way-of-living.

It was at Ruatara that Papehia then preached his first sermon on Rarotonga.

Right from the very beginning, Papehia made every effort to spread the word of God and to have idolatry abolished. But he consistently faced hostility and rejection because many people were very suspicious of him.

During these very early days on Rarotonga, Papehia was told by various Ta’unga, that their carved idols were the material links between their traditional gods and those who were living. He was told the destruction of those idols would result in dire consequences for all the people who worshipped these traditional gods.

Papehia’s response was that: “The Lord in heaven will not allow that to happen.”

However, many people of Rarotonga were far from convinced.

The first Ariki on Rarotonga to react in a positive way towards Papehia and the arrival of the Gospel, was Tinomana Enua-ruru-tini Ariki of Puaikura.

As a result of the conflict that took place after the departure of the “Cumberland”, Tinomana Ariki and his tribe in Puaikura got “dragged” into a civil conflict with Pa Ariki and his tribe in Takitumu. This resulted in six years of “on and off” hostility that saw the people of Puaikura suffer greatly through basically no fault of their own.

As with the people of Mitiaro and Mauke, Tinomana Ariki and his tribe had consistently pleaded with their traditional gods for divine intervention and for spiritual protection. They asked over many years for these gods to safeguard them all from the hostile warriors of Pa Ariki.

But all to no affect.

As it happened, the tribe of Tinomana Ariki did not win the civil conflict against the tribe of Pa Ariki. But they did not lose it either. It was only after the Battle of Vai-o-kura around 1820, that hostilities came to an end when Pa Ariki concluded that he had “had-enough” of this conflict and fighting.  

But by this time Tinomana Ariki and many of his tribe had virtually lost all confidence in the traditional gods they had continued to believe in for so many years. So when the Ariki heard that a foreigner had landed and was talking about a European God, Tinomana Ariki travelled to Avarua especially to meet this new arrival.

Papehia was into his second full day on Rarotonga when Tinomana Enua-ruru-tini Ariki and his entourage called to speak with him. After a short period of discussion, the Ariki then invited Papehia to travel to Puaikura.

The “Native Teacher” replied that he would, but not at that particular time as he had more pressing things to do on the northern side of Rarotonga. With an assurance that a visit by Papehia to Puaikura would not be far away, Tinomana Ariki left and returned to his mountain retreat at Maungaroa.

He therefore returned home and patiently waited for Papehia to make his visit … at a time that would be convenient to him.


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

Papehia Manuscript : “An Account of the coming of the word of God to Rarotonga”, Polynesian Society, Wellington, NZ, 1930.

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