Tongareva (or Penrhyn Island) is a large atoll, the northern side of which is 537 nautical miles south of the equator. It is 190 nautical miles E.N.E. of Rakahanga, 325 miles westward of Vostok, 235 S.W. of Starbuck, and 649 miles south of Christmas Island. The anchorage at Omoka is almost exactly 9 degrees south, so that mariners find it a good place to check their instruments.
The atoll measures 12 miles N.W. and S.E., by 6 to 8 miles wide. The rim is about 40 miles around. The enclosed lagoon has an area of about 108 square miles, but is much choked with reefs and coral heads. Much of the rim is covered by low sand and coral islets, the land reaching a height of about 14 feet, and the tops of the coconut palms, pandanus and usual low trees about 50 feet. The land area is given as 4,000 acres.
Through the rim there are three passes deep enough to admit ships. The best of these is the Teahua or west pass, less than a mile north of Omoka village. This has 15 feet of water for a width of 100 yards, and depths of at least 20 feet in the middle. A strong tidal current runs out for 7.1/2 hours, and in during the next 4.1/2, twice a day, reaching a velocity of 3 or 4 knots.
The Sekelangi or northwest pass is 700 yards wide, but is so blocked by coral heads that the services of a local pilot are needed, and it is impassable in rough weather. It and the Takuha or northeast pass will admit vessels drawing less than 12 feet. During the usual trade wind season this last pass is exposed and has heavy breakers, as well as a 5 knot current.
There is anchorage off the west side for vessels too large to enter the lagoon. For smaller ships the lagoon furnishes one of the few safe havens in this region during the hurricane season. It is possible for ships to navigate in the lagoon by keeping a sharp lookout for reefs and coral heads, plainly visible in bright sunlight. There is a wharf at Omoka village.
Three miles off the northeast corner is a sunken reef, with about 2 fathoms (12 feet) of water over it, named for the barque Flying Venus which was wrecked there September 6, 1889.
The native name, Tongareva, means "floating Tonga," and was given to the atoll by the Polynesian discoverers. Dr. Peter H. Buck discusses the culture and traditions of the native inhabitants in Bishop Museum Bulletin 99, 1932. Tradition states that they came to Tongareva from Manihiki, although darker skin and a different dialect have led to statements that they are of a different stock.
The atoll was made known to Europeans by the British ship Lady Penrhyn, Captain Sever, it having been sighted by Lieutenant Watts on August 9, 1788. The exploring ship Rurick, Captain Otto von Kotzebue, visited the atoll April 30, 1816, and provides an early scientific account of the island. William Endicott tells about the encounter between the natives and the crew of the trading ship Glide, November 6, 1830. The ship Porpoise took members of the U.S. Exploring Expedition to the atoll February 15, 1841. The American clipper brig Chatham was wrecked on the S.W. islet in 1853. E.H. Lamont gives an entertaining and graphic account of experiences of its crew in his book, "Wild life among the Pacific Islanders," London, 1867.
In 1864 the villages were almost depopulated by Peruvian slavers. It has been estimated that at least 1,000 men, women, and children were taken to South America from this island. Native pastors of the London Missionary Society had introduced Christianity from Rarotonga in 1854. The new religion had been accepted enthusiastically, and the villagers immediately wanted to build churches. Promise of good pay and safe return from the slavers offered a way to obtain money for churches. But most of the natives died in exile, virtually slaves.
Trade with Rarotonga brought about a loose British protectorate, despite French attempts to include Tongareva in the administration of the Society Islands. Actual annexation to the British Empire was declared in the spring of 1889 by officers of H.M.S. Egeria. By proclamation made at Auckland, June 10, 1901, Tongareva came under the Cook Islands administration of New Zealand.
The native population decreased from 420 in 1906 to 326 in 1916; but since, it has risen steadily to 462 in 1936 at which time there were also five Europeans on the island. They live in two villages, Omoka on the west, and Tautua, nine miles across the lagoon, on the east side. There is a L.M.S. school at each. Each village has a good water supply from concrete tanks. There is no serious crime, and health conditions are, in general, good. Unfortunately a number of the natives have developed leprosy. A leper hospital and receiving station has been built for them and lepers from other nearby atolls, on the little island north of Omoka called Motu Unga, and by some called Molokai.
The chief products of Tongareva are copra, pearl and pipi shells, and native handiwork. During recent years, when the price of copra has been so low, only about one-third of the coconuts have been dried, the rest being used for human food or fed to pigs. Copra shipments decreased from 173 tons in 1932 to 35 tons in 1935, but rose again to 135 tons in 1937. Large lizards and rats have done some damage to coconuts. Much pearl shell and pipi shells have been gathered in the lagoon.
A radio station was installed June 23, 1937; and occasional vessels, other than trading schooners from Rarotonga and government ships, visit the atoll. One of these, in September, 1936, was Templeton Crocker's yacht Zaca, with an expedition to gather material and notes for a marine exhibit in the American Museum of Natural History, New York.