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Pukapuka Island

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Pukapuka (Danger Islands) consists of a group of three small islets, connected by reefs, of which Pukapuka, northernmost, is located 652 nautical miles south of the equator. They are about 715 miles from Rarotonga, Cook islands, 360 miles from Pago Pago; and 45 miles N.W. by N. from Nassau Island.

The land area of the group is 1,250 acres; and elevation is nowhere more than 40 feet, much of it low. Pukapuka, at the north, is shaped like a Y, with arms extending southwestward, about a mile across. The entire population lives on this island. At the southeast is a somewhat larger, but lower and less luxuriant, U-shaped island, Motu Ko; at the southwest a smaller, elliptical island, Motu Kotawa.

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The islands are connected by broad barrier reefs, which on south and west are always awash; sandbanks come and go on the eastern reef, upon which the surf breaks. They enclose a triangular lagoon, 5 miles north and south by 1 to 2 miles wide, much choked toward each end by reefs and coral heads, but with the central portion clear, with depths up to 50 feet. The natives navigate their small canoes freely in the lagoon, by paddle or sail, and also walk along the reefs. From Motu Kotawa, Tearai Reef extends three miles westward to Toka sand cay, the sand bank of which was washed away by the tidal wave of 1914. The published charts are not entirely accurate for this group.

Anchorage is possible only with S.E. trade winds, off the west side of Pukapuka. Here a landing can be made over the reef at high tide in canoes or flat-bottomed boats, or on the reef flat at low tide when the sea is not too rough.

Pukapuka is thickly covered with vegetation, consisting of coconut palms, among which are scattered trees of species noted of Nassau. Three large swampy areas, dug by man long ago, have been planted to taro and bananas. Motu Kotawa has taller and more luxuriant vegetation, up to a total height of 80 to 100 feet, its west end with especially dense undergrowth, tall Pisonia trees, and taro in a central wet depression. Motu Ko is covered largely with scrub forest, clumps of coconut palms, and one small swampy area on the east, planted to taro and bananas. Much more of it could be cultivated.

There is good water supply on all three islands, from wells, open seep holes, and concrete cisterns on Pukapuka. Weather records kept from 1930 to 1935 show an average rainfall of 128.4 inches (113 to 156), rainy season July to February; temperature, maximum 86.8 to 92.2, minimum 67 to 75, mean 80.9 and 83.9 degrees F. The prevailing winds are: May to October from the east and southeast; November to April from the northward, with occasional storms.

Animal life is like that described for Nassau. Pigs, chickens and rats have arrived with man. Sea birds are comparatively scarce, and the land cuckoo and pigeon are practically extinct. Insects include three kinds of butterflies, five kinds of dragonflies, day and night mosquitoes, and bothersome flies. Fish are common and much used for food.

The atoll has been inhabited for a long time by a Polynesian people, whose traditional history and culture have been discussed extensively by Dr. and Mrs. Ernest Beaglehole in Bishop Museum Bulletin 150, 1938. The old name for the atoll was Te Ulu-o-te-watu (head of the rock), and the northern island was wale (home).

The group was discovered June 21, 1765, by Commodore Byron, in the British ship Dolphin. Some authorities believe it to be the San Bernardo seen by Mendana, August 20, 1595. Due to its isolation, few vessels visited it prior to 1857, when missionaries were landed by the London Missionary Society. In 1862, Rev. Wyatt W. Gill found most of the people on the island converted to Christianity. Peruvian slavers raided the island in 1863, and took off about 100 men and women. The English missionary barque John Williams was wrecked on the west side in May, 1864.

In search of Polynesian labourers for Hawaii, the Hawaiian barque R.W. Wood, Captain English, made a cruise south from Honolulu, September 6, 1869, returning December 19, with about 14 men and 28 women from Pukapuka. They were under contract for two years; but proving neither good plantation labourers nor household servants, twenty were sent back soon after on the schooner Annie, Captain Balcock. 

The U.S.S. Tuscarora, Comdr. J. N. Miller, examined the atoll in 1876. H.M.S. Alert made observations in 1880. The group was annexed to Great Britain in 1892, and included in New Zealand's Cook Islands Administration in 1901.

The people live in three villages, along the lagoon side of the north island. The villages are neat and clean with substantial houses and good paths, one crossing an arm of the lagoon on a stone causeway. The population has increased steadily from 435 in 1906 to 682 in 1938. In September, 1914, 52 were transferred to Rarotonga, to relieve distress caused by the tidal wave of January, 1914. In 1935 there were 199 males, 195 females, and 238 children. During harvest periods, natives from two of the villages move to the other two islands, which they cultivate. Up to 120 tons of copra have been produced annually.

The majority of the people are members of the London Missionary Society church, their church being a conspicuous building near the centre of the lagoon beach. A Seventh Day Adventist mission was started in 1919, and a Roman Catholic mission about 1929. All three have native pastors. Since white contact, the old religion has disappeared, and there has been a cultural revolution. The Pukapuka language has given way to Rarotongan, official language for church and government.

Economic life also has been affected by white contact. Many natives live in whitewashed, lime-walled houses, and practically all wear European clothes - trousers and undershirts for men, dresses for women, especially in public. They made fine-weave pandanus hats. Money from sale of copra made foreign food and clothes available. Recent depression and low price of copra have caused the withdrawal of traders, and the natives, perforce, are returning to native clothing and foods.

The island has been made famous by Robert Dean Frisbie's "Book of Pukapuka." The resident agent in 1938 was Geoffrey Henry, a descendant of Geoffrey Strickland, American ship builder. He introduced breadfruit trees from Rarotonga, not previously growing on Pukapuka. Top minnows, introduced in January, 1937, have helped to reduce mosquitoes. A radio station was established in 1937, with a part Rarotongan in charge.

Tema Reef, 14 miles, S.E. by S. of Danger Islands, discovered by Captain William Williams, of the John Williams, May 15, 1864, and examined by H.M.S. Alert, is 400 to 600 yards in diameter.

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 Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 27th May 2003)