Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Geography: The "Lost" Cook Islands

                                                                          Aitutaki Lagoon, Cook Islands

[This piece was written on spec for a "geography website" that, it appears, wanted me to take a more sensationalistic approach to the subject, which I declined to do. They weren't going to pay much, anyway! So I am delighted to share the essay here.

In my (usually anonymous) writing-for-hire, I am generally more flexible when the subject matter is pretty far from anything I genuinely care about. On subjects that I DO care about, I am persnickety, and would rather have the material appear as I wish for no money, than as I don't wish for a little money.]

When people daydream about the romance of South Pacific islands, they tend to think of Tahiti specifically, and perhaps French Polynesia more generally. But they might also consider the Cook Islands, directly to French Polynesia’s west. This group of 15 islands and atolls, spread out over an expanse of ocean slightly larger than the land area of Alaska, and located smack dab in the middle of the greater South Pacific region, could not possibly be more romantic, tropical, and away from it all, but tends to get overlooked because its population is tiny (less than a tenth of French Polynesia’s), its tourism is less developed, and many of the individual islands are rather difficult to get to.

But the Cooks are richly fascinating. Historically part of Great Britain’s colonial empire, and named of course after the great explorer Captain James Cook, they have a curious quasi-independent status today. The Cook Islands, like Niue, is a state in “free association” with New Zealand, but unlike the South Pacific nations that share a similar free association with the United States – the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau – the Cook Islands and Niue are not full member-states of the United Nations (although they participate independently in several U.N. agencies). Although Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens and New Zealand is supposed to be responsible for the Cooks’ defense and foreign affairs, in point of fact the Cooks can enter into their own international treaties, and have been rather independent-minded in their foreign relations.

Only one of the Cooks, Rarotonga, has a population in excess of 10,000, and only one of the others, Aitutaki, even has a population exceeding 2,000. Unsurprisingly, those two islands are the most visited and touristically developed. Of the other 13 islands, eight have populations between 100 and 1,000, two have populations under 100, and three are uninhabited. All the islands may be reached, although the three uninhabited islands and the three least populated inhabited ones are only accessible by irregularly scheduled boat journeys.

There is competition among the “lesser” Cooks as to which is the most remote from conventional civilization. Is it Suwarrow, uninhabited today, which has been intermittently settled by one or very few people at a time over the past century? Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife Fanny called Suwarrow “the most romantic island in the world.”

Or is it Pukapuka, which the American writer Robert Dean Frisbie said was far from “the faintest echo” of “the noisy clamour of the civilized world”? Or perhaps Palmerston, uninhabited when Cook “discovered” it, which was then settled by the British adventurer William Martsters, who populated it with 23 children by three Polynesian wives? Marsters’ descendants still own the island, one of several such cases in Pacific history of an island dominated by one family or a small group of families. (Pitcairn, Niihau in Hawaii, and Swains Island in American Samoa are others.)

And Suwarrow, Pukapuka, and Palmerston are far from the only candidates; many of the other Cooks have similarly lonely histories. But for sheer romance, perhaps nothing beats an island that isn’t there anymore. And the Cooks have two of those that are frequently mentioned, along with three possible others.

The Cooks divide into northern and southern groups; the more populated islands are in the south, and Rarotonga and Mangaia are the southernmost of all. Even farther south, and triangulated between Rarotonga and Mangaia, was said to be the island of Tuanaki (actually a group of three islets forming an atoll).

There is an account by a sailor on a voyage from Aitutaki, of a landing and stay at Tuanaki, whose inhabitants were described as peaceable and fun-loving: “We do not kill men; we only know how to dance and sing; we know nothing of war.” The Tuanakians, whose island was “known by tradition in all the islands of [the] group,” were culturally similar to Mangaians, but unlike the Mangaians and Rarotongans, had not been reached by missionaries yet, and were said (a tad hopefully, perhaps?) to be in anticipation of that.

Two years later in 1844, missionaries headed out to oblige the Tuanakians, not once but twice. On neither occasion could they find the island. Nor did anyone ever do so again. Several Tuanakians who were supposed to have relocated to Rarotonga are said to have survived there for a number of years; there were also Rarotongans who remembered visiting Tuanaki by boat. Awareness of the island is said to have been general among whalers who sailed in the area, and also among French officials in Polynesia. The evidence for the existence of Tuanaki seems strong overall.

So what happened to it? Do islands just sink? Well, not “just,” but seismic and volcanic activity and intense storms can change the surface geography of oceans, and of course we are now living in anticipation of islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans disappearing because of global warming and rising sea levels. An atoll is simply a coral reef atop an underwater volcano (active or inactive), and is typically very low to the water. The disappearance of an atoll is nothing that improbable.

Several commentators over the years have theorized that the remains of Tuanaki can be identified with the Haymet Rocks, which were first reported by J.E. Haymet in 1863. However, this is problematic because we know much less about the Haymet Rocks than we do about Tuanaki! The position given by Haymet seems too far to the south and to the west for where Tuanaki is described as being, but on the other hand, the position may have been inaccurate. When ships later looked in that reported spot for the rocks in 1886 and 1887, they did not find them. The 1887 vessel, the Fabert, did however take a sounding of a seamount 120 meters below the surface, in a much more likely position for Tuanaki.

The other well-attested lost Cook island, Victoria, was located in the extreme north of the Cooks just as Tuanaki was located in the extreme south. William Marsters II, the son of the prolific populator of Palmerston, often spoke of his visits to Victoria as a young man in the 1880s. He sailed there out of Suva in Fiji. The island – a high volcanic island rather than a low-lying atoll, and located north of Penrhyn – was being used for the planting of coconut trees and later harvesting of copra (coconut meat). One team of copra workers was accidentally stranded there for 18 months (because their company in Fiji went bankrupt), and was barely rescued in time to prevent their dying of starvation. The romance of the South Pacific is not all positive romance.

Now, a high volcanic island is much less likely to disappear than an atoll. There is research to indicate that Victoria was still being used for copra-cutting as long as 20 or 30 years after Marsters’ experience, in the first years of the 20th Century, but then it starts to be described as missing. You will come across references to its being gone by 1930, or by 1921, when sea captain Andy Thomson is supposed to have sailed over its location without seeing any island. But I have come across an article two years earlier than that, published in 1919, that notes that a Captain Williams of the schooner Awarua had already reported Victoria missing, as well as two other reef islands southeast of Manihiki in the northern Cook group. (The literature seems silent about these two reef islands otherwise.)

Just as it has been suggested that Tuanaki and the Haymet Rocks may be identical, the idea has been put forward that Victoria could be identified with Beveridge Reef, which definitely exists between Palmerston in the southern Cooks and New Zealand’s other freely associated state, Niue, to the west. Beveridge is said to have been “once a fine isle, with many coconut-palms growing thereon,” but then “swept bare by a fierce hurricane, which carried away both trees and soil, leaving nothing but the bare rock.” This report of Rarotongan oral tradition was supplied by Colonel Walter Gudgeon (1841-1920), a British colonial administrator in the Cooks, and is certainly interesting, as it gives us a fifth lost island to go along with Tuanaki, Victoria, and the two reef islands sketchily mentioned by Williams (not to mention the never exactly pinpointed Haymet Rocks, which don’t qualify as an island). But Beveridge Reef does not help us at all with Victoria, as it is completely in the wrong direction.

Will we ever know the truth of all these lost Cook Islands? As we move farther away in time from the days when they are said to have existed, it seems less likely that new testimonial evidence will show up. New scientific evidence in the form of soundings of previously unidentified seamounts could manifest itself, but will never be definitive given the very partial knowledge of where the lost islands are supposed to have been located, and what they are supposed to have been like. New information, as is sometimes the case, will add to the mysteries of the lost Cooks without at all resolving them.


Best, Elsdon. Polynesian Voyagers: The Maori as a Deep-Sea Navigator, Explorer, and Colonizer. 1923.
Brown, John Macmillan. The Riddle of the Pacific. 1924.
Brown, John Macmillan. “Vanished Islands and Peoples.” 1919.
Crocombe, M.T. Cannibals and Converts: Radical Change in the Cook Islands by Maretu. 1983.
Crocombe, M.T. “Maretu’s Narrative of Cook Islands History” (M.A. thesis). 1974.
Gill, William Wyatt. “Extracts from Dr. Wyatt Gill’s papers.” 1916.
Gill, William Wyatt. Gems from the Coral Islands: Eastern Polynesia. 1856.
Nunn, Patrick D. / Pastorizo, Ma. Ronna. “Geological histories and geohazard potential of Pacific Islands illuminated by myths” (in Myth and Geology, ed. L. Piccardi and W.B. Masse). 2007.
Nunn, Patrick D. Vanished Islands and Hidden Continents of the Pacific. 2008.
Percival, W.H. “People lived there last century – now they’ve disappeared.” 1964
Ramsay, Raymond H. No Longer on the Map: Discovering Places that Never Were. 1972.
Smith, S.P. Hawaiki: the original home of the Maori. 1904.
Smith, S.P. “History and traditions of Rarotonga.” 1899.
Spence, Lewis. The Problem of Lemuria: The Sunken Continent of the Pacific. 1932.
Stommel, Henry. Lost Islands: The story of islands that have vanished from nautical charts. 1984.

The case of the missing islands: Tuanaki and Victoria

Wikipedia articles: Associated state; Beveridge Reef; Compact of Free Association; Cook Islands (and also articles on 15 individual islands); William Wyatt Gill; Haymet Rocks; Niue; Tuanaki.

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