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Updated: Jan 19


(from Peter H. Buck, Vikings of the Pacific,

University of Chicago Press, 1938.

pp. 202-221

Kii: Creative Commons Corporation P. O. Box 741107

Mangareva is the central and largest island of the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia. It is surrounded by smaller islands.

Also known as the Gambier Archipelago, Mangareva consists of fourteen small volcanic islets all enclosed within a single barrier reef and lagoon.


(from Peter H. Buck, Vikings of the Pacific, University of Chicago Press, 1938. pp. 202-221)

Hoist up the sails with the two crossed sprits, The two-sprit sails that will hear us afar. Steer the course of the ship to afar distant land, Sail down the tide with the wind astern. Mangarevan Chant of Farewell


Akamu island, area of Tokani

Kii: M. Weisler, 1990

On the third day out from Reao, the Tahitian captain of the Moana pointed toward the east and shouted, 'Mangareva'. We had been sailing through the atolls of the Tuamotu which, though interesting, were monotonous in their similarity. Watching a mountain peak rising higher and higher above the horizon, we felt the excitement of change. The peak was Mount Duff, named by Captain Wilson in 1797 after his ship, which carried the London Missionary Society's first group of workers to Tahiti. The mountain seemed to float up out of the sea, and one could share the feelings of the Polynesian discoverers when they named it Mangareva, the Floating Mountain.( In Hawaiian it would be Maunalewa)

We sailed through the western passage in the encircling reef, and the individual islands of the group unfolded before us. We passed Taravai on our left with little Angakau-i-tai nestling beside it. A group of small rocky islets, of which Kamaka was the largest, lay to the south. Akamaru and Aukena separated as we approached. We sailed along the south coast of the largest island, Mangareva, with Mount Duff towering above. The islands are the remains of crater rims, and the hillsides are steep and bare except for a kind of cane. From the main middle ridge of Mangareva, secondary ridges run down to the sea and form boundaries for small bays. Tiny pockets of flat fertile land extend back from the bays as far as the mountain slopes. The coconut groves are thus small and scattered. A plateau on the south of Mount Duff is the site of a modern cemetery in which stands a building that was pointed out to us as the tomb of Te Ma-puteoa, the last king of Mangareva. We rounded the cemetery point, and the chief village of Rikitea lay before us, with the two towers of its large stone cathedral rising above the trees. The schooner dropped anchor near the wharf, and Captain Emile Brisson, Deputy Administrator of the Gambier Islands, came aboard with his wife and family. We received a cordial welcome and a hearty assurance of assistance in our work. Emory stayed in the Brisson residence and I lodged in the detached library of M. Tondon, the Administrator, who was absent in Tahiti. The library contained a fine collection of works on Polynesia, and the back veranda had a closed-in shower bath. It was the most comfortable quarters that an ethnologist could find in the South Seas. Stimson went on by the Moana to continue his linguistic work in another of the Tuamotu atolls.

On landing, the native inhabitants came forward with outstretched hands and greetings of 'Ena koe' (There you are), corresponding to 'Hello', and the exact equivalent of the New Zealand greeting, 'Tena koe'. The correct response is 'A koe noti' (You indeed). The Mangarevan dialect sounded pleasant, for it resembles a blending of Maori and Rarotongan dialects. The A is absent and is represented by a catch in the voice; the k and ng sounds are both present.


First Impressions

I had hoped that in volcanic islands so far east as Mangareva, the people had been conserving enough to preserve their native culture. Alas! the change was even greater than in the Tuamotu. The old type of house had been completely displaced by structures of sawn timber and corrugated iron; even the oldest inhabitant had not seen the original native pattern. The rafts that were so plentiful on Beechey's visit in 824 had been discarded for small outrigger canoes of the Tahitian model. Nets and fish traps that were abundant in the old culture had long since disappeared, and the only hand nets seen were in the houses of settlers from the Tuamotu. Our hopes were shattered, for we had come to a barren land.

European Contact

The change in culture was inaugurated by the French-Catholic missionaries, Pare Laval and Pare Caret, who came to Mangareva in 1834. At first they met with opposition, but after King Te Ma-puteoa and his chiefs became converted, the whole population followed suit. Pare Laval acquired an extraordinary influence over the people. The open temples were dismantled and the wooden images of their gods were burnt, except a few that were sent back to Europe. On the site of the great community house in Rikitea, a huge cathedral was constructed in stone, and the cut coral blocks that had formed the bench along the front of the community house were included. The people became expert stone masons, and the chiefs had stone houses built for themselves. Stone is a fitting material for temples and churches but not for dwelling houses in Polynesia. The cathedral still functions, but today the stone palace of Te Ma-puteoa and the stone houses of the chiefs in the various villages are roofless and deserted.

Laval has been blamed, perhaps unjustly, for accelerating the mortality that followed in the wake of civilization. All students of Polynesia, however, must be grateful for the record he left us of Mangarevan traditions and early history. After teaching the natives to write, he induced them to record in their own language their traditional history, mythology, rituals, and customs. The story was told by converted native priests and chiefs who had taken part in what they described. Laval translated the native text into French, adding his own personal observations. This valuable manuscript has lain for years in the archives of the Order of the Sacred Heart (Picpus) at their headquarters at Braine-le-Comte, Belgium. Through co-operation between the Order and Bishop Museum, Laval's manuscript on Mangareva has been published, making known a wealth of material that would otherwise have been lost to the world.

Oral Traditions: Religion and Mythology

I ... interviewed Karara, an intelligent woman about sixty years old.... Karara was a pou-kapa, a leader of song, and she had a rich repertoire.

Mangarevan mythology is weak as regards the creation. At the head of the royal genealogy are the gods Atu-motua (Father-lord), Atu-moana (Ocean-lord), Atea (Space), and Tangaroa. The first two are local, but in Atea we have the widely spread concept of Space which occurs in the mythologies already quoted. Atea married Atanua and, as this mating occurs elsewhere only in the Marquesas, we have a significant affinity between the Marquesas and Mangareva. Tangaroa, important because of his wide distribution in Polynesia, is the father of eight sons, among them being Tu, Rongo, and Te Pari, the youngest, who was the father of Tiki. Tane occurs as a fisherman, whose daughter became the second wife of Tangaroa. Tangaroa is said to have been the creator of all things, but this statement is probably a late borrowing from Tahiti, for there is nothing in the native text to support it. The functioning god who was worshipped in the temples was Tu, responsible for the fertility of the breadfruit trees. Rongo sent rain for the crops and, appropriately enough, his symbol was the rainbow. A host of deified ancestors were worshipped by various groups of people.

Nothing remains of the principal temples on Mangareva beyond an odd stone or two. On the atoll of Temoe (Crescent Island), thirty miles to the east, there are temples that have been but little disturbed by treasure seekers. These were built by fugitives from Mangareva and thus reveal the Mangarevan pattern. Those that Emory saw consist of an open court with a raised stone platform, stepped in front, and with a chamber at each end. The people of Temoe were taken back to Mangareva after the conversion to Christianity. When the Mangarevans revisited Temoe in after years to plant coconuts, the zeal for temple destruction had subsided and so the stone temples of Temoe have survived to the present day.

The Tiki myth is present in orthodox form, for Tiki moulded a woman out of the earth and named her Hina-one (Earth-maid). He married her and later committed incest with his own daughter. He deceived her by building another house for himself at a distance and visiting her at night under the pretence that he was someone else. This story resembles the Marquesan version.

Maui appears in Mangareva as the youngest of a family of eight with the name, Maui-matavaru (Maui-the-eighth). Probably the variant names of the Maui brethren were treated as distinct individuals, a fresh one was added, and the tale was confused with that in which Maui had eight heads. Maui-the-eighth snared the sun and fished up an island, using his ear for bait. The fire episode has been shifted to a local folktale.

The Tahaki cycle is present with variations. Tahaki was famous for his ruddy skin. At a diving competition off the inner reef, his enemies made Tahaki dive last. As each person dived down, he was converted temporarily into a fish and waited below. When at last Tahaki dived, all the waiting fish swarmed in on him and bit off his wonderful skin. Tahaki emerged nude. He was fortunate, however, in having a fairy grandmother who attended the gathering. As fast as a fish removed a piece of skin, just so fast did the old lady remove it from the fish's mouth and place it in her magic basket. Then she returned to the Underworld with Tahaki's complete skin in her possession. Later, the naked Tahaki and his cousin Karihi went to the Underworld, where his grandmother reclothed him, fitting each piece of skin into its proper position. The stick insects in a neighbouring coconut tree had stolen some of the skin, which they used to decorate their armpits. They refused to return the part they had, and Tahaki's grandmother comforted him by saying, 'It does not matter. They have the piece from under your soles, and the loss will not show.' Thus, the stick insects of Mangareva still have red under their armpits.[Tahaki was called Kaha'i in Hawai'i; Tafa'i in Tahiti: the Tahitian Version of the Tafa'i story.]

Rata, the great canoe builder, was also born in Mangareva, and his adventures, though detailed, are local, taking place around the coast of Mangareva. His father and mother were captured in his youth by Matuku-takotako of Rikitea, who made his mother a menial in his cooking house and made his father an attendant at the beach latrines. Rata, in an approved local setting, slew Matuku-takotako and freed his parents. [Rata was called Laka in Hawai'i; Rata in Tahiti and Tuamotu: the Tuamotu version of the Rata Story.]

The story of Apakura, which is found in Samoa and New Zealand, undergoes a marked local variation. Apakura lived in Mangareva and her son Tinaku-te-maku, a handsome youth, sailed to Rangitea to pay court to a woman of rank. He was successful with the lady but was killed by the unsuccessful suitors. Two frigate hawks bore the tidings back to Mangareva, where they remained stationary in the air above Apakura's home. Apakura called up to the birds, asking if they had seen her son alive. The birds gave no response. She then asked if they had seen her son dead. The birds dropped their legs, hung their heads, and drooped their wings in affirmation. Among the many chants in the story is the lament of Apakura for her dead son, the last verse of which refers to the myth that the moon dies every month but, falling into the Living-waters-of-Tane, comes to life again.

Thou art a moon that ne'er shall rise again O son of mine! The chill dawn breaks without thee O son, O son of mine, O son!

The words are simple, but perhaps only the Polynesians and the Irish can feel the depth of poignant grief expressed in simple words.

Traditional History

The native history states that the first people to settle in Mangareva were simple fisherfolk. Without doubt, these early settlers came in small groups from the Tuamotuan atolls, without any great chiefs and without cultivable food plants. It was not until about the thirteenth century that notable chiefs with their crews arrived from the islands to the west, referred to in general terms as Havaiki and Hiva. Though Hiva is used as a general term, I believe that it refers particularly to the Marquesas, where some of the islands are forms of Hiva, such as Hiva-oa and Nuku-hiva. Many of the songs refer to Ruapou, the Mangarevan form of the Marquesan island of 'Uapou.

One of the most noted visitors was Tupa, who built temples hitherto unknown for the worship of his god Tu, and introduced the breadfruit, coconut, and other food plants. The Mangarevan names for breadfruit and coconut are mei and ere'i, which are the same as the Marquesan names mei and e'ehi; other Polynesian islands use kuru ('uru) and niu. Tupa returned to his own land, and his name occurs as one of the gods in the Marquesas. We may assume, therefore, that Tupa brought the breadfruit, coconut, and other plants from the Marquesas to Mangareva and then returned to his own country, where he was deified after his death.

Among those who followed Tupa were the noted ancestors Keke, Taratahi, and Anua-motua, who came in voyaging canoes from Havaiki and Hiva. Taratahi left for an island named Mata-ki-te-rangi. His son, Anua-motua, remained in Mangareva with his large family and became king of the whole group. Anua divided the islands and districts among members of his family and, under the advice of his priestly son, Te Agiangi, set out in a double canoe to Mata-ki-te-rangi. The present inhabitants, through late contact with people from Easter Island, have come to regard Mata-ki-te-rangi as Easter Island, but it is more likely that the island was Pitcairn.

With increase of population, the people grouped into tribes who took the name of an ancestor with the prefix Ati, as in central Polynesia, Marquesas, Tuamotu, and New Zealand. In the course of time and as the result of inter-tribal fighting, various smaller districts and outer islands became combined into the two large districts of Rikitea under Ape-iti and Taku under Tupou-eriki. In a great war, Rikitea conquered Taku, and Ape-iti became ruler over the whole group. Ape-iti was a direct descendant of the senior line from Anua-motua, and hence the line became entrenched as the royal line of Mangareva. Tupou-eriki and the survivors of his party left Mangareva to seek another home.

In the time of Te Mangi-tu-tavake, a descendant of Ape-iti, the people rose against the king, because he demanded tributes of fermented breadfruit and kept them for his own use. Te Mangi, realizing that public opinion was strong against him, went into exile and perished at sea. Mangareva was then ruled by a plebeian king named Teiti-a-tuou, but the loyalty to hereditary aristocracy was too strongly ingrained in the Polynesian mind for the plebeian rule to last long. The adherents of the royal family rose in favour of the two sons of Te Mangi-tu-tavake, and the plebeian king was slain.

The royal line was restored, and the two sons ruled jointly as Akariki-tea (White King) and Akariki-pangu (Black King). Though dissension occurred between the descendants of the two brothers, the fighting took place within one family, and finally the senior line from the White King assumed complete dominance. The last of the line was Te Ma-puteoa, who ruled when the French priests landed in 1834.

Visit to a Burial Cave

After a tempestuous rule, the White King and the Black King were laid at rest in the Cave of Tetea at the base of a high cliff facing the rising sun on the small island of Angakau-i-tai. According to ancient custom, large quantities of bark cloth were heaped beside the corpses.

Emory and I decided to visit Angakau-i-tai and were guided to the tomb of the kings by Steve, a local white settler. We found that the cave was a mere recess at the base of a majestic cliff which, in my own mind, I personified. The base was covered with fallen rock, which we cleared away in order to obtain specimens of bark cloth for the Bishop Museum. We had previously obtained the consent of the local people.

Steve said, 'When Eskridge and I were here, the stones kept falling down from the cliff above. The place is uncanny and full of spooks. Don't let us stay too long.'

I gazed upwards. It was a beautiful day and not a breath of air disturbed the face of the cliff. He gazed benevolently down at me, as if in friendly recognition.

I said, 'The spirits of the dead knew that you were aliens. Today, it is different. They know that I belong to them and that information obtained here will be used to their credit. Mark my words. During the whole time we are here, not one stone will fall from the cliff.'

We found an abundance of white tapa cloth, of which we took samples, and a skull and some bones. After measuring the skull with calipers, we wrapped it up in bark cloth and respectfully covered it over with rocks. I am a poor museum man, for I cannot bring myself to carry away Polynesian skulls from their homeland. I have a feeling-a superstition, if you will-that if I did, I would destroy the sympathetic relationship that exists between their past and me.

After we left and were clear of the cliff, I said to Steve, 'Well, what did I tell you? Did a stone fall?'

Steve looked at me with a glimmer of respect and said, 'You were right.'

I waved a grateful hand in farewell to the cliff, and I fancied that he smiled back at me. He understood.

The White King and the Black King had been placed in the cave after being sun-dried on wooden biers. This was a form of land burial used on volcanic islands, as in the Marquesas and Society Islands. Mangareva, however, also retained the deep-sea mariners' method of sea burial. Each tribe had its sea burial place where the dead, wrapped in bark cloth and with a heavy stone lashed to the feet, were lowered down from the funeral raft. The women, gathered on the nearest point of the middle mountain ridge, rent the air with wailings as the body plunged down to its final resting place.

Such a burial is recorded in an incident from the folktale of Tonga. Tonga, after many adventures in the Underworld, returned to the upper world, where he became a deep-sea fisherman. He had a cherished daughter whom he named the Princess-who-plaited-beautiful-things. She accompanied him on one of his expeditions and became seriously ill. Tonga turned his canoe toward land, but a violent storm impeded him. His daughter died and was buried at sea. In his grief, Tonga composed a lament with the recurring refrain, 'I lowered thee down'. The last verse is as follows:

A deep-sea fisherman, I, Storm-bound in the open sea. And the way was too long For my gods to hear, So thy body, my dear one, I lowered thee down.

Mangareva Raft-Canoe From Beechey's Voyage 1820.

Kii:Creator: Wikimedia Commons | Credit: Wikimedia Commons via

Copyright: public domain

Society and Daily Life

In the social system of Mangareva, the hereditary aristocracy (togo'iti) owned the cultivable lands, and the commoners ('urumanu) worked them. In the numerous wars, the defeated lost their lands, which were divided among the victorious leaders. Valiant warriors not of chiefly stock sometimes received a grant of land for their services and came to form a wealthy middle class termed pakacra. The staple foods were preserved breadfruit and fish. Besides the breadfruit obtained from the royal estates, the nobles and wealthy middle class contributed breadfruit to the royal pits which served as granaries for the public feasts held in connection with religious ritual, funerals, and social events. Some of these festivals were very elaborate and lasted from three to five days. The priests (taura) conducted the religious ceremonies and were assisted by rongorongo chanters who were of noble birth and versed in ancient history. The rongorongo chants were usually accompanied by the beating of drums of hollowed tree trunks covered at the upper end with a membrane of shark skin. In addition, there were trained groups of singers under a leader (pou-kapa) who contributed songs termed kapa and other varieties with specific names according to the theme of the composition. Skilled carpenters (taura rakau) also took a prominent share in the festivals for which houses, biers, or tables had to be provided. The priests, chanters, singers, and craftsmen received distributions of preserved breadfruit wrapped in leaves. In the more important festivals, the entire populace received shares of food from the royal 'granary', and even children and the unborn babies of pregnant women received their shares. A wise king kept his people contented by frequent festivals with liberal distributions of food. The king, nobles, and middle class received honour from the commoners for their liberality.

Many of the kapa songs have been transmitted to recent times because the people continued to take pleasure in singing them. One of these, reminiscent of Shakespeare's 'Seven ages of man', is a poem composed by an old man who reviewed the stages of life through which he and his wife had passed. The last verse runs:

We two indeed together, O beloved, When our dim eyes gaze at the misty skies, And vision fails to see their splendour, Ah, whither doth God draw us?

The Mangarevans tattooed from head to ankles. Members of the royal family were tattooed on their feet, and the more distinguished warriors had a broad band tattooed from ear to ear across the bridge of the nose. The extensive body tattooing and the face band bear affinity with the Marquesas whence much of the Mangarevan culture and food plants were evidently brought by the voyagers who came from Hiva.

Of the three domesticated animals, pig, dog, and fowl- Mangareva had the pig only, but it became extinct in the time of the plebeian king. If we assume that the animals, like the food plants and the paper mulberry, came by way of the Marquesas, the absence of the dog is accounted for because the dog also failed to reach the Marquesas. The absence of the fowl is peculiar, for it reached distant Easter Island. A sea-bird, named the karako, performs the functions of the rooster in Mangareva, for it calls in the morning to announce the dawn.

Voyaging Traditions

The history of Mangareva illustrates, perhaps better than that of any other island, the incentives that led to long voyages of exploration and the dauntless spirit in which they were undertaken. The primary motive for migration was defeat in war. After battle, the vanquished were hunted like game and consumed by the victorious warrior. A chance for life on the open sea was preferable to almost certain death on shore. Although conquered people were sometimes spared through the influence of powerful relatives on the victorious side, they remained in disgrace and servitude. No family with any pride could submit to such disgrace. In the course of time, it became established that honour was saved by migrating. There are two terms in the Mangarevan language that distinguish different forms of migrations. The term tei (to expel) indicates that the conquered had to leave immediately on a raft or any vessel they could obtain, because an enemy would not allow time for preparation. The exiled king, Te Mangi-tu-tavake, was forced to leave on an improvised raft because an implacable enemy was hot on his trail. The plebeian king, Teiti-a-tuou, evidently regretted this action of his party, for he allowed a member of the royal family, named Te ma-haka-hema, to make full preparations before leaving. This was termed ;uku (to allow to go) and corresponded to the old European custom of allowing a garrison to leave with the honours of war. Te Ma-hakahema fitted up his double voyaging canoe on the island of Akamaru, provisioned it, and gathered his family and adherents together for the voyage.

The plebeian king was in love with the wife of one of the departing chiefs. He asked her to desert her husband and become his wife. She replied disdainfully, 'I would sooner die in the open sea with my husband of chiefly blood than live in safety with a commoner.' It says much for Teiti-a-tuou that he allowed her to depart in peace. There was honour among commoners also.

The day of leaving was announced and the victors, including the plebeian king, assembled at Akamaru to see the departure. All the crew and passengers were clothed in their best bark cloth, bedecked with precious ornaments, and wreathed in flowers and fragrant leaves. Long cloth streamers, termed marokura, floated from the mast of the canoe. The drums on the ship beat time for the chants, songs, and dances of the departing exiles, and so, with gay faces and stout hearts, the ship pushed off to 'sail down the tide with the wind astern'.

The vessel eventually made the atoll of Mao, where Te Ma-hakahema settled in peace and honour. Years after European contact, the descendants from Mao revisited the homeland of Mangareva, and their story was recognized.

When Captain Beechey visited Mangareva in 1824, he saw rafts only, and the lack of canoes has led to various theories about the degradation of Mangarevan culture. Many European writers have assumed that the Mangarevans made their long sea voyages on rafts, although the native history and Laval's manuscript show clearly that the Mangarevans made voyages outside the group on double canoes, like other Polynesians. Within the group itself, however, they used rafts both for transport and for fishing. They were quite convenient and were easier to make. The double canoes were owned only by the chiefs who could command the timber from their estates and could employ skilled craftsmen. In the early wars between the local islands, the warriors were transported on double canoes. The pregnant daughters of chiefs also went on double canoes to the different islands to undergo the ceremony of having a lock of hair cut on each of the temples of the god Tu. The last double canoes were destroyed early in the nineteenth century in war between Mataira and Te Ma-teoa, the grandfather of the last king, Te Ma-puteoa. Te Ma-teoa acquired supreme power and, as the construction of a double canoe was looked upon as a preliminary to war, he forbade the building of any new canoe. Hence the use of canoes for war or voyages ceased, and inter-island transport and fishing were conducted on rafts. The building of rafts is probably responsible for the large number of stone axes found on Mangareva. The cutting edges of the axes are evenly bevelled from both sides in contrast to the adzes bevelled from one side only, and they form a unique local feature. Years afterwards, the influx of people from Tahiti and the Tuamotu led to the building of fishing canoes on the Tahitian model and to the abandonment of rafts.

When Tupou-eriki was decisively defeated by Ape-iti, he asked to be allowed to leave with his remnant of people. For some reason or other he left with seven rafts; but one of his chiefs, who had a double canoe, remained behind with his mother and followers. He delayed so long that his mother became alarmed that he might forfeit his honour by not embarking for the open sea. She composed a lament for her exiled king, and her dilatory son heard her sadly wailing:

O Tupou, my king! The breakers roar on the outer reef, And fierce winds wail in company. They weep and wail for thee, O Tupou, my king. You sought the open sea With your seven rafts, O Tupou, my king, But the double canoe of my son delays. What will he do, O Tupou, my king?

The son, shamed at his mother's words, speedily fitted up his ship, hoisted his sail, and, with pennant bravely flying, he sailed to death in the wake of Tupou, his king.

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