“If words are not things, or maps are not the actual territory, then, obviously, the only possible link between the objective world and the linguistic world is found in structure and structure alone” – Alfred Korzybski

Geography is destiny?
Geography is destiny?

Now that we have satellites watching every inch of the earth (because if we didn’t the terrorists would win) and robotic Google cars snapping street-level pictures of every dusty nook and cranny of civilization, we’ve taken a bit of the mystery out of geography.  For instance, we’d probably notice if an entire island disappeared.  Of course, if said island happened to be populated, rest assured somebody on scene would be tweeting about it and submitting “I-reports” to CNN until the final apocalyptic moment when it slipped beneath the waves.  For the better part of recorded human history this was not the case.  While we’ve always had a good handle on latitude within a degree or so courtesy of the “north star” Polaris, it wasn’t until the late 18th Century that we had any faith in our measurement of longitude.  Prior to that, when greeted by open ocean where your maps said a land mass should be, you just mocked the navigational skills of your predecessors, sailed a little east or west, and hoped for the best.  Unfortunately, sometimes you just came up with diddly.  Now it’s one thing when you can’t find the desolate speck of rock or subsurface reef that your charts confidently asserted should be at your current position, and entirely something else when tradition insists there was an inhabited island lurking in the vicinity, that now appears to have mysteriously disappeared along with its entire population and any evidence that it ever truly existed, excepting the relatively reliable recollections of neighbors.  The tragic disappearance of the Pacific island of Tuanaki is one such object demonstration that it would be foolish of us to assume that entire communities, peoples, and civilizations can’t simply vanish without a trace.  We are comfortable relegating Atlantis, Mu, or Lemuria to the ghetto of mythology, as testaments to their existence are sufficiently ancient.  And those ancients did like to party.  It’s no wonder they saw all sorts of strange things.  The problem with Tuanaki, is that it seems to have been around in the 19th Century, complete with an indigenous population closely related culturally and familiar to locals on neighboring Rarotonga.  Then it, and all its inhabitants, were simply gone.

Raratonga and Mangaia are two of the more well-known and populous Cook Islands in the South Pacific, and local tradition held that about 200 miles south of Mangaia (or two days sail) there existed the island of Tuanaki.  Now, Tuanaki wasn’t just some specter used to frighten baby Raratongans, rather in historical memory there appear to have been trade relations between Raratonga, Mangaia, and Tuanaki.  Western civilization has this annoying need to pinpoint the exact location of “undiscovered” things, mostly so they can “discover” them and plant the flag for queen and country.  Aliens probably look at our flags on the Moon, and say, “Whatever.  You can have it.  It’s got no atmosphere and you’re an air-breather, you moron”.  Well, because one South Pacific paradise isn’t enough, when Europeans arrived in Rarotonga and heard about Tuanaki, they simply had to find the place.  Presumably, so they could build a resort.

Early in 1844 a little schooner came from “Rurutu,” an island in the Tahitian group, to Rarotonga. Under the direction of the Rev. G. Platt, it had been sent in search of an island called “Tuanaki,” known by tradition, in all the islands of our group, but yet undiscovered. It is asserted to be situated not more than 200 miles to the south, or south-west of Rarotonga, and is said to consist of three low islands within one reef, and to be thickly inhabited. Prior to the arrival of the Rurutu vessel we had heard much of this island, and had taken a voyage of a week, hoping to have seen it. Two native sailors have seen the island, at different times, when on board whaling ships, one of whom had intercourse with the people. He says, that “they exactly resemble the Mangaians in person, dress, and customs; that they had heard of the overthrow of idolatry on Rarotonga and Mangaia, and that they were waiting with expectation some foreign teachers to visit them.” That such an island exists there seems to be no doubt, and that it is comparatively near to the Hervey group is confirmed by all reports, but of its exact position we can gain no correct information. The natives are, however, quite sure it will be found, and often pray for means to commence a voyage of discovery (Gill, 1856, p72-73).

Tuanaki was not held to be some mysterious and magical island on the order of Hy-Brasil or Avalon, rather a perfectly normal piece of South Pacific real estate closely related culturally to the rest of the Cook Islands.  And neither was this some ghostly mirage sighted on the horizon by dehydrated sailors.  Folks actually claimed to have landed there, conversed with the inhabitants, resupplied, and sailed back to familiar climes without incident.

When at Rarotonga in 1897, we learnt from old Tamarua, of Nga-Tangiia, that in ancient times communication was not infrequent between Rarotonga and Tuanaki. He mentioned in reply to questions that about the time the fleet of canoes called in at Rarotonga on their way to New Zealand (circa 1350), that “A canoe named ‘Raupo’ also left this island, but she went in another direction, (to New Zealand) to Tuanaki. Kaka-tu-ariki was the captain of the ‘Raupo.’ His friend Tiare stole ten bundles of ataroroi (coco-nut, cooked in a certain fashion), and hence he left for Tuanaki.  Again the old man said to us when asked about the ‘Mamari’ canoe, in which the ancestors of the Nga-Puhi tribe of North New Zealand migrated thither, “Yes, I know the name of ‘Mamari’ as that of a canoe which left these shores long, long ago. She went to some place in the direction of Tuanaki, and did not come back so far as I ever heard. I know nothing more about her.”  We learnt from Tamarua that Tuanaki was supposed to lie south from Rarotonga, and that their ancestors used to visit the island. It took them two days and a night to reach it. The late Judge J. A. Wilson told the writer that “a trading vessel from Auckland used, at one time in the forties, to visit an island, the exact position of which was kept secret. But on a subsequent visit it had disappeared”—probably this was Tuanaki. There is no such island anywhere in the localities indicated, so that it is no doubt correct to say that the island has disappeared, due, probably, to some volcanic disturbance; but there is a shoal in latitude 27° 30”, which is about three hundred and sixty miles south of Rarotonga, a distance their canoes would sail over in about the time mentioned. Lieut. Col. Gudgeon, C.M.G., late Government Resident at Rarotonga, tells us that “Old John Mana-a-rangi had seen some of the people of Tuanaki. I do not think it disappeared more than seventy years ago.”  We now come to the translation of part of Maretu’s autobiography:—”When the ship of Williams, junior (son of Rev. John Williams), came to Rarotonga, Katuke and Ngatae were appointed to go with the ship to search for Tuanaki Island. I told Messrs. Buzacott and Pitman that I wished to go with them to carry the Gospel to the island. Mr. Bazacott replied, ‘Do not think of it. Go direct to Mangaia, and when you arrive the ship will go on to search for Tuanaki.’  The ship sailed for Aitutaki, and on our arrival we found there a man named Soma, who had been ashore three months from a ship. He told us he had seen Tuanaki. The Missionaries and the captain were sent for to meet Soma, who said, ‘Two years have passed since I saw that island. We went thither by way of Rurutu Island, and when we found it, our captain searched for the entrance (ava, a channel into the lagoon, or through the reef), and then lowered a boat into which he descended—there were six of us, the captain making seven. When we got ashore we found no one about on the beach, so the captain said to me, ‘Go inland and search for the people. If you find them return here.’ The captain then gave me a sword to take with me. When I reached some way inland, I saw a house which was full of men—it was the house of the ariki, or high chief. The chief asked me, ‘Whence do you come? From Araura? I replied, ‘Yes!’ ‘Come inside the house!’ So I went inside; there were none but men there, no women, as they have a separate house. After I had sat down, the chief asked again, ‘Do you come from Araura,’ to which I replied, ‘I came from Araura ‘—for that is their name for Aitutaki. ‘A! Where is the captain of your ship?’ I told him he was with the boat. ‘He is afraid, lest you should kill him!’ ‘We do not kill men; we only know how to dance (ura) and sing; we know nothing of war.’ I then returned to the captain who asked, ‘ How is it?’ ‘They are all there in a house.’ ‘Why do they stay there?’ I replied, ‘I do not know.’ The captain now went inland (with me) taking with him some scissors, axes, and head-dresses, and then entered the house, and presented the articles to the chief. The captain asked the chief his name; he replied, ‘Maeva-rua; Tuikura is my name from Rarotonga.’ The captain and I slept there that night, whilst the boat returned to the ship, taking some food, fowls, pigs, yams and bananas. We were six days ashore there” (Gill, 1916, p29-31).

Tuanaki vanished.  Rumors persisted that there were a few Tuanaki refugees that lived quietly among the people of Raratonga, but they chose to remain hidden.  In 1863, at the approximate position proposed for the island of Tuanaki, J.E. Haymet, master and owner of the cutter Wilt Watch, sailing between Aukland, New Zealand and Raratonga, struck a previously uncharted set of rocks roughly 200 miles south of Raratonga.  The rocks, 7-8 feet below the surface of the ocean, extend for a quarter mile and were henceforth designated the “Haymet Rocks”.  In 1984, oceanographer Henry Stommel proposed that the Haymet Rocks were likely the remnants of Tuanaki, which presumably was submerged, along with its unfortunate inhabitants, in some sort of oceanographic cataclysm.

It would be hard to claim that Tuanaki was the product of someone’s overactive imagination.  Nobody ever claimed any sort of special or magical status for the island.  It was there.  And then it simply wasn’t, and associating it with the musings of Raratongan folklore is a prodigious act of denial.  Tuanaki could easily have been submerged by volcanic activity, rising ocean levels that inundated a low-lying atoll, or any number of perfectly reasonable natural phenomena.  The point is that a culture thrived on an island and then vanished without a trace, only vaguely recollected by their neighbors.  Perhaps we should treat Tuanaki as an important lesson in the relation between folklore and history, a demonstration of the fact that just because nature has seen fit to wipe the physical evidence away, it doesn’t necessarily relegate folklore to fantasy.

Gill, William, 1813-1878. Gems From the Coral Islands: Or, Incidents of Contrast Between Savage And Christian Life of the South Sea Islanders. London: Ward and Co., 1856.
Gill, William Wyatt, 1828-1896. Rarotonga Records: Being Extracts From the Papers of the Late Rev. W. Wyatt Gill. New Plymouth [N.Z.]: Printed for the Society by T. Avery, 1916.