Pukapuka is a coral atoll in the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean, with three small islets threaded on a reef that encloses a beautifully clear lagoon. It is the most remote island of the Cook Islands, situated about 1140 kilometres northwest of Rarotonga. It is a triangular atoll with three islets comprising little more than three square kilometres of land area. On this small island an ancient culture and distinct language has been maintained over many centuries. In the 1990s Japanese archaeologists discovered evidence of human settlement up to 2,000 years ago. Pukapuka's closest prehistoric associations appear to be with Samoa and other islands to the west, but there was later a lot of contact with islands to the east. The traditional name for the atoll was Te Ulu-o-Te-Watu ('the head of the stone'), and the northern islet where the people normally reside is affectionately known as Wale (Home).
Pukapuka was the first of the Cook Islands to be sighted by Europeans. The Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña saw it on the feast day of Saint Bernard, on Sunday 20 August 1595 and named it San Bernardo.
On 21 June 1765 the British Naval expedition under Commodore John Byron (HMS Dolphin and HMS Tamar) sighted the island. Byron gave the name "Islands of Danger" because of the high surf that made it too dangerous to land. The name "Danger Island" still appears on some maps. According to oral tradition, an unknown ship called at Pukapuka in the mid 18th century, and when the lineage chief Tāwaki boldly took the captain's pipe out of his mouth, he was shot. (Tāwaki's grandson, Pania, and great-grandson, Vakaawi, protected the Aitutakian mission teacher, Luka, in 1857).
Thirty years later, Pukapuka was given the name "Isles de la Loutre" (Isles of the Otter) by Pierre François Péron, a French adventurer who was acting as first mate on board the American merchant ship, Otter (Captain Ebenezer Dorr) after it was sighted on 3 April 1796. The following day, Péron, Thomas Muir of Huntershill (1765–1799) and a small party landed ashore but the inhabitants would not allow them to inspect the island. Trading later took place near the ship, when adzes, mats and other artifacts were exchanged for knives and European goods.
"Everything united to convince us that we had the right to attribute to ourselves the honour of having discovered three new islands; and with this conviction I gave them the name "Isles of the Otter" [Isles de la Loutre] which was the name of our vessel. In order to distinguish them we named the eastern one 'Peron and Muir' [Motu Kō], the one to the north 'Dorr' [Pukapuka], and the name of 'Brown' was given to the third [Motu Kotawa], after one of our officers." Péron believed that they were the first to discover the island, mostly because the people were so afraid of them. This was of course because Tāwaki had been killed during the ship visit about 30 years previously.
Because of Pukapuka's isolation, few vessels visited before 1857 when the London Missionary Society landed teachers from Aitutaki and Rarotonga. Luka Manuae of Aitutaki later wrote an extended account of the first days of contact 5–8 December 1857: "No te taeanga a te tuatua o te Atua ki Pukapuka" ('The arrival of the Word of God at Pukapuka', dated August 1869). Some lineages wanted to kill the newcomers in revenge for an incident that had happened a month earlier, but Vakaawi, chief of Yālongo lineage, protected them. In the following days the island accepted Luka's Christian message, largely because of an encounter when two dead people were apparently raised back to life.
In 1862 Rev. William Wyatt Gill found most of the people on the island converted to Christianity. Early in 1863 Peruvian slavers raided the island and took away a total of 145 men and women; only two returned, Kolia and Pilato (Malowutia). The London Missionary Society barque John Williams was wrecked on the west side in May 1864. In 1868 the buccaneer Bully Hayes took about 40 people to go on a labour scheme, but none of them returned home.
World War II
Three downed U.S. Navy fliers from the USS Enterprise landed on Pukapuka in February 1942. Harold Dixon, Gene Aldrich, and Tony Pastula survived 34 days on the open ocean in a tiny 4 by 8 foot (1.2 by 2.4 m) raft, beginning their odyssey with no food or water stores and very few tools. They were found by Teleuka Iotua huddled in a hut belonging to Lakulaku Tutala on Loto Villages reserve, where he gave them coconuts to drink. He then went and got more help. Shortly after their arrival a typhoon struck the island. Their story was told in the book The Raft by Robert Trumbull, published by Henry Holt and Co. in 1942, and later released as a motion picture Against the Sun in 2015.
Pukapuka is shaped like a three bladed fan. There are three islets on the roughly triangular reef. Motu Kō, the biggest island is to the southeast; Motu Kotawa (Frigate Bird Island) is to the southwest; and the main island Wale is to the north. Ko and Motu Kotawa are uninhabited and are used for growing food. The airport (ICAO airport code: NCPK) is on Kō.
The three villages are located on the crescent-shaped bay of the northernmost islet of the atoll: Yātō (Leeward), Loto (Central) and Ngake (East). Loto (Roto on most maps) is host to Island Administration. The traditional names for these villages are Takanumi, Kotipolo and Te Lāngaikula. In daily life, the islanders frequently call them Tiapani (Japan), Malike or Amelika (USA) and Ōlani (Holland) respectively. Especially in sports competitions between the villages, the villagers use the names and flags of these countries.
Although the island features a well-maintained airstrip, flights from Rarotonga are very infrequent. The five hour flight from Rarotonga now operates when there is a Government charter once every six weeks or so. The island is closer to Samoa than to the rest of the Cook Islands and transport via Samoa is becoming a preferred option for Pukapukans visiting in organised groups (tele parties) from New Zealand and Australia.
The submerged Tima Reef is situated 23 km southeast of Pukapuka. About 60 km away is Nassau (Cook Islands) which is owned by the people of Pukapuka and considered part of it administratively. Since the 1950s it has been governed by the Council of Chiefs of Pukapuka. The Nassau Island Committee advises the Pukapuka Island Committee on matters relating to its own island.
Pukapuka and Nassau were hit by Cyclone Percy in February 2005 — a Category Four cyclone that destroyed the taro gardens, brought down thousands of trees, and damaged three-quarters of the houses.
Pukapuka has its own language and customs that are different from the rest of the Cook Islands.
The entire population is said to be descended from seventeen men, two women and an unknown number of children who survived a catastrophic storm and seismic wave (tsunami) in the 17th century. The description of the tragedy, complete with thunder and lightning, is more in keeping with a cyclone, and the waves it generated swept most of the people away. A new estimate of the date of the calamity based on genealogical records suggests that it happened about 1700.
The island had a population of 664 at the 2001 census, but since 2005 the population has declined to less than 500.
The American writer Robert Dean Frisbie settled on Pukapuka in 1924 and immortalised the island in the books he wrote about it. He said at the time he was looking for a place beyond the reach of "the faintest echo from the noisy clamour of the civilised world". He found it, and to this day Pukapuka is one of the most untouched and secluded places in the Cook Islands.
- Sharp, Andrew, The discovery of the Pacific Islands, Oxford 1960 p.52,53
- Pierre François PÉRON (1824). Mémoires du Capitaine Péron, sur ses Voyages aux Côtes d’Afrique, en Arabie, a l’Île d’Amsterdam, aux Îles d’Anjouan et de Mayotte, aux Côtes Nord-Oeust de l’Amérique, aux Îles Sandwich, a la Chine, etc. Libraire, Bossange Frères (Paris: Brissot-Thivars). Retrieved 31 July 2010.
- Luka Manuae, (2012) "The arrival of the word of God at Pukapuka", Journal of Pacific History, Dec.
- Beaglehole, Earnest and Pearl (1938). "Ethnology of Pukapuka," Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin, 150.
- "Where are they now?" Newsweek Magazine. 8 February 1954.
- Beaglehole and Beaglehole (1938).