A MAGNIFICENT example of a pure atoll, Tongareva (also known as Penrhyn) lies 848 miles (1365 km) north-north-east of Rarotonga. It is the most remote of the Cook Islands and the largest atoll in the group of 15 islands. It sits atop the highest submarine volcano in the Cooks, all of 15,917 feet (4876 m) above the ocean floor.
It comprises a ring of coral 48 miles (77 km) around. Its superb lagoon covers 90 square miles (233 sq km) of which 24 (62 sq km) is covered with pearlshell.
There are three passages into the lagoon. When viewed by the shipwrecked trader, E.H. Lamont in 1853, the reefs between the islands could, for the most part be forded, particularly at low water. The inhabitants at that time did not generally think of Tongareva as being one island, rather it was several warring entities. Lamont reported the islanders referring to the wider identity as "Te Pitaka" which meant "the Circle". This was the largest collective land mass they could conceive.
Penrhyn's original name was Tongareva, signifying "Tonga floating in space". The present-day Maori name is Mangarongaro which developed from the name of one of the divisions of the large south-western islet.
However, the most commonly-used name is Penrhyn after the "Lady Penrhyn" commanded by Captain William Cropton Lever who landed on August 8 1788. Another European name was Bennett Island.
The missionaries arrived in 1854. Tongareva, together with many other Pacific islands, suffered the ravages of Peruvian slave raiders in the 19th century. In 1863 some 410 of the total population of about 500 were removed by trickery, the Spanish Peruvian perpetrators being abetted by four native missionary teachers who sold these unfortunates for five dollars a head! In fact, three of them accompanied the slaves to Peru as interpreters. The Peruvians knew the island as the Island of the Four Evangelists. The shipwrecked Lamont was one of the keenest observers of Pacific island life in the 19th century. He wrote in detail of his year on Tongareva in his classic "Wild Life Among the Pacific Islanders". After voyaging to Tahiti and the southern Cook Islands where he made numerous acerbic observations about the activities of the missionaries, his ship headed north and, after being caught in a storm, was wrecked on the reef. He and a handful of survivors were captured by the islanders and became embroiled in their internal wars. Lamont obtained three wives during the course of his year on the atoll before being rescued.
Today, Tongareva is enjoying the fruits of its booming black pearl industry.
Accommodation is available at Tarakore. There are regular flights via Air Rarotonga to Tongareva each Saturday from Rarotonga with a brief stop at Aitutaki. Flight time is four hours.
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Revised: November 30 2003