There is a long history behind Aitutaki and relics of it can still be found everywhere, with solid stone halfbuildings whose heyday was obviously long before the advent of the many modern resorts which vie for space along the palm fringed lagoon.
Utterly basic palm frond thatched bures, raised just off the ground will also catch your attention. The island was settled many centuries ago by the explorer Ru, who brought his brothers and their wives and 10 maidens and began the initial development of the island. Often used as a stopover, Aitutaki was always on the route of the great flying boats, the Sunderlands. The-then airway TEAL, the forerunner of Air New Zealand, used Aikimi, one of Aitutaki’s bigger offshore islands as a rest point on what was known as the Coral Route during the mid to later part of the 20th century.
This famous route involved starting in Auckland, stopping in Laucala Bay in Fiji, before heading to Apia in Western Samoa, then Aitutaki and finally arriving in Papeete in Tahiti. It is perhaps a real shame that these wonderful big flying boats are virtually so rare now, only one or two survive globally.
In the modern history of Aitutaki, the island was ‘discovered’ by Captain William Bligh of the ‘Bounty’ on April 11, 1789. The master and vessel later acquired a lasting notoriety in the annals of British naval history over the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ incident. In Polynesian traditional history, the island of Aitutaki was settled by ancient voyagers several hundred years before.
Avaiki-Atia (Avaiki-Asia or Avaiki-of-the-West) embarked on a quest to discover and settle a new avaiki.While other Chiefs and Navigators with similar ambitions embarked on their quest accompanied by warriors, Ru left his homeland accompanied by his four wives (Paitu-Vaine), four brothers and twenty beautiful maidens of royal descent (Pa-Tepairu-Vaine) on his voyaging double-hulled canoe called Nga-Pu-Ariki.
A violent storm struck during the voyage. While his crew feared for their lives, Ru prayed to the God of the Sea, Tangaroa, to subside the storm. Lo and behold, an island lay ahead glimmering in the light. Ru named the island Uta-taki-enua-o-Ru-ki-te-moana (‘the-land-of-Ru-glimmering-at-sea’), believing that his God guided him to the island.
The island today is called Aitutaki. Being in such close quarters, the hanky-panky hthat subsequently ensued between the brothers and the maidens during the voyage led to jealousy and ill-feeling within the group. When hauling the canoe ashore through a channel, one of the brothers was purposefully tripped and was crushed on the reef by the weight of the canoe.
Ru buried his brother, Veri-tua-Maro, on the nearby islet or motu. While he and his party rested on the islet to recover from their ordeal, Ru made a momentous personal decision. Again, as was customary, a name was bestowed or given to signify an event or occasion of importance.
Ru named the islet Uritua-o-Ru-ki-te-moana (‘the place where Ru turned his back on the sea’), signifying Ru’s decision to settle permanently and never to voyage again. The islet is alternately called A’aki-te-tua, also having the same meaning, ie: ‘to turn one’s back (Ru’s)….’. It is from the latter that the present day name of the islet is derived: ‘Akitua’.
As an astute leader, Ru knew that later voyagers will call by and likely to cause trouble and warfare. Arrive they did and as they landed, he married off the maidens to the ranking chiefs and warriors of each canoe to form tribal allegiances to defend the island from later hostile voyagers. Ru sired many children which extended the tribal bonding. Seventeen other canoes from different avaikis landed on Aitutaki during Ru’s lifetime.
Due to his mana or stature and wise administration, Ru is said to have lived to a ripe old age. From these eighteen canoes descended the people of Aitutaki today. However, Ru holds the distinction and reverence as the first discoverer and settler of Aitutaki.