Manihiki is a triangular coral atoll, 620 nautical miles south of the equator, 290 miles east of the Danger Islands, and 655 miles north-northwest of Rarotonga, its center for administration. The companion island of Rakahanga is about 18 sea miles to the north and 4 to the west.
The atoll is a continuous rim of reef without lagoon entrances through which so much as a boat could pass. A long, narrow islet stretches along the northeast side, with Tukou village at its northern point. Another long islet occupies the southern part of the west side, with another village, Tauhunu. Numerous small islets are ranged along the south side, those on the west periodically being connected by ocean beach. The land area is about 1250 acres. The longest stretch of bare reef is on the northwest. From the north point to the bulge on the south side is 5.1/2 miles; the greatest width is about 5 miles. The lagoon is choked with rocks and reefs.
There is no good anchorage, except a very temporary one, fair with off-shore (S.E. trade) winds, 1800 yards, north of Tauhunu village landing, on the west side. Landing may be made at both villages, but it is difficult, especially from January to March, when westerly winds and unsettled weather prevail.
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Despite the shallow, sandy soil, the islets are densely covered with coconut palms, 60 to 79 feet total height, visible 12 miles. There used to be groves of Cordia, Guettarda, Calophyllum, and Tournefortia trees, but these have been much depleted through the demand for wood from which to make canoes, houses and utensils. Only the worthless Pisonia is holding its own. Breadfruit trees have been introduced from Rarotonga, and do fairly well if planted in a little soil, also imported; but bananas grow indifferently, papayas a little better, and vegetables well enough if given sufficient soil and water, an expensive process. Next to the coconut, pandanus is the most useful tree, its leaves being used for mats, house walls, hats, fans, clothing, boat sails, and the fruit eaten. Fish and coconut are the main food staples.
Manihiki and Rakahanga are inhabited by a Polynesian people having affinity with the Cook Islands. The culture of both atolls is the same, in olden days the people having moved back and forth from one to the other. This culture has been described minutely by Dr. Peter H. Buck in Bishop Museum Bulletin 99, 1932. The two atolls are not visible from a point midway between. So many natives were drowned making the passage, that in the 1850's the population was divided and both atolls occupied permanently. Nearly two hundred years ago there were about 1200 inhabitants. The population has decreased steadily to 486 in 1937. The early decrease was due to Peruvian blackbirders and disease. Much of the disease has been stopped, but now many persons move to Rarotonga or elsewhere to seek more profitable employment.
The island was discovered and made known to the outside world by Captain Patrickson of the American ship Good Hope, October 13, 1822, and by him called Humphrey's Island. About 1828 it was sighted by Captain Joshua Coffin, in the whale ship Ganges, of Nantucket. He named it Great Ganges Island. Various other whalers and exploring ships sighted or visited the island, its natives being friendly and willing to supply coconuts. It is believed to be the island called Liderous, Gland, and Sarah Scott.
One early whaler brought a Tahitian boy, who deserted ship there, and told such tales of other lands that many young men of Manihiki set out in canoes and lost their lives. One sailing party in 1899, on the way to Rakahanga, was driven far from land, picked up by a ship and landed at Manuae in the Society group. The missionary ship John Williams took them to Aitutaki in the Cook group, where their story of the heathen ways in Manihiki prompted the newly converted Cook Islanders to send them home with two native missionaries. The new religion was promptly accepted, the native gods destroyed, and by 1852, Reverend W.W. Goll states, all has been converted to Christianity, churches and schools had been established, and the foundations of Western culture were laid.
British protectorate was proclaimed over the atoll on August 9, 1889. In 1901, chiefs of Manihiki and Rakahanga petitioned to be taken under the rule of New Zealand's Cook Islands Administration, which was done. The native villages had long been noted for their substantial houses, neat stone-lined paths, and attractive yards, containing flowering herbs, and shrubs. The new government improved health conditions and made the people safe from exploitation by unscrupulous persons seeking labourers. Chief trade connections are with Rarotonga. A radio station was established in 1937.
On February 7, 1899, a huge wave, caused by an earthquake, did much damage to Manihiki and Rakahanga. The chief products are copra and pearl shell, both of good quality. The shell is especially fine and free from wormy shell, owing to a thorough cleaning given to the lagoon at one period when it was being worked by diving machines. Water supply had been improved by the construction of two concrete water tanks (5,000 gallons each) at each of the villages. The landing places have been considerably improved recently, and if the price of copra would only rise, prosperity would be assured for this attractive coral atoll.