Rakahanga atoll lies about 19 nautical miles from Manihiki, 4 miles west of north. Its northern end is almost exactly 10 degrees (600 miles) south of the equator. It is 190 nautical miles W.S.W. of Togareva (Penrhyn) Island, 580 miles south and 60 miles west of Jarvis Island, and 520 miles westward of Vostok Island.
The island is a small atoll, a continuous ring of coral reef surrounding a shallow lagoon. It measures 2.1/2 miles north and south by a little less than 1.1/2 miles greatest width. Low, sandy islets cover most of the reef; a large islet on the south, measuring 2 miles around its outer curve and up to half a mile wide; a horseshoe of land around the north, nearly 4 miles along the ocean beach, but only about 1/4 mile wide, and with several deep arms of the lagoon, suggesting that formerly it was made up of several islets; and five islets on the east and one on the west, between. The total land area is about 1,000 acres.
Most of these islets are rather thickly covered with vegetation: groves of coconut palms, the remains of former native forest, and excavated or natural low, swampy places planted to a kind of taro called puraka (Cyrtosperma). Other food plants, such as papayas, bananas, breadfruit, and vegetables, have been imported from Rarotonga, and do fairly well when set out in imported soil.
Rats and coconut crabs have done much damage to coconuts and fruits. Mosquitoes and flies also have been a great nuisance. In October, 1936, top minnows were introduced to prey upon mosquito wrigglers, and were widely distributed through puraka swamps. Special effort has been made to rid the usually clean village of breeding places for flies and mosquitoes.
The Polynesian inhabitants are thought to have come from Rarotonga at an early date, although there is linguistic and legendary relationship with the Maori people who settled New Zealand. The small islet of Te Kainga was the site of the original village on Rakahanga, the other islets being used to grow a food supply. A narrow break in the reef opposite this islet, which facilitates landing, may have influenced the choice. When this islet was outgrown, the village was moved to the larger adjoining islet to the south.
Alternate seasons were spent on Rakahanga and Manihiki, to allow Nature to replenish crops. As we have already related, hazards of mass migration back and forth finally led to the establishment of separate permanent villages. The culture was the same on both islands, and it has been described in detail by Dr. Peter H. Buck in Bishop Museum Bulletin 99, 1932.
Foreign contact began with the arrival of the Russian explorer, Bellingshausen, on August 7, 1820. He named the island the Russian equivalent of "Grand Duke Alexander Island." In October, 1822, Captain Patrickson sighted the island from the American ship Good Hope, and called it Reirson Island. Captain Joshua Coffin, of the Nantucket whale ship Ganges, about 1828, called Little Ganges Island.
London Missionary Society representatives, natives from Aitutaki, arrived about 1850. As a result, within a year the old idols were destroyed and the old beliefs forgotten. Following this the native culture underwent a change. There was no pearl shell in the lagoon, but sale of coconut oil and later copra brought in money with which to purchase foreign foods and clothing.
The former rulers of the atoll had been priests who kept hurricanes away. There had been two rival factions, each hating the other. The introduction of Christianity took away the power of both, and substituted brotherly love for hate. The island was governed by a self-elected body called the hau, subtlely directed by the pastor, who was also school teacher. One pastor kept the island from being annexed by a French expedition by hoisting the British flag and refusing the allow it to be hauled down.
British protectorate was officially proclaimed August 9, 1889; and the island, together with Manihiki, came under the New Zealand Cook Islands Administration, June 10, 1901. The Resident Agent for the two islands lives on Manihiki, where he is also radio operator, visiting Rakahanga periodically. Between visits the Island Council assists the local Sergeant of Police in governing the island.
The population averages around 300, decreasing from 352 in 1906 to 295 in 1916, up to 327 in 1926, and again dropping to 290 in 1936. Of the present population, 173 attend the London Missionary Society church, 103 are Roman Catholics, and 14 Seventh Day Adventists. There are 145 men, 143 women, and 2 male Europeans. there are two schools; 48 students under one teacher in the L.M.S. school, 44 students with 2 teachers in the Catholic school.
The people show a fine community spirit, maintaining a model village. In 1936 they all got together and erected a substantial school, paying for the materials with funds which they themselves had contributed. Other public buildings are planned. Five men were furnished to the New Zealand expeditionary force during the first world war.
One feature of the island is a spring of medicinal water, beneficial to persons suffering from rheumatism, skin diseases, and the like, located on the edge of the lagoon within a stone's throw of the village. It has been walled and fitted with a pump.
Much change was done by the tidal wave of February 7, 1899, and there are occasional hurricanes. The climate is usually quite uniformly good. There were heavy rains in November and December 1936, but drought from March to September 1937, ruined the food crops and reduced the copra output. From 100 to 200 tons of copra are shipped each year, but the recent low price has prevented much revenue. Supplies have been brought by two Rarotonga trader-owned schooners, and during 1937 were valued at 1,214 pounds. There is a minimum of crime, none of it serious. The natives even have their own bank.
Vessels can anchor 200 yards off the N.W. point, in 8 fathoms, with the usual S.E. trade wind. Landing has been difficult, but recently a new passage has been cut through the reef on the south side, making it possible to land at almost any time of the year.