Volume 66 1957 > Volume 66, No. 2 > Rongomatane Ariki VI: historical ceremony at Atiu Island, by G. F. Russell, p 165-170
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RONGOMATANE ARIKI VI Historical Ceremony at Atiu Island

ON AUGUST 9th, 1956, in an interesting blend of traditional Polynesian ritual and Christian ceremony, Tetupu Mataio was proclaimed Rongomatane Ariki on the island of Atiu, in the Lower Cook Group, in succession to his uncle, Rongomatane Maka Kea, who had held that office since 1930 and who died in the Rarotonga hospital on February 15th, 1956, highly regarded as a leader and a man.

A detailed account of this ceremonial event has come from the pen of Vaine Rere, headmaster of Atiu school, and it first appeared in the September issue of the Cook Islands Review, the Cook Islands Administration monthly newspaper published in Rarotonga.

Vaine Rere is one of the few full-blooded Cook Island Maoris who has both the background and confidence to record his thoughts and impressions in English with facility and charm, and the verbatim account that follows below is a fair sample of his style.

Available records show that the history of Atiu, third largest volcanic island of the Cook Group, has some variations on the general pattern usually associated with these little tropical outposts of New Zealand. A recorded genealogy of 47 generations points to Mariri Ariki as the earthly male ancestor of the people of Atiu. Tradition has it that he came from Avaiki-i-Raro, and that his son was named Atiu-mua (the first Atiu). 1

According to Vaine Rere, Mariri's full name was Mariri-tutu-a-Manu and his canoe was named Te Kutikuti rau Matangi. Kutikuti is the name of a swamp grass having a sharp pointed leaf with serrated edge. Rau Matangi is the term given to the edges of the decking on what we would call the sheer strake at the bow. The complete name clearly implies “the canoe with the cutting prow.”

In spite of the title ariki given to Mariri in the genealogy mentioned, the Atiuans claim that their island was governed by a council of seven mataiapo until a generation or so prior to the arrival of the Rev. John Williams in the schooner Endeavour (renamed Te Matamua) in 1823, from Raiatea via Aitutaki.

By reason of the manner in which Williams revolutionised their lives, it is likely that his visit was regarded as the Western milestone in their lives and history rather than the visit of Captain Cook, who sighted Atiu on 31st March, 1777, on his third voyage. In the hope of securing fodder for his cattle, Cook dispatched three armed boats ashore under the command of Lieutenant Gore, of the Resolution.

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Gore, Burney (Lieutenant, Discovery), and Anderson (Surgeon Resolution), landed with Omai (actually Mai), Cook's useful and versatile Tahitian interpreter, and spent the whole day ashore, in some trepidation, even Omai being convinced that a large ground oven heating up nearby was preparation for a tasty foreign dish.

According to Anderson's account, which was recorded in detail by Cook, the shore party was introduced with considerable formality to three personages, separately located along the track up which they were led. Unfortunately no attempt is made to name them or indicate their social rank. 2

Records indicate that Ngamaru was the first ariki title created, followed by the Rongomatane title a few months later. The first Rongomatane was named Tinokura and the weight of evidence suggests that his son, Ngaka'ara, was the Rongomatane who was, in spectacular fashion, won to Christianity overnight by the redoubtable John Williams.

Of this event Wyatt Gill records that, on Williams' arrival:—

The people of Atiu resolved to attack the little mission vessel. But Roma-tane (the “ngo” was omitted in Missionary records), the dominant chief of that day, was so astonished at the big “canoe” without outrigger or paddles, moving at its will over the ocean, that he prevented the execution of the plan by uttering the following poetical words, now become proverbial:—
By whose command shall an attack be made
On a race of gods from a nether world?
Shall a race of weaklings
Dare to molest so wise a people?
Look at yon vessel
Gaze at its masts
At its multitudinous, innumerable ropes. 3

Just prior to Williams' arrival Rongomatane Ngaka'ara had laid waste to the two subject islands of Mitiaro and Mauke. Upon conversion he lost no time in revisiting them in Williams' vessel to command that they, too, adopt this one all-powerful god. Atiu was formally known as Enua Manu, Mauke as Akatoka-Manava, Mitiaro as Nukuroa, and the three islands collectively as Nga-pu-toru. 4

It was Ngaka'ara who furnished Williams with the sailing directions that led to the “discovery” of Rarotonga by Williams and from that base, the eventful evangelisation of the whole group. In actual fact Captain Goodenough of the trader Cumberland, spent some months at Rarotonga in 1814 and is regarded as the first European to land there.

From some time prior to 1823, then, Atiu has had three ariki of equal authority, although individual mana waxed and waned according to the fortunes of war and, later, in ratio with strength of leadership and personality. According to Wyatt Gill this tripartite division of land - 167 and chieftainship also extended to the two subject islands mentioned above. The third ariki-ship bears the title of Parua, and all three are branches of the same ancestral family.

Ngamaru Rongotini Ariki married Makea Takau, who later became one of the arikis of Rarotonga, a lady of great attainments who visited New Zealand and was one of the leading figures in the protracted negotiations that led to the British protectorate of 1888 and the cession to New Zealand in 1901. Rongotini was also an impressive figure in his day and the marriage forged a close link between the two islands.

The newly proclaimed Rongomatane is the sixth person to hold the title. Tutavake, featured as an important ancestor in the ceremonial chant reprinted below, is not traceable in the available historical records, but the name is still found among the present people of Atiu. As likely as not this could be another instance of identity being lost by reason of a personal name being discarded for a title.

It is unusual today to capture even a partial picture of the exercise of traditional Polynesian ritual in the Cook Islands. Here is Vaine Rere's account of the recent impressive ceremony at Atiu:—


When his father, Rongomatane Mataio Kea Ariki, died at Rarotonga in 1930, Tetupu Mataio was officially recognised as the succeeding Rongomatane, but owing to the fact that he was at that time only one year of age, he could not be elected to the Ariki title until he attained the age of 18 years or more. It was therefore resolved that during his absence of many years at school in New Zealand, and later in the army during World War II, the vacant title should be held by his uncle, the late Maka Kea, who became Rongomatane Ariki in 1930 until he died after a prolonged illness in the Rarotonga hospital last February. A message was dispatched by the Ngati Paruarangi tribe to call Tetupu back to Atiu to take up his new position. Preparations proceeded shortly after his arrival and on the 9th August, 1956, the investiture took place.

Investing with Ariki Robe:

Most likely the manner of installing an ariki on Atiu differs in many ways from the methods adopted on the other islands in the Group. Much of the original customs, speeches, or reciting of the incantation (Karakia) have always been strictly observed during the ceremony, even today. Before proceeding to church the new chief was led to Ngati-Tiaki-Tauvira tribal abode where he must be invested with a special but simple Ariki robe of white material whose trimmings and bindings were crinkled with soft red material, thus exhibiting the dignity and power of the Ariki. The Maro Ariki (Loin Cloth of High Chief) indicated that the new Ariki was girded to the service of his new office as well as to the service of his people. It also symbolised his being personally bound to his loyal subjects.

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Thus adorned Tetupu was rejoined by his escorts and his wife, and the procession now took a solemn march to the L.M.S. Church. Along the entire road sentries were posted on either side keeping it strictly taboo and forming arches with crossed spears under which the procession passed. Important guests such as the Resident Agent, Ngamaru and Parua Ariki, Orometua, and special guests including the Okirua Tere party, now joined the procession.

The Consecration Service:

In the olden days the installation of an ariki on the island must be carried out on the Marae-i-Orongo (Courts at Orongo), believed to be the most sacred court of Tutavake Ariki, and a place where offerings were made to the god Rongo. A high chief would not be regarded as such if his investiture was carried out elsewhere. But today our procession headed for the L.M.S. Church instead of the marae. No sooner had the Ariki entered the church than the congregation rose to the tune of the Sanctus, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” sung by the Sunday School choir. The first part of the service completed, the Ariki's Oath followed. He rose and stood before the minister, his right hand laid on the table. Then the minister began:—

Minister: Tetupu, do you accept this call for you to take the office of an Ariki for Ngati Paruarangi?
Ariki: I do accept, God be my help.
Minister: Do you promise to obey and rule under the guiding hand of Almighty God?
Ariki: I do promise, God be my help.
Minister: Will you bind your people in unity with the cord of Peace, and keep them as one flock under one keeper?
Ariki: I will, and God be my help.

The Crowning and Anointing:

The congregation rose as the Ariki made his last promise, whereupon the Minister Tupou Apolo held up the Crown and in a loud clear voice, he said, “Tetupu! In the name of the Trinity of Heaven, I crown you as RONGOMATANE TETUPU ARIKI,” and the crown descended upon his head and rested with a prefect pose. Then came the most sacred part of the ceremony, which was regarded as the most important, the anointing. As he raised his hand, holding in it the bottle of oil, the minister continued: “And I anoint you as an Ariki in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. May the Trinity of Heaven watch over you upon your throne, now and for ever more. Amen.”

Other proceedings of the ceremony followed and the service was concluded with the Benediction and God Save the Queen.

Karakia (Incantation):

On his arrival back from church the Ariki seated himself upon the supposed-to-be Chair of Investiture in the Ngati-Tiaki-Tauvira pa, the - 169 present-day Marae-i-Orongo. Soon Ukarau Mateariki, reciter of the incantation, appeared on the courts. His attitude and fierce look; his headgear and pre-European dress suggested heathenism; the spear in his hands posed shakingly as if ready to strike; his steps slow and cautious as he approached the chief. As far as the Atiuans are concerned this used to be a moment of great suspense and anxiety, because of its tragic results should the incantation go wrong. Superstitions, one might be inclined to say, but there was the case when one ariki was elected, the reciter lost all the incantation; even the trumpeter could not get a sound out of his trumpet. Result? That ariki reigned only for seven months.

Now Ukarau reached his appointed position and having menacingly driven his spear into the earth in front of him he let out a loud and long shout of “Ei . . .. e . . .. Ko Ko . . .. o!” Such was the beginning of the incantation Then the Warning:—

Akarongo mai koe e taku Ariki!
Me karakia au e topa taku Karakia,
E au toou ka poto;
Me kore ra taku Karakia e topa,
E au toou ka roa!
Take heed, Oh my chief!
If I miss the Incantation in reciting,
Your reign will be short;
But if it ends without a hitch,
Your reign will be long!

(The Karakia):

Ka tika, ka tika, kare aku tuitui . . ., kare aku paua . . ., kare aku rivetau!
E tupuranga ariki, e neke 'anga enua;
Ka tupu ki te nu . . . i, ka tupu ki te ra . . . i;
Ka tupu ki Itingaiei.
Ka oi te po . . .! Ka oi te ao . . .! Ka oi te ra . . .!
Ka oi te mara . . . ma! Ka oi te au etu!
E enua ko Avaiki: E Ariki ko Tutavake.
Ko Tutavake ka noo i te vaine ia Aumea-ki-aitu,
Anau tana tamaiti, ko Turi-arau.
Ko Turi-arau ka noo i te vaine ia Ina-Tokoai-Kura,
Anau tana tamaiti, ko Tutonga.
Ariki atu ei ki tona Koutu!
Tana Pu . . . u! Tana Pa . . . u!
E pu e pau e akaariki e . . . o . . .!
Mae . . . va!
(Trumpet and drum are sounded and the people signify their acceptance of the new ariki by loud and long repeated shouts of “Mae . . . va!”)

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Translation of the Karakia:

Verily, verily! No light (tuitui) have I; neither food (paua) nor sceptre (rivetau)!
Ariki may exist, land may shift;
It grows bigger, it keeps growing;
It grows at Itingaiei.
Night may come and go; the day, the sun, the moon
And stars; may all come and go.
The land is Avaiki, the Ariki is Tutavake.
Tutavake took the woman Aumea-ki-aitu,
And begot the child, Turi-arau.
Turi-arau took the woman Ina-Tokoai-Kura,
And begot the child Tutonga.
Thus he became an Ariki upon his Koutu.
His Trumpet! His Drum!
Trumpet and Drum for the Investiture!
Mae … va! (Acclamation by the people.)

So ends the Karakia that proclaims the new Ariki as officially elected and fully recognised by the people. The Ariki now is taken to the table upon which is spread a bounteous feast to which all officials and special guests are invited to partake. In his speech the new Rongo-matane Ariki pledged himself to the service of his people and his island.

  • COOK, Captain James, R.N., 1786. A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, Vol. 1, Book 2. London, W. & A. Strahan.
  • GILL, Rev. Wyatt, 1885. Jottings from the Pacific. Religious Tract Society, London.
  • LARGE, J. T., 1913. “Notes on Atiu.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 22:67-76.
1   The author is indebted to Mr. J. Morgan, Chief Judge of the Land Court, Rarotonga, for the genealogical and traditional data on Atiu Island not otherwise covered in Vaine Rere's account or by the authors acknowledged below.
2   Cook 1786:180-204.
3   Gill 1885.
4   Large 1913:67-76.