Ancient Voyage to Rapa Nui

A Traditional Story of Mangareva

as told by Teakarotu Barthelemy

recorded by Sam Low

On Thursday, our island host - Bruno Schmidt - arrived to take us to the other side of the island to speak with a man who knew many of the ancient legends of Mangareva. We found Teakarotu Barthelemy at his home amidst a grove of orange trees near the beach. A man of ample girth and impressive dignity, he sat on his lanai overlooking the ocean and told us the story of a great Mangarvan navigator who set out to find Rapa Nui, just as we will do when the weather clears.

"Anua Matua chose his crew and set out for Rapa Nui," Teakarotu told us. "He arrived at an island that is called Maka Tea and gave it the name of Pua Pua Moku and he left his daughter and her husband there along with some of his crew and sailed on to the island now called Elizabeth and also gave it the name of Pua Pua Moku. After that they sailed on to Pitcairn Island, which he gave the name of He Ragi (pronounced He Rangi). During the voyage they searched for Rapa Nui but they passed it by mistake and found themselves in a cold place which they called Tai Koko. This place is called Cape Horn today [at the tip of South America]. They realized that they were not at a good place so they turned back and sailed by the stars in the direction they came to try and find Rapa Nui. Te Agi Agi (Te Angi Angi) was now the navigator and captain. When they finally arrived at Rapa Nui they gave the island the name of Ma Ta Ki Te Ragi (Ma Ta Ki Te Rangi) which means "the eyes look at the heavens," and another name of Kairagi (Kairangi) which means "eating the sky'" and they also called the island Pouragi (Pourangi) which means (pole eating the sky)."

"To understand the reason for the names," explained our host - Bruno Schmidt - "you must think what the island looked like to them as they approached from the sea. They saw a tall mountain thrusting up into the sky as if it were eating the sky and their eyes, following the mountain, were looking at the heavens."

Teakarotu explained that he had learned the legend from his grandmother who was a famous singer and kahu of ancient traditions. His grandmother was called Toaatakiore Karara and she helped Sir Peter Buck, the famous anthropologist who visited the islands in the 1930s with a Bishop Museum expedition. Toaatakiore Karara sang over 160 songs for Sir Peter which he recorded.

Oral traditions are subject to a great deal of change over the years and it is probable that the legend, as told by Teakarotu is not as accurate today as it was in the days of his grandmother. The islands listed, for example, do not make much sense today. According to Bruno, Maka Tea means "elvated atoll" - which could be anywhere but probably should be Oeno Island, a landmark for our voyage. Elizabeth may be Henderson Island. Tai Koko, which Teakarotu identified as Cape Horn means "place of heavy seas." Teakarotu also told us, that Te Agi Agi called Rapa Nui by the name of Te Pitu Te Henua, but this seems doubtful because, as Bruno told us, this is a Tahitian name. But the legend is interesting because it suggests the great difficulty that even the ancient navigators had when trying to find Rapa Nui. It also suggests that at least one canoe may have strayed past Rapa Nui and discovered the great continent of South America.