The Polynesians discovered Atiu about 1500 years ago. It is believed the first settlers to Atiu came from the Tahiti group of islands. Polynesians come from somewhere in Asia. This is in spite of Thor Heyerdah's Kon Tiki voyages from South America showing that such journeys were possible, it is now currently believed that the Polynesians came from somewhere in East Asia about 4000 years ago. Genetic DNA testing shows that a race of people called the Lapita spread eastward leaving pockets of people with similar genes in Taiwan, a single valley in Japan and right across the Pacific to the Marquesses Islands, Tahiti, Cook Islands and then finally reaching New Zealand about 1000 years ago.
According to anthropologists, these journeys transformed the people. Crossing the oceans took courage and a special adaptability to surviving famine and cold. Believe it or not, water at 25 degrees C will chill you to death given enough time and these chills happened regularly on open ocean voyaging canoes. Those that survived these voyages to breed had large bodies and muscle mass to get them through the famines and to be able to shiver though the cold.
Captain Cook's landing spot 3rd April 1777
Captain Cook sighted Atiu on the 31st March 1777 and was finally close enough to send an exploration crew ashore on 3rd April 1777. Cook described Atiuans as magnificent, superbly proportioned and muscular. The crew included Omai from Tahiti and as the Tahitian and Atiuan languages are fairly similar it was possible to communicate. The Atiuan people believed they were most hospitable to crew and performed entertainment and prepared a feast for them. Omai, however, had heard stories about the fierce Atiuans and cannibalism and so believed they were to be the feast. The terrified Omai told the Atiuan stories of how powerful the weapons of the Europeans were and the crew were finally allowed to leave Atiu in the early evening but this was only only after hearing these stories and seeing a demonstration of the power of gunpowder.
Captain Cook was an excellent navigator and a very proficient chart maker so Atiu was one of the first accurately positioned islands on the British Admiralty Maps of the Pacific. Whalers, adventurers and traders came. The interaction was hot. The Early Polynesians were the world's greatest lovers. They loved everybody no matter what race. Then the Tumunu arrived and they loved that as well. And just when this action was at its hottest, two newcomers arrived. They were disease and the missionaries. Disease wiped out all those that had not been born of mixed race, as the early Polynesians had no resistance to the diseases of the out-worlders, so it was just as well the Polynesians were the worlds greatest. The missionaries condemned this free love. They also condemned the Tumunu. They worked hard in stopping what allowed the Polynesians of mixed race survive. Atiu's population plummeted from 3000 to 300.
The out-worlders gave the Atiuan mixed race and disease.
The missionaries gave the Atiuans god and took away free love.
The diseases decimated Atiu and took away most of their magnificence as their once powerful bodies interbreed with the scrawny out-worlders. But we hung in there and survived. Welcome to our world. Atiu.
Modern History, post annexation by New Zealand in 1901, is brilliantly described in John Scott's book 'Years of the Pooh-Bah'. The stories Dick Scott relates show that New Zealand as a colony of Great Britain and then the Cook Islands as a colony of New Zealand, (this means the Cook Islands were a colony of a colony), was a bad and neglectful ruler of the land.
Internal self-governance came in 1965 and 14,000 people had their own parliament and ruled themselves except in the area of foreign affairs and defence.
An international airport on Rarotonga was finished in 1973 and the Cook Islands embarked on the industry of tourism. This industry grew to be the Cook Islands main income earner. Cook Islanders are naturally friendly, enjoy entertaining, singing, dancing and just having a good time. This coupled with a sparkling tropical setting makes the Cook Islands the fastest growing tourist destination in the Pacific.
Atiu Island in 1973 was still a backwater. Phil Amos, a minister in the NZ government visited Atiu to inspect a new pineapple industry started by the United Nations to develop the island. Atiu had no harbour and Phil made the promise that the NZ Army Engineers and Airforce in a joint exercise would build Atiu a harbour. This harbour was completed in 1975 and the pineapple industry flourished until 1988 when Atiu lost the New Zealand fresh pineapple market to cheaper and easier to import pineapples from the Philippines and Malaysia.
Atiu still had no airport. Any tourist visiting Atiu had a choice, to visit Atiu for 5 hours and go back with the boat or to wait for the next boat, which normally averaged 5 weeks before it's return. Finally, Atiu's airport was completed in 1978. Atiu at that time did not have running water, telephone, electricity, and it did not have any tourist accommodation.
One of the first returnee's to Atiu after the Airport was built was Kura Malcolm and her husband Roger. They came back with hardware and a sawmill to build the islands first tourist accommodation. They started in true pioneering fashion, with the tree, and a year later Atiu Villas opened in 1980 with one villa. The villa and subsequent villas were all constructed out of local timbers and materials. This small start was expanded to 4 villas by 1992 when the number of visitors to Atiu reached 560.
Today there are 4 places to stay on the island with a total of 16 rooms and in 2015 the number of visitors reached about 1400. Still not many visitors and represents an average visitor loading of about 12 tourists at any one time. It is still possible to be the only visitor to the island but this is becoming increasingly rarer.
After the opening of the airport the development of Atiu followed fairly rapidly with electricity of eight hours per day starting in 1979, 24-hour electricity in 1998, telephone in 1992, television in 1993, the internet in 2003 and cellphones in 2013. Atiu, finally had the whole technological disaster.
Now you can visit and expect running water, a cold beer and an urgent call from your relative or business at any time.