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Ruatoka (1846–1903)

by Marjorie Tuainekore Crocombe

This article was published:

Ruatoka (1846?-1903), missionary, was born in Tamarua, Mangaia Island, Cook Islands, about 1846. The status of his parents is unknown, but they were Christian converts. Taught by William Wyatt Gill he went about 1868 to Takamoa Theological College, Rarotonga, then under James Chalmers.

Ruatoka became one of six Polynesians chosen to convert New Guinea and with his wife, Tungane, left Rarotonga with his five colleagues and Gill in mid-1872 and reached Somerset, Cape York, on 11 October. On 25 November with their wives and one child the missionaries landed at Manumanu on the coast of Papua with a supply of food, some medicine, trade goods and a small boat; in February 1873 they left the station, decimated by fever, and were taken to Somerset by Captain John Moresby.

Five months later Ruatoka and three colleagues sailed for Port Moresby. The Motu people, who often traded with Manumanu, recognized him and invited them to stay at Elevara and Hanuabada in Port Moresby. Ruatoka was never appointed leader of the party but clearly took command. The English missionaries depended on him to interpret, advise and supervise when they were away. He was an efficient and dependable guide; short journeys with W. G. Lawes in 1876 and Chalmers in 1877 and a major trip with Chalmers in 1880 behind the Owen Stanley Range made Ruatoka well known on the Papuan coast.

In the 1878 Laloki River gold rush Ruatoka and Tungane nursed sick miners in their own home. Ruatoka once carried a patient for ten miles (16 km) on his back; no native would help for fear of evil spirits. The miners presented him with a testimonial, not only for his kindness but also for his work as a mediator in land disputes. The Queensland government gave him a fine shotgun. After his first wife died, he married the Papuan widow of another teacher. His children died young, but an adopted son, Teina Materua, served the colonial government for years.

Ruatoka was an effective mediator and a successful evangelist but his teaching was described as 'vigorous ineffectiveness' by one English missionary. When Chalmers was murdered in 1901 Ruatoka offered to go to the same village to take over the work, but he was too old. He died in Port Moresby on 12 September 1903 and was buried there. His name is used in Ruatoka Road, Port Moresby, Ruatoka College, Rigo, Papua, and for the married student quarters in the Pacific Theological College of Suva, Fiji. His most enduring memorials are the stories still current about him in both New Guinea and the Cook Islands.

Select Bibliography

  • V. A. Barradale, Pearls of the Pacific (Lond, 1907)
  • M. T. Crocombe, ‘Ruatoka: a Polynesian in New Guinea history’, Pacific Islands Monthly, Nov-Dec 1972, and for bibliography
  • LMS, South Seas journal, Papua reports 1871-1900 (microfilm, National Library of Australia)
  • M. Crocombe and Ako Toua, Oral tradition records (University of Papua New Guinea, 1967).

Citation details

Marjorie Tuainekore Crocombe, 'Ruatoka (1846–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 28 June 2022.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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