A CENTURY ON THE REEF
“The Boiler”, an Avarua landmark and tourist attraction, stands sentinel at the entrance to Avarua harbour, marking the stranding of the Royal Mail Steamship Maitai on Christmas Day 100 years ago.
This significant event in Rarotonga’s history is acknowledged by an absorbing display at the Museum Cook Islands (a.k.a Cook Islands Library and Museum Society) at Taputapuatea. The fascinating history of this ship, launched on the Tyne in Northumberland, UK, 1892 as the Miowera, is acknowledged in the exhibition by a detailed series of “story boards”, compiled by local steam enthusiast Tim Arnold. The exhibition was opened on Friday, 2 December, coinciding with the launch of a book by Gordon Keys entitled “Stranded in Paradise: Salvage on the RMS Maitai and her Story.” The book tells the story of the ship, and also of the recovery of her large bronze propeller some 60 years ago. Copies of this publication are available at the Library.
The Miowera had a colourful career, including strandings not only in Rarotonga, but also in Honolulu and in Norway. On sea trials following her launch she attained a speed of 17 knots, a factor which contributed to her part in pioneering the Pacific section of a new fast mail route, the “All Red Route” (operated solely by British ships) between Australia and the United Kingdom. She was a handsomely appointed ship with excellent passenger accommodation, and also provision for frozen cargo. Arnold’s descriptions and liberal illustrations will intrigue visitors with tales of people associated with the ship, and of passengers, including people like Australian opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba and American writer, Mark Twain.
From 1910 on, now under the flag of the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand as the Maitai, the ship sailed at monthly intervals on the run from Wellington to San Francisco, via Rarotonga and Papeete, Tahiti.
On her last trip from San Francisco the Maitai stranded on the Avarua reef in calm conditions on Christmas night, 1916, with passengers, several hundred tons of cargo, and 1400 bags of mail. Much of this was solders mail from the Western Front of the Great War, destined for New Zealand and Australia – and all, fortunately, recovered. Only one life was lost – a young Cook Islands man, who, during the cargo recovery process, fell into the hold after being overcome with gas.
The entertaining history of the Maitai will be on display at the Library and Museum Society until April next year.
by Gordon Keys. Gordon is retired, following a lifelong career in scientific research in New Zealand and overseas. He now lives in Alexandra, after first leaving Rarotonga in 1956, and with his wife, Rima, now returns to their home on the island during the winter months.