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'Atiu's traditional name is Enua Manu, the 'Land of Birds' or 'Land of Insects' - so-named, one legend relates, because only birds and insects lived here when it was first discovered. Numerous legends tell of early settlers arriving by canoe and of visits by legendary Polynesian navigators from Raiatea and Tahiti (in the Society Islands) and Samoa.

'Atiuans were renowned as the greatest warriors of the Cook Islands and specialised in creating bloody havoc on all their neighbouring islands - Ma'uke and Mitiaro had a particularly bad time of it, but 'Atiu also managed to find time to raid Rarotonga and Mangaia, though with considerably less success. 'Atiu, Ma'uke and Mitiaro are sometimes referred to by the traditional name of Nga Pu Toru (the Three Roots) due to their geographical proximity - you could fly from one island to the other in under 10 minutes (or at least you could if Air Rarotonga ran any flights between the islands). For much of their recent history Ma'uke and Mitaro were ruled by ariki (chiefs) from 'Atiu, a trend that continued right to the turn of the 20th century, when New Zealand officially took control of the Cook Islands.

The European discovery of 'Atiu is credited to James Cook, who sent three of his boats ashore on 3 April 1777 to procure supplies. His men spent a long day being entertained (and pickpocketed) by the 'Atiuans, but effectively returned empty-handed. At one point, when a large oven was being prepared, Cook's Tahitian hitchhiker, Omai, became convinced their hosts were preparing to eat them, though the 'Atiuans expressed shock at the mere thought of such an idea - but given their predilection for throwing the natives of Ma'uke and Mitiaro into the earth oven, you have to wonder at their ingenuousness. With his men safely back on board, Cook left and managed to find provisions on the neighbouring island of Takutea, where he left 'a hatchet and some nails to the full value of what we took from the island'.

The Reverend John Williams turned up on 19 July 1823 while searching for Rarotonga. Williams was accompanied by an ariki from Aitutaki, who informed the leading 'Atiuan chief, Rongomatane Ngaka'ara Ariki, that Aitutaki had already converted to Christianity and that many of the gods there had been destroyed. Rongomatane took the mission party to his personal marae (possibly Orongo Marae on the island's west coast) and challenged them to eat the sugar cane from a sacred grove. When the missionaries ate the cane and did not drop dead on the spot Rongomatane became an instant convert, ordered all the idols on the island burnt and told his people to listen to the missionaries' teachings. With Rongomatane's navigational assistance, Williams then sailed on to find Rarotonga, the island he had been searching for over two years.

The missionaries subsequently made occasional visits to 'Atiu from Tahiti but in 1836 the Tahitian convert Papeiha was sent back from Rarotonga and started the serious work of bringing Christianity to the island.

Gospel Day is still celebrated on 'Atiu on 19 July every year, often with nuku (traditional plays) acting out the drama of how the gospel came to 'Atiu.