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Various legends tell of early Polynesian settlers arriving on Aitutaki by canoe. The first settler was Ru, who according to various traditions came from either 'Avaiki (now called Ra'iatea) or from Tubuai (both in French Polynesia). Wherever Ru's homeland was, it had become overcrowded, so Ru, his four wives, four brothers and their wives, and a crew of 20 royal maidens sailed off in search of new land, finally reaching Aitutaki.

Ru went to the highest point, the top of Maungapu, and surveyed the island. He divided the land into 20 sections, one for each of the 20 royal maidens, and completely forgot about his brothers! They left the island in anger - they had come all that way to settle new land, and yet Ru gave them nothing. They continued over the ocean and eventually wound up in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

The original name of the island was Ararau 'Enua O Ru Ki Te Moana, meaning 'Ru in Search of Land over the Sea'. Later the name was changed to Aitutaki - a'i tutaki means 'to keep the fire going' - but the old name is still used in legends and chants.

Other canoes followed Ru's party, coming from Tonga, Samoa and various islands in French Polynesia, landing at different places on Aitutaki. Each new group of people had to be accepted by one of the 20 maidens or their descendants in order to have a space on the island to settle.

The island's European discoverer was Captain William Bligh, on board the Bounty, on 11 April 1789. The famous mutiny took place just 17 days later as the ship was en route to Tonga. In 1821, the missionary John Williams came and left behind Papeiha and Vahapata, two newly converted missionaries from Tahiti, to begin the work of bringing Christianity to the Cooks. Williams returned two years later to find that Papeiha had made remarkable progress. As a result, he was inspired to greater challenges on Rarotonga.

Later European visitors included Charles Darwin on the famous 1835 Beagle voyage. The first European missionary took up residence in 1839, and the 1850s saw Aitutaki become a favourite port of call for whalers scouring the Pacific. During WWII Aitutaki went through great upheaval when the Americans moved in to build the island's two long runways, which until 1974 were larger than Rarotonga's airport runway.