Mangaian legend tells that the island was not settled by voyagers on canoes, but that the three sons of the Polynesian god Rongo – Rangi, Mokoaro and Akatauira – lifted the island up from the deep, and became the first settlers and ancestors of the Nga Ariki tribe.

James Cook landed in 1777 but found the Mangaians were hostile and quickly moved on. Cannibalism had already been outlawed by Mangaian chief Mautara 100 years before the first missionaries arrived. John Williams was the first missionary to land in 1823 but, like James Cook, he was not welcome. Subsequent Polynesian missionaries had more success – the Mangaians were eventually converted to Christianity by the Rarotongan preacher Maretu.