The printing press poster and other lessons: printing in Rarotonga in 1849 and the Mission Press

“This is an announcement about the printing press. In ancient times these things were not familiar, and could only be written on parchment (skin of sheep). Then there was the printing press, in Britain in the year 1449. That was 400 years ago from then up to the present time”.

This is a translation of the words on the poster shown above, printed in Rarotonga in 1849.

It is a well-designed page including an ornament of a printing press which might have caused a stir, almost like a poster announcing the circus coming to town. For further context we can read about the arrival of the printing press in Rarotonga, and with it, literacy and the distribution of the Word of God, in the words of the London Missionary Society missionary, the Reverend Aaron Buzacott (1800 – 1864). His ‘Mission Life in the Pacific’ was published in 1866 and then reprinted as a facsimile edition in 1985. The chapter headings include details of hurricanes, visitors, illness and throughout, the “narrative of the life and labours.” These outline the progress reports of the London Missionary Society’s conversions and printing achievements. The quotes below are from ‘Mission Life in the Pacific’ and reflect the nineteenth century language and attitudes.

Reverend Aaron Buzacott arrived in Rarotonga, based at Avarua, in 1828 with his wife and family, and remained there until 1857 when ill health forced his retirement to Sydney.

Chapter XIII – ’Translations and the Press’ notes:

“In 1832 the directors forwarded a new iron press to Huahine, and Mr. Buzacott obtained the old work-eaten wooden one, and rejoiced not a little in his unsightly prize. The woodwork was repaired, an intelligent native was selected as an assistant, and from this press there issued, in spite of immense labour, the books of the Old and New Testaments.

The following list will perhaps best convey to the reader the division of labour amongst the missionaries in the work of translation. The task of putting into type, correcting, printing, and binding the sheets were done at Avarua, and when not otherwise stated, done by the subject of this memoir. From six o’clock in the morning till ten o’clock at night, he toiled at his manifold engagements for many long years; indeed every member of his family had to take part in the absorbing labour – Mrs Buzacott and his daughter, amidst many other duties, assisting in the correction of proof sheets; while his son, when not engaged as interpreter and translator of sermons and speeches into the vernacular for some new missionary, spent his days at the printing office, composing or printing as the occasion demanded.”

There follows a table, ‘A complete list of Books translated and printed at the Mission Press at Rarotonga.’ The table is ruled up into columns to show the date; the books; how many copies; the translator; the printer; and ‘Remarks’. In most cases Rev. A. Buzacott was the printer but other missionaries are also mentioned. There are some gaps. The number of copies printed is impressive, going up to 13,300 for the ‘Enlarged Hymn Book’ (1853). The posters printed in Rarotonga in 1849 were not printed by Rev. Buzacott as he was in England between 1847 and 1851. The broadsheet posters are not included in the table of printing. Only the ‘Arithmetic enlarged’ is in the table for 1849. 

Buzacott notes that: “Some of the larger works were printed in England including the whole of the New Testament revised and carried through the press by the Rev. John Williams in 1839 and the Old and New Testaments were revised throughout and carried through the press through the liberality of the British and Foreign Bible Society by Rev. A. Buzacott, in England 1847-1857. This being the first edition of complete Bible in Rarotongan; and in 1853-56 a second edition of 5000 was printed under supervision of Rev. W. Gill.”

The Rev. Buzacott describes the distribution of the first edition of 5,000 Bibles in Rarotongan following his return from England: “The 5000 Bibles were proportionately divided amongst the settlements; the natives being impatient to purchase copies of the complete Word of God. Numbers paid in cash; those who had no money brought arrowroot, dried banana, coffee, and various other produce as barter in exchange for Bibles...”

We have a later report of the local men printing from Augustus Earle in 1866 in his chapter on ‘The Hervey or Cook Islands, and the Austral Islands’:

“Thirty years ago printing presses were set up on the island, and portions of Holy Scripture, spelling-books, and various elementary works on geography, arithmetic, astronomy, natural history, and other subjects, have emanated from thence in the Rarotongan language. Books in the language of the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, and other islands of western Polynesia, have also been printed. Upwards of 20,000 small books have been stitched up in covers, and 6000 volumes bound in leather; all accomplished by native young men, taught by the missionaries, and printed for the people. Few, if any, of the young are unable to read or write, and there is an admirable institution for training native teachers in carpentry and the useful arts, as well as in the learning required for the efficient discharge of their duties in their own island, or as missionaries to other islands, and their steadfastness, energy and the remarkable success which has attended their efforts, are evidence of the value of the training they have received.”

In Chapter V on ‘Schools’ the Rev. Buzacott describes the fascination with literacy enabling a new and mysterious means of communication: “The art of writing amazed the natives as much as any novelty introduced by foreigners.”

Hence native curiosity resorted to strange experiments in order to gain information. Nothing could be more absurd and amusing than to notice how a number of natives would follow the letter-carrier, and put their ears as near as the letter they could, in the vain hope of hearing something of its contents.

This image demonstrates the printed letter’s reception as a new and extraordinary device. This was confirmed by Maretu. In ‘Cannibals and converts: radical change in the Cook Islands’ by Maretu he notes that early scripture tracts or tia “were considered to have magical properties and everyone wanted to own one”. Until Buzacott established a press on Rarotonga in 1832 these tia came by sea and were in Tahitian, until 1828 when John Williams devised an alphabet, grammar and vocabulary of the Rarotongan language.

Rev. Buzacott goes on to describe the method of binding which might relate to Pepa 10 on printing and other single sheet items. The wooden press described earlier came with: “an equally old fount of letter, and having repaired the wooden frame he set to work, and speedily little books in the native dialect came forth from the printing office.”

The “old fount of letter”, wooden type faces akin to Bodoni give the broadsheets their modern look. Typography specialist Jonty Valentine has identified the typeface as probably, if not a version of Thorowgood, produced by Stephenson & Blake Company in Sheffield in 1836. This is in the Didone Family of typefaces which includes Bodoni. The typeface suits the poster broadsheet format well. The “old fount of type” included some interesting ornaments, including one with the printing press, as well as the following example in the Nengone language from New Caledonia, showing a student reading.

Image: ‘A o me o Maichaman ne Asia, 1847’ annotated cover in Grey Pamphlets, published in the Nengone language of the Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

Printed resources in Cook Islands Māori, and other languages as required by the missionaries across the Pacific, were produced for “the daily instruction of the whole population”. Rev. Buzacott maintained lessons for adults and children each day.

“…the adults assembled in the school house at sunrise for an hour and a half; the children came to the same building as soon as their parents reached home and remained about the same time. Thus by nine o’clock, in Aitutaki, for example, 1,000 adults and 1,500 children had received their lessons for the day.”

The London Missionary Society’s drive to achieve literacy was successful. By 1857, Rev. Buzacott notes:

“… yet it is no exaggeration to state, that it would have been no easy matter to find a boy or girl at Avarua, of eight to ten years of age unable to read and write. In the upper classes were to be found boys who could write a beautiful hand, or who could read with fluency and correctness of emphasis. Many of the scholars attained considerable proficiency in arithmetic, geography, and astronomy.”

The publications from the Mission Press ranged from single sheet tracts to hymns, lessons, the laws of Aitutaki, ‘E ture nga te raru ariki o Aitutaki’, and religious texts. These were collected by Sir George Grey in his capacity as a linguist and collector. Donald Kerr notes in ‘Amassing treasures for all times’ that “he was not so selective when it came to collecting language materials. Here he tried to collect as much as possible whenever he could: from single word definitions and ephemeral primers to larger documents recounting ancient myths and legends.” Grey’s mid-nineteenth century collecting was documented by his librarian Wilhelm Bleek in his catalogue of Grey’s Library, now predominantly in the National Library of South Africa. 

Image: Page from Bleek’s annotated catalogue of Grey’s Library, 1867.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

Bleek’s bibliography gives insights into publications, when and where they were printed with reference to individual titles and sometimes the printers involved. In the entry below for ‘Arithmetic (190) it is noted the book was “printed by natives” in 1849 when the pepa /broadsheets were also printed. This echoes the reference by Rev. Buzacott to his printing assistant, the “intelligent native”. ‘Arithmetic’ is listed in the table of printing in ‘Mission Life in the Islands of the Pacific’ but it makes no mentioned of the printer. 

Image: Page from Bleek’s annotated catalogue of Grey’s Library, 1867.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

There is an entry for Tracts printed in Rarotonga in 1849. ‘Te Oa no te Tagnata ara (187) tracts described in Bleek’s catalogue. Note the spelling in the title – Tagnata is now generally recognised as Tangata (‘Man’ / ‘Person’). This spelling may be evidence of the indecision about how to describe words in print at this time. The Tracts (187) were not recognized in the official table of printing by the London Missionary Society.
This title, ‘Te oa no te tagnata ara’ is reported on the international catalogue platform WorldCat as held in the Grey Room of the National Library of South Africa in Cape Town and at Harvard University Library in the United States. The copy in South Africa will be the copy Sir George Grey donated, catalogued in Bleek, as entry 187. The National Library of South Africa have kindly provided details of the Tracts. They have sent further details of this item and the related titles bound with it in the Grey Collection. There are eleven additional titles bound with this title at G.12.b.1 all printed at the Mission Press in Rarotonga. These works are now exceptionally rare.

Image: ‘Oa no te Tagnata’ G.12.b.1(6) in the Grey Collection, National Library of South Africa

Other titles printed at the Mission Press in Rarotonga have been identified, including seven items in a leather pouch.

Image: Leather pouch with Cook Islands printing at the National Library of South Africa.

In 1978, 128 early printed Pacific language items were transferred to Auckland. These items were to be placed with related material in the Auckland Free Public Library, founded by Grey’s collection in 1887. The Pepa (broadsheets) were described as ‘2L’ in an inventory of Polynesian pamphlets by Auckland librarian David Verran in 1995. They have been catalogued and digitised and are accessible via Kura Heritage Collections Online.

This Heritage et AL blog post gives more details on the collection known as the ‘Polynesian and Melanesian historical pamphlets’ or the ‘Grey Pamphlets’.

The Grey Pamphlets range in date from the 1840s through to the end of the nineteenth century. Seventeen items are catalogued as being written in Cook Islands Māori. 

The remaining four Pepa in the Auckland Libraries series are shown below. They also feature on Digital Pasifik where more information can be added and shared. They remain interesting examples of instruction and creative design in Rarotonga in 1849. The Digital Pasifik platform currently includes photographs of Avarua in the Cook Islands, including an image of ‘Mission premises’ from the 1870s, as well as digitised albums and other formats from collections around the world.

The London Missionary Society’s Archive is in the United Kingdom at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Some of the Mission Press printing has been digitised including, ‘Te akataka reo Rarotonga / Rarotongan and English grammar, 1854'.

I have contacted the National Library and the museum in the Cook Islands. Odile Urirau Chief Librarian, Te Papa ‘Akamou Korero / Cultural Heritage notes that they hold some of the printed books in the Cook Islands National Library but no single sheets have survived. In June 2022, Liam Kokaua of Auckland Council’s Pasifika Success Team, visited Odile and presented the National Library of the Cook Islands with a facsimile set of the Pepa.

Image: Liam Kokaua, Auckland Council, with Toni Moeroa and Odile Urirau (Chief Librarian) National Library of the Cook Islands - Te Runanga Puka o te Kuki Airani with the pepa facsimiles,
June 2022

Shown below are the remaining posters / pepa held at Auckland Libraries with further commentary from Liam Kokaua.

Pepa 3. Aengikrmnotpuv - Liam notes that ‘leta’ is now spelt as ‘reta’.

Image: Pepa 3. Aengikrmnotpuv, 1849.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

Pepa 4. Ko Jeova te atua ora - Jehovah is the living God, the (wooden carved) idols are misrepresentations of the Heathens (Etene).

Liam notes that Jeova now written Iehova – interesting that the ‘J’ which does not normally exist in written or spoken Rarotongan is no longer used while the ‘h’ which equally does not normally exist was re-inserted into the word some time after this was produced.

Image: Pepa 4. Ko Jeova te atua ora, 1849.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

Pepa 8. E to matou metua I tea o ra - E to matou Metua I te a-o ra + ‘Our Father who art in Heaven” The Lord’s Prayer.

Image: Pepa 8. E to matou metua I tea o ra, 1849.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

Pepa 11, E Akateitei atu I toou metua Tane e toou metua Vaine. Exodus XX. Three of the ten commandments. Honour your father and your mother (Exodus 20:12) – translation by Liam Kokaua.

Image:  Pepa 11, E Akateitei atu I toou metua Tane e toou metua Vaine, 1849.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

Image: Pepa 10. Ko te tutu teia no te roromi anga tuatua, 1849.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

The statement about printing in Pepa 10 invites a new pepa series for the twenty-first century to herald the remarkable, but not magical, properties of digital technologies of the “new present time”. Further discussion about the Pepa including some readings in Cook Islands Māori will feature in Ngako: The Collections Talk series recorded at Auckland Libraries in 2022.

Author: Jane Wild, with grateful acknowledgement to Liam Kokaua, Pacifika Success Team Auckland Council, and Melissa Manapori, Senior Librarian Pacific Collections Auckland Council Libraries, Melanie Geustyn, National Library of South Africa and Odille Urirau, National Library of the Cook Islands


Amassing treasures for all times: Sir George Grey, colonial bookman and collector by Donald Jackson Kerr.

Cannibals and converts: radical change in the Cook Islands by Maretu; translated, annotated, and edited by Marjorie Tuainekore Crocombe.

Email from Jonty Valentine, 23 February 2022 regarding typeface identification.


  1. Thanks for this informative blog and excellent o be able to access these early Cook Islands language texts online. The reference to Kiri and to Mamae in Papa 10 is to a Rarotongan (Kiri) and Samoan (Mamoe) who travelled to Britain in the late 1840s to assist in taking the Rarotongan and Samoan Bibles through the press. The use of 'gn' instead of 'ng' in early texts is not so much a typo as a reflection of indecision amongst Pitman and other early transcribers of the language. Refer to Pitman's letters

    1. Kia orana and thanks for this linguistic information re 19th practice. I will refer to the link to Pitman's letters. It is great to have your comments about Kiri and Mamoe as well - our understanding of Pepa 10 is enhanced by this information. Jane


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