A Polynesian myth explains how Aitutaki is a giant fish tethered to the seabed by a vine. After a perilous journey from Tubuai in the canoe Little Flowers, the legendary hero Ru landed here with four wives, four younger brothers, and 20 virgins to colonize the island.
Ru named the atoll Utataki-enua-o-Ru-ki-te-moana, meaning "a land sought and found in the sea by Ru," which the first Europeans corrupted to Aitutaki. Ru named various parts of the island for the head, stomach, and tail of the fish, but more places he named for himself.
His brothers became angry when most of the land was divided among the 20 virgins, and they left for New Zealand where they won great honor. Ru himself suffered the consequences of his arrogance as higher chiefs eventually arrived and relegated him to the subordinate position held by his descendants today.
Captain William Bligh "discovered" Aitutaki in 1789, only 17 days before the notorious mutiny. In 1821, this became the first of the Cook islands to receive Christian missionaries when the Tahitian pastors Papeiha and Vahapata were put ashore.
The Americans built the island's huge airfield during World War II. Tasman Empire Airways (now Air New Zealand) used Akaiami Island as a refueling stop for its four-engined Solent flying boats during the 1950s. The Coral Route, from Auckland to Tahiti via Suva and Apia, became obsolete when Faa'a Airport opened near Papeete in 1961.