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Cook Islands



Though spread across a vast empty expanse of ocean, the Polynesians knew all these islands by heart long before the first Europeans came. Rarotonga was first sighted by Polynesians between 600 and 800 AD. Anthropologists believe these people may have originated in Peru and migrated to Malaya in Asia Minor and then to Polynesia. However, local legend says they came from a land called Avaiki, (place you were before) which refers to Raiatea in French Polynesia.

The Spanish explorer Alvaro De Mendana first sighted Pukapuka in 1595. He was followed by Pedro Fernandez de Quiros who discovered Rakahanga in 1606. In the 1770s Captain Cook made contact with Atiu, Mangaia, Manuae, Palmerston and Takutea which he called the Hervey Islands.

In 1789 the Bounty mutineers visited the bays of several islands on their way to Pitcairn Island. It was the Russian cartographer, Johann von Krusenstern who named the Southern Group, The Cook Islands in 1824.  

New Zealand law took effect in 1901 and after pressure from the UN, the group became a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand on the 4th of August, 1965, a day which is now celebrated as Constitution Day.


Cook Islanders are true Polynesians, the finest seafarers of the vast Pacific, voyagers on frail canoes who felt at home on the ocean and who travelled across its huge wastes in search of new lands and new beginnings.The journeys undertaken by these stone age people in their fragile craft dwarf the voyages of exploration boasted of by the Portuguese, Spanish, British, Dutch, and French. Over-population on many of the tiny islands of Polynesia led to these oceanic migrations.

Tradition has it that this was the reason for the expedition of Ru, from Tupua'i in French Polynesia, who landed on Aitutaki and Tangiia, also from French Polynesia, who are believed to have arrived on Rarotonga around 800 AD. Some evidence for this is that the old road of Toi, the Ara metua which runs round most of Rarotonga, is believed to be at least 1200 years old. Similarly, the northern islands were probably settled by expeditions from Samoa and Tonga. As was common with most patterns of Polynesian migration, expanding population and pressure on resources resulted in the ocean-going canoes being stocked with food and the most venturesome souls being encouraged to set off to look for more living space. This pattern continues today across most Pacific islands except that entry restrictions to other lands are nowadays much more stringent.

Cook Islanders are convinced that the great Maori migrations to New Zealand began from Rarotonga possibly as early as the fifth century AD. The most favored location for the starting point was Ngatangiia on the eastern side of Rarotonga where there is a gap in the fringing reef at the widest part of the island's lagoon.

Early European contact

The written history of the Cooks began with the sighting of Pukapuka by the Spaniard Alvaro de Mendana in 1595 followed by a landing on Rakahanga in 1606 by another Spanish explorer, Pedro Quiros. The British arrived off Pukapuka in 1764 and named it Danger Island because they could not land. This was a very active time in Pacific exploration with the British and French seeking greater prestige as maritime powers.

Between 1773 and 1779 Captain James Cook sighted and landed on many of the southern group but never came within eyeshot of Rarotonga. The infamous Captain William Bligh of the Bounty landed on Aitutaki in 1789 -- he is credited with importing paw paw trees to the Cooks -- and in April of that year the mutineers of the Bounty appeared off Rarotonga but, contrary to popular belief, probably did not land. Cook named the islands the Hervey Islands. In fact, he gave this name to the first island he discovered -- Manuae. The name "Cook Islands" was given to the group by the Russians in honor of the great English navigator when it appeared for the first time on a Russian naval chart in the early 1800s.

The first official European sighting of Rarotonga was from the Endeavour in September/October 1813. The first known landing was by the crew of the Cumberland in 1814. This was a commercial expedition from Australia and New Zealand and its objective was to find sandalwood. There was none on Rarotonga. Instead, trouble broke out between the sailors and the islanders and many were killed on both sides including the captain's girlfriend, Ann Butchers. She was eaten and her bones are buried in Muri, close to the site of the sailing club. She has the distinction of being the only white woman ever to have been killed and eaten by Pacific islanders!


The bluestockings and Rechabites were next to arrive -- the missionaries. John Williams of the London Missionary Society landed on Aitutaki in 1821. Williams used Tahitian converts to carry his message to the Cook Islanders and they took to this task with great enthusiasm and were extremely successful.

Williams was later killed and eaten on Erromango in the New Hebrides, now known as Vanuatu, but by then his work had been followed up and the gospels were well and truly embedded in the people's psyche.

The missionaries were responsible for the discontinuation of cannibalism. They also tried hard to fence their island converts off from the influences of European and American ships' crews and introduced schools and written language so their charges could read the scriptures. However, they also supported rigid police supervision over the people's morals and activities considered by them to be dubious. There are reports, for example, that in 1900 islands such as Mangaia had more than 150 "police" spying on and questioning a population of fewer than 2000 in the name of "morality". An American voyager to Mangaia in 1863, E.H. Lamont, wrote scathingly of the lifestyle enjoyed by the first permanent white missionary, Mr G. Gill and his wife.

He said:"It is evident that missionaries in the South Seas have an opportunity of acquiring wealth, and of having more of the comforts of life around them than their poor struggling brethren at home; but, oh! how much more delightful to the exalted mind it is to fill a position where they can benefit hundreds of their fellow creatures, where they can promote happiness, virtue, and love amongst a whole community, enlightening their minds and improving their habits, and therefore being looked up to by them with respect and veneration."

The "police" were known as "rikos". They were appointed by the missionary and were usually married church members. Their purpose was to discover the delinquencies of their neighbors and they pursued this with great diligence. There are many exhaustive and interesting accounts of the missionaries' labors.

The early missionaries estimated the population of Rarotonga at between 6000 to 7000. The impact of contact with the wider world was devastating. Western diseases spread like bushfires through the islanders and their numbers reduced dramatically during the mid-19th century to probably fewer than 2000. Since then periodic additions of people from outer islands have built Rarotonga's population back to about 10,000. In 1923 the population was reported by Stewart's Handbook of the Pacific Islands to have been '3287 natives and half-castes living as natives, and 200 whites and half-castes living as whites.'

However, even as late as 1923 curious attitudes existed to the extent that Stewart's Handbook blamed the decline on:'There are various causes which have produced this decrease, such as severe epidemics, immorality, intoxicating liquors (prohibition is now in force for all), and the careless use of European clothing.'(!)

Further depletions of the outer islands' populations resulted from the raids of Peruvian slavers in the mid-1800s. Most of those kidnapped never returned.

The British period

France's armed takeover of Tahiti and the Society Islands in 1843 caused considerable apprehension among the Cook Islands' ariki (chiefs) and led to requests from them to the British for protection in the event of French attack. 

This nervousness continued for many years and the call for protection was repeated in 1865 in a petition to Governor Grey of New Zealand.

During the 1870s the Cooks enjoyed prosperity and peace under the authority of Queen Makea, Makea Takau as she was known. A wily negotiator, she secured good prices for exports and cut the debts which had piled up before she became ariki. By 1982 four of the five ariki of Rarotonga were women. Since the sovereign of the British Empire was Queen Victoria, Makea probably found it easier to achieve a paramount status. In 1888 she formally petitioned the British to set up a Protectorate to head off what she believed to be imminent invasion by the French.

The British were reluctant administrators and continued pressure was applied to them from New Zealand and from European residents of the islands to pass the Cooks over to New Zealand. In 1898 a New Zealander, Major W.E. Gudgeon, was made British Resident with the aim of paving the way for New Zealand to take over from Britain as part of the expansionist ambitions of New Zealand's Prime Minister, William Seddon. This was not favored by Makea who preferred the idea of being annexed to Britain. One of the results of the British annexation was freedom of religion and a new influx of missionaries from different denominations. The first Roman Catholic church was dedicated in 1896.

The New Zealand period

After much manoeuvring and politicking, the Cook Islands was formally annexed by New Zealand on October 7 1900 when a deed of cession was signed by five ariki and seven lesser chiefs without any debate or examination of its ramifications or implications.

The following year Niue was annexed by New Zealand and included in the Cooks although it had always been associated previously with Samoa and Tonga. In 1903 it was, after protest, placed under separate administration. The Cook Islands remained under New Zealand's benign negligence until 1965. Desultory and half-hearted attempts were made by New Zealand authorities to upgrade facilities but the majority of New Zealanders were not interested in their colonial possessions and had only the haziest idea of the islands' geographical location. Even today there are many New Zealanders unaware that the Cook Islands was once one of their colonies.

In 1946 an important step was taken when a Legislative Council was elected. This was a tentative move towards allowing the islanders to participate in the government of their own country. After World War II a boom in the New Zealand economy called for large numbers of unskilled workers for factories and this need was filled largely by migrants from Western Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau. New Zealand now has the largest Polynesian population in the world with the addition of thousands of Pacific islanders to its substantial numbers of Maori and awareness of the Pacific islands has increased significantly.

In the early 1960s New Zealand became hypersensitive to the decolonisation fashion then sweeping the rest of the world and quickly buckled under pressure to give the Cook Islands self-rule. Elections were held on April 20 1965 and resulted in the first government of the Cook Islands Party headed by Albert Henry. He was later knighted and, many years later, stripped of his knighthood for illegal electoral rigging.

The islands became self-governing in association with New Zealand. This "special relationship" is recognised by New Zealand in the form of annual aid and by the automatic right Cook Islanders have to New Zealand citizenship, a right also enjoyed by the people of Niue and the Tokelau Islands.

Self-rule and democracy

Democracy in the Pacific is a delicate flower. Some believe that occidental democratic systems of government sit uneasily with the traditional power structures of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. As many Western countries are now re-examining their own democracies sometimes with the objective of giving ordinary people a greater say in the workings of government, traditional Polynesian countries often find it uncomfortable having to cope with calls for more accountability from their political leaders.

Nearly all Pacific island nations have difficulty with the investigative, questioning attitude of privately-owned news media, particularly the printed media. Western democracies have long been used to this and, indeed, thrive on it. The role of the fourth estate is recognised and cherished in these societies as being one of the cornerstones of successful democracy.

It is very different in many Pacific island nations. Western Samoa, for example, has a recent history of demanding respect from journalists for matai (hereditary chiefs). The government also runs its own newspaper -- a hair-raising prospect for Europeans and North Americans. In the Kingdom of Tonga in the late 1990s a journalist and a correspondent to a newspaper's letters column were arrested and convicted for "angering a public servant", namely, the Minister of Police.

Democracy was stone-cold dead in Fiji after the military coup of Sitiveni Rabuka in the mid-80s and Fiji officially practised a very real form of racial discrimination against its citizens of Indian provenance by denying them the vote. The only sanctions used against Fiji was to eject them from the Commonwealth until they were reinstated in October 1997 after Rabuka had a change of heart about disenfranchising the Indians.

In contrast, the Cook Islands enjoys universal suffrage, democratic government, two privately-owned newspapers and a vigorous standard of debate. For all practical purposes the Cook Islands is independent. It is governed by a Parliament of 24 elected representatives including one who represents Cook Islanders living in New Zealand and Australia, as well as a House of Ariki or hereditary chiefs who provide consultation and advice.

The Members of Parliament represent districts and entire islands. The system is based on the Westminster model and elections are held every five years. The Head of State is Queen Elizabeth II in her capacity as Queen of New Zealand.

For more general information on Cook Islands, go to:

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We have included the Cook Islands in some of our specials to the South Pacific, eg. our Bounty Voyage and South Sea Dream Voyage.


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