Monday, December 20, 2010

The Unwritten History...


The Cook Islands is a descriptive name given to 15 tiny islands in the South Pacific Ocean, (aptly called the "Jewels of the Pacific") and they are: Rarotonga - the capital island, where the International Airport is located; Mangaia; Aitutaki; Atiu; Mauke; Mitiaro; Takutea; Manuae; Palmerston; Suwarrow; Nassau; Pukapuka; Manihiki; Rakahanga; and Penrhyn.

These islands (although not known as a collective group of islands but as individual islands before their discovery), have a long unwritten history. There are no written records of the origin of the early settlers, their land of origin, the period of their migration through the pacific to their present land or islands of occupation. Much of the Cook Islands written history begins only with the arrival of Europeans in the late 16th century.

While the exact history of the Cook Islands is not known as there is very little documentation to prove when the first visitors landed on these islands, what is known is that the Polynesians were the first to arrive here from neighboring Tahiti and Hawaii. Most of the ancient history of the islands have been passed on down from generation to generation, with archaeologists tracing settlements of the islands to the fourth century C.E.

The oral history of Rarotonga (the most influential island and the first one to be settled), dates back to about 1,400 years.

It is believed that the first settlers came during the Great Polynesian Migration in around 800 AD. In the 11th century a chief named Toi built the first coral road in Rarotonga, the 'Ara Metua' (inland road) which runs round most of Rarotonga, which is believed to be at least 1200 years old. Two centuries later the great chiefs Tangiia Nui from Tahiti and Karika from Samoa met and joined forces at sea to conquer the earlier inhabitants. Similarly, the northern islands were probably settled by expeditions from Samoa in the 13th century, and from Tonga.


Tradition has it that Chief Ru, seeing that his district in Ra`iatea was becoming overpopulated gathered his family and announced that he had selected a star under which he was sure he could find a new home for them. With his family and twenty young women who would become the mothers of the new island, Ru launched his canoe toward the undiscovered island. The canoe was paddled. On this voyage, Ru's canoe encountered some of the dangers traditionally associated with voyaging in the Pacific: a whirlpool, a waterspout, a submerged rock, and a three-day storm at sea that hid his guiding star from him. Ru prayed for help to Tangaroa, the Lord of the Ocean: O Tangaroa in the immensity of space, Clear away the clouds by day, Clear away the clouds by night, That Ru may see the stars of heaven, To guide him to his desired home. The sky cleared and his star appeared. He made landfall on Aitutaki.
Ru came on a canoe named Nga-Puariki, the canoe was a large double one, a katea, namely two canoes fastened together. The name of the cross-pieces of wood which fasten on the outriggers are called kiato. The names of the kiato were as follows: the foremost Tane-mai-tai, the centre one Te-pou-o-Tangaroa, and the other Rima-auru. He arrived at Aitutaki and entered a passage named Aumoana.


Tangiia, one of the ancestors of the Rarotongans, was a famed voyager. Tangiia is said to have come from Tahiti during the thirteenth century. In Tahiti he and his half-brother Tutapu quarreled over the harvest of breadfruit and other rights belonging to their father. After being defeated in battle, Tangiia fled Tahiti, pursued by his brother, who earned the name Tutapu-the-relentless-pursuer. During his flight, Tangiia was said to have sailed to Indonesia in the west and back to Rapanui, or Easter Island, in the east, an ocean expanse of over 10,000 miles. Tutapu finally caught up with Tangiia in Rarotonga, but Tangiia slew him. Tangiia settled in Rarotonga. Karika, a Samoan, settled in Rarotonga about the same time as Tangiia, but the Tahitian culture seems to have predominated, and temples, including a Taputapuatea, were established on the island.


According to the oral traditions of both the Cook Islands and New Zealand Maori people, who share very similar languages, New Zealand was originally settled by canoe voyagers from Rarotonga. Hundreds of ocean-going vakas [canoes] are thought to have landed in New Zealand from about 1000AD - both from Rarotonga and from other islands around the Pacific region. Rarotonga is the last Pacific Island on the sailing route to New Zealand and the island would have been where the canoes replenished their supplies before making the final leg of their epic voyages. Given the well-documented navigational and sailing skills of the early ocean-going voyagers and the strength and agility of their double-hulled craft, it is quite likely that there were also some return journeys, according to some anthropologists.

The most legendary migration from Rarotonga took place in 1350 when seven vakas are reputed to have set sail from Avana Harbour in Ngatangiia, to make the arduous voyage to New Zealand.


Rarotonga's present-day name stems from 'raro' meaning 'down' and 'tonga' meaning 'south'. The most popular version of its origin is that the famous Tahitian navigator, Iro, visited it once and some years later while on Mauke he met Tangiia who asked where he was going, Iro replied: 'I am going down to the south.'

The Samoan voyager, Karika, is also reputed to have called the main island of the Cook Islands Rarotonga when he first saw it from the north-east because it was to leeward -- 'raro' -- and towards the south -- 'tonga'.

In 1997 Japanese archaeologists unearthed a previously unknown 'marae' -- sacred site -- on Motu Tapu, an islet in the lagoon at Ngatangiia. This is estimated to be 1500 years old which would put settlement of Rarotonga to a much earlier period than the legend of the arrival of Kainuku Ariki. Based on the evidence of fires, archaeologists have estimated that there was human life on Rarotonga about 5000 years ago.)


On August 20th 1595, Pukapuka in the northern group was sighted by Spaniard Alvarano de Mendana of Spain, the first European to sight the Cook Islands. He named Pukapuka San Bernardo (Saint Bernard).

However, it wasn't until March 2nd 1606 that Pedro Fernandez de Quirós landed on Rakahanga in the north to gather provision, calling Rakahanga Gente Hermosa (Beautiful People). This was the first recorded landing of the Cook Islands.

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.

Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy, was the first European to explore the islands extensively. He arrived in 1773 and on September 23 sighted Manuae atoll (the first island he discovered), calling it Hervey's Island to honour a British Lord of the Admiralty. Captain Cook originally named the island Sandwich Island, but decided later to give that name to Hawaii! So he rechristened it Harvey Island.

For some reason, that appeared on maps as Hervey's Isle (an 'e' in the middle instead of an 'a'). This name was applied to the whole of the Southern Group until 1824 when the Russian cartographer, von Krusenstern changed that name to 'Cook Islands' in honour Cook, who died in 1779.

Some maps still show Manuae as Hervey's Island.

Between 1773 and 1777 Captain James Cook sighted many of the southern groups, Palmerston, Takutea, Manuae, Mangaia and Atiu, but surprisingly he never came within an eyeshot of Rarotonga. The only island he set foot on was uninhabited Palmerston atoll. He discovered it on his second voyage in 1774, but it wasn't until Sunday, April 13, 1777, during his third Pacific voyage, that he went ashore. He named the tiny and remote island after Lord Palmerston who was First Lord of the British Admiralty and father of a future British Prime Minister. The ancient name was supposedly Avarau, meaning 200 harbours.

Cook navigated, surveyed and mapped out much of the Cook Islands that stand today.

Captain William Bligh was the first European to discover Aitutaki, on 11 April, 1789...17 days before the infamous mutiny on his ship, the Bounty. He is credited with importing paw paw trees to the Cooks. And he was no stranger to the Cook Islands as he was previously Sailing Master on HMS Resolution, during Captain Cook's third voyage. Historic documents say that when Bligh weighed anchor off Aitutaki, a native came out in a canoe, rubbed noses with him and gave him a pearl-shell breast ornament suspended from braided human hair. Bligh visited again on 25 July, 1792.

In 1824, some time after Cook's death, his name was bestowed on the southern islands in an 1835 atlas. At that time, the northern group was known as the Penrhyn Islands or the Manihiki Islands. In 1842, Admiral Adam Johann von Krusenstern (A Russian Cartographer) published the Atlas de l'Ocean Pacifique, in which he renamed Hervey Islands as the Cook Islands to honour Captain James Cook.

In September/October 1813, John Williams, a missionary on the Endeavour (not the same ship as Cook's), made the first official sighting of the island Rarotonga. The first recorded landing by Europeans was in 1814 by the crew of the Cumberland. This was a commercial expedition from Australia and New Zealand and its objective was to find sandalwood, there was none on Rarotonga. Trouble broke out between the sailors and the Islanders and many were killed on both sides. The islands saw no more Europeans until missionaries arrived from England in 1821.

Manuae was used as a penal colony after Britain took over the islands in 1888, beause Rarotonga had no jail. Prisoners worked for the Cook Islands Trading Company (CITC) which leased the island as a copra plantation. The progamme ended in 1915 when a jail was built on Rarotonga.

In 1863, a merchant vessel found William Marsters and his wives on the island and hired them as caretakers for Palmerston island, where Marsters went on to create his own dynasty.


Following the explorers came the missionaries and blackbirders, bringing with them Christianity and diseases. Within time the islanders were clothed, their ancient religious beliefs abolished and traditions abandoned. Kava drinking was forbidden, and today is one of the few South Pacific Islands where it is still not consumed.

The Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society set foot 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 left the Cook Islands only to return two years later to find the entire island converted to Christianity. Even today, the Cook Islands is overwhelmingly religious.

The island converts were fenced 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.

Brutal Peruvian slave traders, known as blackbirders, took a terrible toll on the islands of the Northern Group in 1862 and 1863. At first the traders may have genuinely operated as labour recruiters, but they quickly turned to subterfuge and outright kidnapping to round up their human cargo. The Cook Islands was not the only island group visited by the traders, but Penrhyn Atoll was their first port of call and it has been estimated that three-quarters of the population was taken to Callao, Peru. Rakahanga and Pukapuka also suffered tremendous losses.

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 a French attack


The Kingdom of Rarotonga, named after Rarotonga, was established in 1858.

The nervousness of a French attack on the Cook Islands 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 Cook Islands 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 1882 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.

After the early conversion of a number of important ariki (chiefs) support for Christianity increased rapidly throughout the Southern Group. Working through the ariki the missionaries drew up draft legal codes which together with the abolition of violence as a means of dispute settlement, led to unprecedented political stability. In 1881 the British Colonial Office decided that New Zealand interests in the area needed some form of protection against foreign powers and the British Government granted a petition by local European traders and planters for the appointment of an unpaid British Consul for the Hervey Islands, as the Southern Group was then known.

In 1888 Queen Makea formally petitioned the British to set up a Protectorate to head off what she believed to be imminent invasion by the French. The British Government agreed to permit its then vice-consul in Rarotonga to declare a Protectorate over the Southern Group islands to protect pro-British islanders and New Zealand trade. The Colonial Office also decided that certain other Northern Group islands should be annexed for possible future use as trans-Pacific cable stations.

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. The first British Resident was Frederick Moss, a New Zealand politician who tried to help the local chiefs form a central government. In 1898 another New Zealander, Major W.E. Gudgeon, a veteran of the New Zealand Maori wars, 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.

In October 1885 the Colonial Office accepted an offer by New Zealand, which was then a self-governing British colony, for New Zealand to pay for a British Consul for Rarotonga on condition that he be nominated by New Zealand and act as the country's official agent. This "Resident" was also to act as adviser to the ariki in drafting and administering laws and he would sign all acts of the local legislature in the name of the Governor of New Zealand. He would also have the right to reject proposed legislation. In 1890 the newly appointed Resident persuaded the ariki of Rarotonga to form a provisional Rarotongan legislature or General Council, the first government for the entire island. The following year representatives of the ariki from Rarotonga and the Southern Group islands agreed to form the first federal legislature in the islands. However the path through the last decade of the 19th century was far from smooth and the numerous changes that took place were not well accepted by the traditional leaders.

Ill feeling between the islanders and New Zealand reached a point where two ariki told the New Zealand premier that the traditional leaders wanted the Cook Islands to be annexed to Great Britain. On 27 September 1900 the New Zealand Parliament approved the annexation of the islands to New Zealand and the following month the British Governor in New Zealand landed in Rarotonga. Without any discussion on its implications, the five ariki's and seven lesser chiefs signed a deed of cession and the Cook Islands were annexed by New Zealand on October 7 1900 without any debate or examination of its ramifications or implications.

On June 11, 1901 the boundaries of New Zealand were extended to include the Cook Islands, and the power of the ariki was removed.

In spite of the fact that the ariki and local government had told a visiting New Zealand parliamentary mission in 1903 that they wanted to remain independent in legislative matters and that the Cook Islands were, under the terms of the annexation a self-governing community under the British Crown, by 1909 the first New Zealand Resident Commissioner and the Minister of Island Territories had taken almost complete responsibility for the administration of the Cook Islands. Enactments of the New Zealand Parliament had the effect of doing away with the Federal Council by 1915.

The New Zealand Parliament would legislate for the Cook Islands, while the laws of England at the time New Zealand had become a colony (January 1840), were also applied to the Cook Islands unless contravened by legislation.

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.

By the mid-1950s, in spite of attempts by New Zealand to stimulate the Cook Islands' economy, emigration continued throughout the 1960s, particularly of young and ambitious Cook Islanders seeking better job opportunities and a brighter future for themselves and their families.

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.

By 1963 about 6000 Cook Islanders were living in New Zealand. They sent large amounts of money to relatives back home which had the effect of increasing the annual per capita income in 1965 by 10 pounds. However the Cook Islands was about to embark on a major new course. In 1962 New Zealand Minister of Island Territories Sir Leon Gotz invited the Cook Islands Legislative Assembly to consider four alternative courses for the country's future. The most practical of these was full internal self-government whereby the Cook Islands people would remain New Zealand citizens with the right of free entry into New Zealand for both themselves and their produce. The Cook Islands would be responsible for the management of its own territory. The day after Sir Leon's invitation, the Legislative Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution choosing self-government while at the same time asking New Zealand to preserve for the people their status as New Zealand citizens. On 17 November 1964 the New Zealand Parliament passed the Cook Islands Constitution Act. This was to come into force on a date requested by the Cook Islands legislature following general elections to be held in the Territory.

The elections were held on 20 April 1965 and resulted in the first government of the Cook Islands of the Cook Islands Party headed by Albert Henry, with resounding support for the proposed Constitution and self-government.

On 26 July New Zealand passed the Cook Islands Constitution Amendment Act and the Cook Islands became a State in free association with New Zealand. The free association agreement means:

• The Cook Islands Government has full executive powers.

• The Cook Islands can make its own laws and New Zealand cannot make laws for the country unless authorised by government.

• Cook Islanders keep New Zealand citizenship

• The Cook Islands remains part of the Realm of New Zealand and Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State of the Cook Islands.


1595 — Spaniard Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira is the first European to sight the islands.

1606 — Portuguese-Spaniard Pedro Fernández de Quirós made the first recorded European landing in the islands when he set foot on Rakahanga.

1773 — Captain James Cook explores the islands and names them the Hervey Islands. Fifty years later they are renamed the Cook Islands in his honour by Russian Admiral Adam Johann von Krusenstern.

1813 — English missionary John Williams made the first official sighting of Rarotonga.

1821 — English and Tahitian missionaries land in Aitutaki, become the first non-native settlers.

1823 — English missionary John Williams lands in Rarotonga, converting Makea Pori Ariki to christianity.

1858 — The Cook Islands became united as a state, the Kingdom of Rarotonga, ('Mātāmuatanga Rarotonga' - named after Rarotonga).

1862 — Peruvian slave traders took a terrible toll on the islands of Penrhyn, Rakahanga and Pukapuka in 1862 and 1863.

1888 — The Cook Islands, by it's own request, are proclaimed a British protectorate and a single federal parliament is established.

1893 — the name 'Kingdom of Rarotonga' was changed to the Cook Islands Federation.

1901 — The Cook Islands are annexed to New Zealand.

1924 — The All Blacks Invincibles stop in Rarotonga on their way to the United Kingdom and play a friendly match against a scratch Rarotongan team.

1946 — Legislative Council is established. For the first time since 1912, the territory has direct representation.

1965 — The Cook Islands becomes a self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand. Albert Henry, leader of the Cook Islands Party, is elected as the first prime minister.

1980 — 11th June, the United States signed a treaty with the Cook Islands specifying the maritime border between the Cook Islands and American Samoa and also relinquishing its claim to the islands of Penrhyn, Pukapuka, Manihiki, and Rakahanga.

1985 — Rarotonga Treaty is opened for signing in the Cook Islands, creating a nuclear free zone in the South Pacific.

1990 — the Cook Islands signed a treaty with France which delimited the boundary between the Cook Islands and French Polynesia.

1991 — The Cook Islands signed a treaty of friendship and co-operation with France, covering economic development, trade and surveillance of the islands' EEZ. The establishment of closer relations with France was widely regarded as an expression of the Cook Islands' Government's dissatisfaction with existing arrangements with New Zealand which was no longer in a position to defend the Cook Islands.

1995 — The French Government resumed its Programme of nuclear-weapons testing at Mururoa Atoll in September 1995 upsetting the Cook Islands. New Prime Minister Geoffrey Henry was fiercely critical of the decision and dispatched a vaka (traditional voyaging canoe) with a crew of Cook Islands' traditional warriors to protest near the test site. The tests were concluded in January 1996 and a moratorium was placed on future testing by the French government.

1997 — In November, Cyclone Martin in Manihiki kills at least six people; 80% of buildings are damaged and the black pearl industry suffered severe losses.

2005 -- From beginning of February to early March, over the course of five weeks of fury, cyclones Meena, Nancy, Olaf, Percy, and Rae brought great destruction to the Cook Islands groups.

2010 -- On the 9th of February 2010 cyclone Pat wrecked havoc, destroyed homes, uprooted the greatest to the smallest of trees on the island of Aitutaki.