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One of the Grottos in Atiu Island Cook Islands
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A frame hut on the island of Atiu Cook Islands


The 15 island nation is a modern creation. Nationhood did not exist prior to European contact and each island existed in isolation with some exceptions like the island of Atiu whose people, through warfare, colonised parts of Mitiaro and Mauke.

Political power in early times, existed in the hands of chiefs who inherited their positions through the senior male line. Their influence however was limited to their vaka, puna or district and did not extend to the next tribal territory.

The exception to the rule was the island of Mangaia where the office of King or Mangaia was achieved through war.

Today women can and are invested to chiefly titles and three of the four paramount chiefly titles on Rarotonga are held by women.

The country has three foreign national names that reflect the three different colonial histories. All national names were given without consultation with the people. 

In 1994 a national referendum was conducted for the name of Avaiki Nui or Homeland to be introduced. This was rejected by the majority of people who took part in the referendum.

The three earlier national names were Hervey Islands, Cook’s Islands and Cook Islands. Two of them encompassed only some of the Cook Islands of today. 

Hervey Islands was given by the British explorer Captain James Cook for the island of Manuae. He named it after his boss Lord Hervey of the British Admiralty.

The British later used the name to refer to all those islands which now form part of the southern group as well as the island of Niue which later broke away. This was the name the missionaries also used during their period of rule from the 1820s to the 1880s.

Cook’s Islands was given by Von Krusenstern a Russian cartographer in the 1830s after Capt James Cook. Again it referred only to the southern group islands and was not the official name used during the British Protectorate era from 1888 to 1900. They used the name Hervey islands.

The final name Cook Islands, Cook’s Islands or Cooks Islands was used during New Zealand’s rule. The name Cook Islands has survived since 1965.

Pre European contact

Oral traditions sing about the many avaiki or homelands the ancestors passed through. One particular creation chant captured the homelands in six words as a big place/ an extensive place/ a distant place  --  Avaiki nui/Avaiki roa/Avaiki pa mamao.

The Cook Islands, archaeologically, is relatively young compared to countries like Tonga or Fiji which were settled 3,200 to 3,500 years ago respectively. The oldest sites in the Cook Islands have been archaeologically dated to between 2,500 and 1,500 years old.

Despite the geographical distances and time differences between the western and eastern islands of Polynesia and the Cook Islands, sufficient material data suggests strong inputs from countries west and east of the Cook Islands.

Stone adzes for example, quarried from American Samoa have been rediscovered as well as one piece fish hooks previously found throughout Tonga and Fiji. These artefacts point to a very strong western Polynesian presence earlier on in the country’s history.

In addition two piece fish hooks similar to those rediscovered in the Society Islands confirm an input from east of the country. 

Both sources of settlement are supported today by the two languages – The Pukapuka language from west Polynesia has similarities to the languages of Niue, Samoa and Tonga whereas other languages, particularly in the Southern Group are closer to the New Zealand Maori and Tahitian tongues.

Missionary era 1820s

The London Missionary Society (LMS), a protestant denomination, introduced Christianity in 1821 from the Society Islands.

Christianity was tolerated by a polytheistic people, unthreatened by a religion, with only one god. They certainly felt superior with their greater numbers of gods. In time they were attracted to the material manifestations of the new religion like their iron tools used by the missionaries.

The people were further uncompromised by the first missionaries who were Tahitians that proselytised in a Maori dialect they understood. Thus the Christian god spoke to the ancestors in the mother tongue. The missionaries built Takamoa Theological College on Rarotonga in 1845.

It provided employment opportunities and a sense of purpose and adventure as missionaries for the people. Consequently many served in Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and New Caledonia. Takamoa Theological College still stands today and is a point of interest.

The missionary’s era lasted almost 80 years and many changes were introduced. Writing was taught and limestone houses were constructed in a new settlement for converts close to the church. The new coastal settlements were called taura oire.

For protection, settlements had traditionally been sited in the interior of most islands. A strict Blue Laws regime introduced curfews and a rigid new social code of behaviour.

A new protestant work ethic also provided seasonal employment that serviced whaling ships. Cotton, arrowroot, kumara, vanilla and bananas were traded and a robust economy thrived. But by 1900, introduced diseases had decimated the population to fewer than 1,600 from a robust 6,000 people.

British era 1888 - 1901

Britain was petitioned by the paramount chief Makea Takau in 1888 to declare the Hervey Islands a British Protectorate. Britain did not wish to do this because her colonies by then, had become too expensive to administer.

The petition was inspired by the LMS missionaries and British residents, who feared French annexation. Britain laid the foundation of a modern government via the infrastructure of a parliamentary government modelled on her Westminster system.

She established a federal parliament that increased the powers of the chiefs over other tribes. This was power they never had before. Today the old people fondly refer to this period as the Au - Peritane or British era and not so fondly as the Au – Ariki period or era of the despotic chiefs.

New Zealand era 1901

New Zealand took over the Cook Islands in 1901, and abolished the federal parliament. They then established a land court and investigated the lands to be surveyed from 1903 onwards, except for the islands of Pukapuka, Nassau, Mangaia and Mitiaro. 

Then they closed Tereora College on Rarotonga in 1911 and replaced it with the Maui Pomare scholarship. Only a few received high school education in New Zealand.  Almost two generations went without high school education before Tereora was reopened in 1955.

Ten years later the Cook Islands opted for home rule from New Zealand


Home Rule 1965 - .

Home rule or self governing status was achieved in 1965 and the British westminster model was retained. There is a parliament with 24 seats which has a four year term since 2004.

Prior to that the term of parliament was five years and before 1978 was four years and before 1968 was three years. The number of seats have also varied from 18 in 1965 to three more in 1983 and another four added to take the total number of seats to 25.

There are now some reform plans to reduce the seats to 17 from the current 24 seats. The voting age is 18 and voter turn out has been always been high. There are two main  political parties – Cook Islands Democratic Party and Cook Islands Party.

Both have governed since 1965 and have no ideological differences between them. The first premier  of the country Albert Royle Henry was succeeded by Sir Dr Tom Davis KBE (Papa Tom). The office of premier was later changed to prime minister in 1982.

Albert Henry was a charismatic leader  and  excellent orator in Maori and English. Davis was a trained doctor at Otago University New Zealand and Harvard University. He also worked with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Papa Tom is internationally recognised as a leading authority on traditional navigation, voyaging and canoe building.

Other prime ministers were Sir Dr Pupuke Robati, Sir Geoffrey Henry, Dr Joseph Williams, Dr Terepai Maoate, and Dr Robert Woonton. The current prime minister is Jim Marurai. Of the eight prime ministers, five were medical doctors and three former teachers.

Two are from the northern group islands of Rakahanga and Manihiki respectively – Sir Pupuke Robati and Dr Robert Woonton. Three are from Aitutaki – Albert Henry, Sir Geoffrey Henry and Dr Joseph Williams, though the first two stood for seats on Rarotonga.

Two have come from Rarotonga - Sir Tom Davis and Dr Terepai Maoate. The eighth prime minister is from Mangaia.

Imports to the value of $60 plus million a year exceed exports while tourism, offshore banking, pearl farming and agrculture continue to be the principal money earning industries.

Telecommunications is the new industry with internet services available on most islands. Foreign investment is encouraged and literacy high. Import levies on every product except the big four of tobacco, alcohol, petrol and vehicles will be abolished end of June 2006.

Education is free up to high school level and tertiary opportunities in America, Australia, Canada, Europe, Hawaii, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand and the Phlippines  have been taken advantage of.