Lesson 9: The Cook Islands

The Cook Islands is a group of 15 volcanic islands and atolls in the South Pacific, 93 square miles of land spread widely over 690,000 square miles of ocean, that exist as a self-governing parliamentary democracy considered to be “in free association” with New Zealand.

The islands are broken into two distinct groups. The Southern Cook Islands, which include the most populous island, Rarotonga, and the Northern Cook Islands, which are mainly coral atolls. Actually, the largest population of Cook Islanders is not in Rarotonga, or anywhere in the islands themselves, but in New Zealand. In 2006 about 14,000 people lived on Rarotonga. In 2006, 58,000 in New Zealand self-identified as being of Cook Island descent.

According to the history page of www.ck, “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 traveled across its huge wastes in search of new lands and new beginnings.” The first record of these “true Polynesians” appearing on the Cook Islands came from about the years 600 to 800 A.D. when settlers are believed to have migrated from other Polynesian islands such as Tahiti, Samoa and Tonga.

Though each of the Cook Islands has its own unique shades of culture, a common strain running among them is a social organization based on chiefs, families (clan) and a lack of individuality as opposed to integration with the village or family group. The chiefdom primarily passed along the male bloodline, while land rights passed down the mother’s line. Among other duties such as leading the village in war, chiefs were responsible for the all-important sharing of food and giving of gifts; the greatest chiefs threw the best parties. Www.ck also suggests Cook Islands society has a Greek-style “heroic” strain, meaning that in the islands a man would acquire power by developing a reputation of having accomplished admirable deeds.

The first Europeans to visit the Cook Islands were Spaniards who stopped by in 1606 after first sighting the islands in 1595. They didn’t stay to colonize. In 1764 a British boat docked off of the island of Pukapuka but didn’t feel safe landing because of the high surf; they named it “Danger Island.” Famed British navigator Captain James Cook did land on several islands from 1773 to 1777. He called the group the Harvey Islands, but a Russian naval chart named them the Cook Islands and that name stuck. In 1789 mutineers from the famed Bounty, discussed in our featured country e-mail about French Polynesia, spotted the Cook Islands but didn’t stop by. In 1813, John Williams, a missionary introduced above, was the first European to record having seen Rarotonga. In 1814 the first British landing party visited Rarotonga looking for sandalwood. Things didn’t got well, especially for the captain’s girlfriend, the ironically named Ann Butchers.

Despite this, missionaries, led by the same John Williams we met above, arrived from England in 1821 and rapidly converted the islanders to Christianity. The missionaries were responsible for putting an end to cannibalism and also established a police force of sorts, the rikos, who were married church members responsible for reporting their neighbors’ immoral behavior. After the missionaries arrived on Rarotonga the island’s population dropped from about 6,500 to less than 2,000 due to factors like disease transmitted by the Europeans and a run-in with Peruvian slave traders in the mid-1800s who took men from the islands to work in South America.

In the late 1800s the dynamic Queen Makea feared a French invasion similar to what happened in Tahiti and the Society Islands and in 1888 successfully petitioned the British to adopt the Cook Islands as a “protectorate.” The Queen preferred British rule to that by New Zealand, but the British let New Zealand take charge in 1900. New Zealand maintained control until 1965. Www.ck describes New Zealand’s rule as being one of “benign negligence.” During this period, especially during World War I, large numbers of Cook Islands natives emigrated to New Zealand to find work.

Since 1965 the Cook Islands has been a parliamentary democracy that has functioned relatively well, at least according to www.ck’s comparison with democracies in other Pacific islands: “By contrast, the Cook Islands enjoys universal suffrage, democratic government, several privately-owned newspapers and a vigorous standard of debate.”

Because the Cook Islands is so geographically isolated and the small islands lack few natural resources islanders rely very much on imports, outside aid and remittances from relatives who work abroad, especially from New Zealand. About 100,000 travelers visit the islands yearly, making tourism the country’s main industry, far outpacing the islands’ other industries–offshore banking, pearls and fruit.

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