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Cook Islands History

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© Lonely Planet Publications
22



History
POLYNESIAN SETTLEMENT
Cook Islanders are Polynesians: people of the poly (many) islands of the
South Pacific. They are closely related to the Maoris of New Zealand and
Tahiti (Cook Islanders can happily converse with their Maori cousins
from overseas, despite differences in vocabulary and dialect). For more
on Cook Islands culture, see p27.
The Cook Islands were first settled around 1500 years ago by travellers
Vaka: Saga of a
from the Society and Marquesas Islands (now known as French Polynesia).
Polynesian Canoe, by Sir
Polynesians had been trekking across much of the South Pacific in huge
Tom Davis, is a historical
ocean-going canoes for a couple of millennia before they arrived in the
novel based on the story
Cooks. The first settlers arrived in Melanesia from Southeast Asia around
of the Takitumu canoe
2500 BC, before heading on to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga; French Polynesia
(one of the canoes of
was then settled somewhere between 200 BC and AD 200. From there,
the ‘great migration’ to
canoes travelled thousands of kilometres in all directions, reaching Rapa
New Zealand in the 14th
century) over a span of 12 Nui (Easter Island), Hawaii, South America, and finally Rarotonga and
generations. Island Boy – the Cook Islands in around AD 500.
An Autobiography tells
the story of Davis’s life up
to 1992.

Herbalists specialising
in ‘Maori medicine’,
traditional remedies that
many Cook Islanders
swear by for common
aches and pains, are still
common in the Cook
Islands.

EARLY COOK ISLANDS SOCIETY
Although written records only began with the arrival of the Europeans,
oral history on Rarotonga traces its ancestry back about 1400 years. One
of the oldest legends tells the tale of To’i, the great chief who built the Ara
Metua (the ancient inland road) on Rarotonga somewhere around the
11th century, suggesting that there was already a sizable population living
on the island (probably settlers from present-day French Polynesia).
Traditional history, however, begins in the 13th century with the arrival
of Tangi’ia and Karika, great chiefs from Tahiti and Samoa, who arrived
aboard mighty ocean-going vaka (canoes), conquered the resident
population, and founded Rarotonga’s six main tribes.
Every island in the Cooks was ruled by several ariki (high chiefs).
Beneath the ariki were mataiapo (chiefs) and rangatira (sub-chiefs).
Land was divided into sections called tapere, each governed by one or
more mataiapo, and...
22
TIMELINE
www.lonelyplanet.com
Hi s tory
POLYNESIAN SETTLEMENT
Cook Islanders are Polynesians: people of the poly (many) islands of the
South Pacific. They are closely related to the Maoris of New Zealand and
Tahiti (Cook Islanders can happily converse with their Maori cousins
from overseas, despite differences in vocabulary and dialect). For more
on Cook Islands culture, see p27 .
The Cook Islands were first settled around 1500 years ago by travellers
from the Society and Marquesas Islands (now known as French Polynesia).
Polynesians had been trekking across much of the South Pacific in huge
ocean-going canoes for a couple of millennia before they arrived in the
Cooks. The first settlers arrived in Melanesia from Southeast Asia around
2500 BC, before heading on to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga; French Polynesia
was then settled somewhere between 200 BC and AD 200. From there,
canoes travelled thousands of kilometres in all directions, reaching Rapa
Nui (Easter Island), Hawaii, South America, and finally Rarotonga and
the Cook Islands in around AD 500.
EARLY COOK ISLANDS SOCIETY
Although written records only began with the arrival of the Europeans,
oral history on Rarotonga traces its ancestry back about 1400 years. One
of the oldest legends tells the tale of To’i, the great chief who built the Ara
Metua (the ancient inland road) on Rarotonga somewhere around the
11th century, suggesting that there was already a sizable population living
on the island (probably settlers from present-day French Polynesia).
Traditional history, however, begins in the 13th century with the arrival
of Tangi’ia and Karika, great chiefs from Tahiti and Samoa, who arrived
aboard mighty ocean-going vaka (canoes), conquered the resident
population, and founded Rarotonga’s six main tribes.
Every island in the Cooks was ruled by several ariki (high chiefs).
Beneath the ariki were mataiapo (chiefs) and rangatira (sub-chiefs).
Land was divided into sections called tapere, each governed by one or
more mataiapo, and home to a large extended family who used the land
to build houses, farm crops and raise livestock. Each tribe had its own
marae (sacred meeting places) and worshipped specific gods. The koutu
was the most important meeting place of all – it was the official seat of a
ruling ariki, and the place where the main sacrifices, offerings and annual
feasts were made.
A chief’s authority depended on his mana – a complex term signifying
not just physical or hereditary power, but also confidence, victory, prestige,
knowledge, spirituality and all-round star quality. Mana ariki was the
hereditary power of a chief; mana atua was the divine authority of the
priest; and mana tutara was the ruling power of a mataiapo. Mana could
be gained as well as lost; great deeds in battle and cowardly acts could all
affect a person’s mana, and the way he was regarded by the tribe.
Ta’unga (literally ‘experts’) were also important figures. There were
ta’unga in many fields, including woodcarving, agriculture, medicine,
canoe-making and navigation. The tumu korero (speaker) was responsible
for memorising tribal history and genealogy, but the most powerful
ta’unga was the high priest, who was seen as the main bridge between
the people and the spirits of the gods and ancestors. The high priest
could declare certain acts or places tapu (forbidden), either by order of
the gods or the ariki; the chief would decide when tapu had been violated
and what the punishment would be (generally it was likely to be fairly
unpleasant).
Like their modern-day descendants, early Cook Islanders never passed
up the opportunity for a party. There were elaborate ceremonies for
all kinds of occasions – coming-of-age ceremonies, marriages, deaths,
harvest festivals and victories in battle – so the islanders had plenty of
opportunity to perfect their song and dance routines.
EUROPEAN EXPLORERS
The Cook Islands had over a thousand years to develop its distinctive
culture and customs before any Europeans finally pitched up. The first
Europeans to sight the islands were both Spanish explorers: Alvaro de
Mendaña glimpsed Pukapuka in 1595, and in 1606, Pedro Fernández de
Quirós stopped at Rakahanga to take on provisions.
In 1773, the English explorer James Cook sighted the islands from his
vessel The Resolution (among his crew was a young Cornish sailing master
by the name of William Bligh, who went on to lead the infamous mutiny
aboard The Bounty in 1789). Between 1773 and 1777, Cook charted
much of the group, and following a fine English tradition of attaching
dull, irrelevant names to wonderful places, dubbed the Southern Group
islands the ‘Hervey Islands’ in honour of a Lord of the Admiralty. Fifty
years later a Russian cartographer (Admiral Johann von Krusenstern)
published the Atlas de l’Océan Pacifique, in which he renamed the islands
in honour of Captain Cook.
MISSIONARIES
Once the explorers had sailed on to new discoveries (or sticky ends, as
was the case with Captain Cook, who was stabbed to death in Hawaii
in 1779), it was left to the missionaries to establish long-lasting contact
with the people of the Cook Islands. Reverend John Williams of the
London Missionary Society (LMS) sailed from Ra’iatea (near present-
day Tahiti) to Aitutaki in 1821. There he left two Tahitian preachers,
including a newly converted Society Islander named Papeiha. By the
time Williams returned two years later, plucky Papeiha had managed to
convert practically the entire island, which spurred Williams on to take
the gospel to the rest of the Southern Group.
The Cook Islanders probably wished he’d stayed put. For the next 50-
odd years, Williams and his Bible-happy followers ruled the islands with
an iron rod, imposing a catalogue of draconian doctrines, which even
by contemporary standards seemed ridiculously strict, and frequently
bordered on the unhinged (see the boxed text, p49 ). Offenders were
clobbered with heavy fines, ensuring a steady stream of enforced labour
for the missionaries’ building projects and a handy source of revenue for
the local riko (police) and judges.
Vaka: Saga of a
Polynesian Canoe, by Sir
Tom Davis, is a historical
novel based on the story
of the Takitumu canoe
(one of the canoes of
the ‘great migration’ to
New Zealand in the 14th
century) over a span of 12
generations. Island Boy –
An Autobiography tells
the story of Davis’s life up
to 1992.
Herbalists specialising
in ‘Maori medicine’,
traditional remedies that
many Cook Islanders
swear by for common
aches and pains, are still
common in the Cook
Islands.
The roles of ariki,
mataiapo, rangatira and
tumu korero survive
to the present day.
Arguments over who
should be holding which
title are still as fierce as
ever – just check out the
daily newspapers.
They Came for
Sandalwood, by Marjorie
Crocombe, explores
the effect the arrival of
overseas traders had on
the development of the
Cook Islands.
During an investiture
ceremony for an ariki,
you’ll still see a ta’unga
performing traditional
blessings and prayers –
often right alongside a
Christian minister.
200 BC – AD 200
Polynesian pioneers reach the Society and Marquesas
Islands (now French Polynesia)
AD 500
Settlers arrive on Rarotonga and begin the process of
colonising the other islands
1300s
Tangi’ia and Karika, two chiefs from Tahiti and Samoa, conquer
Rarotonga and divide the island between six tribes
1773
James Cook sights Manuae and the ‘Hervey Group’ for the first
time
HISTORY •• European Explorers 23
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