A Step Back in Time to the History of Cook Islands

All of the Cook Islanders regard themselves as true Polynesians having connections directly back to the first settlers of early migrations of seafarers to the island. The sophisticated navigational talent of the early fearless migrants to the island helped them in searching new lands that made them discover the Cook Islands.

Located around the centre of Polynesia, the Cook Islands span out in a vast ocean space of 2 million square kilometres. Every island has its special place within the group. But the origins of the islands are owed to the Polynesians who arrived around 800 AD in Rarotonga. These early sea voyagers set sail from Tupua’I, popularly known as French Polynesia.

The Great Polynesian Migration

With the continuance of Polynesian sea exploration and migration, the Cook Islands legend claimed that the great Maori migrations to New Zealand began from Rarotonga as early as the 5th century AD.

The great Polynesian migration to Cook Islands began in 1500BC when the islands were mostly populated by Maori ancestors who landed in their Vakas (giant double hulled canoes which are still part of the traditional way of sea life in the island) with the sophisticated Polynesian navigation and through the guide of the stars.

With the exploration of Spanish explorers Alvaro de Mendana sighting Pukapuka in 1595 and Pedro Fernandez de Quiros sighting Rakahanga in 1606, their sightings in the islands were quiet until around 1773.

Captain James Cook

When the great explorer James Cook made a voyage to South Pacific for possible land acquisition in 1773, he sighted Manuae, and in 1977 James Cook subsequently sighted Palmerston, Takutea, Mangaia and Atiu.

However, in 1798 Captain William Bligh sighted Aitutaki and soon after, following the mutiny on the bounty, the buccaneer Fletcher Christian having also sailed with Captain Bligh’s own boat, sighted Rarotonga.

Christian Missionaries

In 1821, the first Christian missionaries arrived in the island and influenced most of the islanders. While their mission altered some aspects of the traditional way of life in the island, somehow the islanders have managed to preserve their proud Polynesian heritage while they blended it with their Christian faith.

Despite the fact that Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society and his missionaries did their best to beat what they considered to be the carnal desires of the inhabitants which meant no dancing, singing or drumming was allowed.

Fortunately, the powerful Polynesian heritage prevailed, and today Cook Islanders are still known for their charm, relaxing approach to life and warm hospitality. However, the influence of the missionaries continued to become beneficial with the beautiful churches, the acapella singing on Sundays and the traditional mumu.

Political History

Interestingly, it was the Russians who named the Cook Islands in honour of the famous captain in 1823. In 1888 the islands became part of the British Dominion largely due to fears that France may do so first. In 1901 New Zealand decided to annex the islands despite opposition from the traditional chiefs.

Today, the Cook Islands is essentially independent or self-governing with free association with New Zealand which oversees defence.