Culture & History
It was during the Great Polynesian Migration, beginning around 1500BC that swept across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, when the fifteen islands making up the Cook Island archipelago were discovered, sometime between 500 and 800AD. This tiny string of islands, centered in the heart of the Polynesian triangle, was subsequently inhabited by those same skilled navigators who had made their epic voyages across the vast oceans in giant double-hulled canoes, or Vaka, guided only by the stars and the wind. 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.
European explorers begin to venture into the region with the first sightings being in the Northern Group on the island of Pukapuka in 1595, and Rakahanga in 1606, made by the Spaniards Alvaro de Mendana and Pedro Fernandez de Quiros. It would, however, be a further 160 years before the illustrious English sea captain, James Cook sailed west from Tahiti in the Royal Navy barque the Endeavour during his quest to locate the “Great Southern Continent.” Discovering Manuae atoll in 1773 he dubbed it Hervey Island, after the then Lord of the British Admiralty. On a return voyage in 1777 Cook also discovered Palmerston, Takutea, Mangaia and Atiu. Around the 1830s, in recognition of those discoveries, the Russian cartographer Von Krusenstern gave the title Cook’s Islands to the entire Southern Group. 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.
While political power in early times existed in the hands of chiefs (Ariki) who inherited their positions through the senior male line, a federal parliament was established by Britain in the ‘800 after Cook’s discoveries and missionary arrivals. New Zealand took over the Cook Islands in 1901, and abolished the federal parliament. Home rule or self-governing status was achieved on August 4th 1965, but British Westminster model was retained. Now the Cook Islands are a representative democracy with a parliamentary system in free association with New Zealand. Local population still gives great importance to the Ariki, the village chiefs which dynasty began in 1250 AD, who are consulted regarding all social matters.