Our History & Culture

Scattered over 2 million square kilometres of ocean in the centre of the Polynesian Triangle, the Cook Islands was first settled about 800 AD, by early Maori seafarers sailing in double-hulled voyaging canoes from Tahiti and other islands of present-day French Polynesia.

The ancient inland road Ara Metua (the great road of To’i), on our largest island Rarotonga, is believed to have been built by To’i in the 11th century, indicating the settlement of a thriving population of early Polynesians. The great seafaring chief Tangi’ia from Tahiti established the Kainuku Ariki title for the original inhabitants of Rarotonga, traditionally known as Tumu-te-varovaro.

According to traditional history, there were regular voyages between the southern islands of the Cook Islands and French Polynesia for sacred ceremonies, celebrations and trading. Voyaging expeditions from Tahiti, Raiatea and nearby islands are said to have settled the northern islands of the Cook group.

Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana recorded the first European sighting of the Cook Islands, seeing the northern island of Pukapuka in 1595. Tiny Rakahanga in the north was visited by another Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros in 1601. Although the Cook Islands are named after Captain James Cook who visited the islands in 1773 and again in 1777, he is said to have only gone ashore at Palmerston. He never sighted Rarotonga.

The 15 islands of the Cook Islands were never traditionally considered a collective group. It was not until the New Zealand Parliament passed “The Cook Islands and other Islands Government Act” in 1901, that both southern and northern group islands came under the one name. Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Manuae, Mangaia, Mauke, Mitiaro, Atiu, Takutea, Palmerston make up the southern group, with Manihiki, Penrhyn, Rakahanga, Pukapuka, Nassau and Suwarrow comprising the northern group.

The arrival of the first Christian missionaries from the London Missionary Society (LMS) had the greatest, life changing impact on the local populace. Along with the message of Christianity came the introduction of diseases to which the island people had no resistance. Whooping cough, measles and small pox decimated village populations.

The influence of the LMS was widespread. Dancing and music and other important aspects of Cook Islands culture were outlawed. The draconian Blue Laws, introduced by the LMS dominated the everyday lives of Cook Islanders. Reverend John Williams of the LMS was the first missionary to the Cook Islands arriving in Aitutaki in 1821.

The Cook Islands Christian Church is an offshoot of the LMS and Christianity remains the most dominant religion today. The influence of the LMS has been interwoven into the culture of the Cook Islands, with great importance placed on the performing arts. The last 50 years has seen a magnificent cultural renaissance in the Cook Islands.

The Cook Islands was declared a British protectorate in 1888. Formal annexation to Britain occurred in 1900. Eight months later the Cook Islands was annexed to New Zealand against the wishes of many of the indigenous people and Ariki (paramount chiefs) who wished to remain British subjects. New Zealand became responsible for the administration of the Cook Islands with a New Zealand government appointed Resident Commissioner in charge. The Cook Islands Legislative Council was established in 1946. Greater legislative authority came in 1957 with the establishment of the Cook Islands Legislative Assembly.

The passing of the Cook Islands Constitution Act by the New Zealand Parliament in 1963 opened the way for internal self-government (under the Legislative Assembly) for the Cook Islands, in free association with New Zealand, which came about in 1965. Self-governing is commemorated each August 4 with Constitution Day and the spectacular week-long Te Maeva Nui Festival.

On that same auspicious day in 1965 HM Queen Elizabeth II wrote to “my people of the Cook Islands” to extend congratulations on this “important day” that she hoped would “be the door to a happy and prosperous future.” Her Majesty noted at the time that she had not been able to visit the Cook Islands in person. That would change nine years later. In 1974 Queen Elizabeth stepped out on to the newly completed Rarotonga International Airport tarmac and formally opened the country’s gateway to the world, during her first and only official visit to the Cook Islands.

The advent of the international airport would have an almost immediate impact on the country. Being New Zealand citizens and holding New Zealand passports under the unique free association relationship, Cook Islanders now had open access to New Zealand to live and work. Over the years thousands took up the opportunity to leave in search of jobs and opportunities, leaving a total population today of around 14,000.

Access into the Cook Islands was also made easier and a thriving tourism industry started. More recently visitors to the Cook Islands have surpassed the 140,000 a year mark and tourism has become the country’s largest and most important industry.

You can read more about the discovery of the Cook Islands, ancient seafarers, the mutiny on the Bounty and the arrival of Christianity in our stories section.

Ocean voyaging vakas discover our islands
Captain James Cook (1728-1779)
Mutiny on the Bounty off the shores of Aitutaki
The Cook Islands oldest Church in Aitutaki
Albert Henry speaking on the last day of the colonial era
The opening day of Rarotonga International Airport in 1973
Re anacting the arrival of the missionaries
Chritianity plays an important part in the lives of Cook Islanders