Cook Islands and Rarotonga history information. The Cook Islands and Rarotonga were first populated during the 6th century by Polynesians who migrated from Tahiti. In 1773 James Cooks discovered the Cook Islands and named them the Hervey Islands. The islands were later renamed as the Cook Islands, in honour of James Cook's discovery.

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The Cook Islands were first populated during the 6th century by Polynesians who migrated from Tahiti, which lies to the south-east of the islands.

Cook Islands History Overview

The Cook Islands were first named by Captain James Cook, who arrived in 1773 and in 1777 as the Hervey Islands. However, the 'Cook Islands' were later named in his honour and first appeared on a naval chart published in the 1820s.

The first Europeans to settle on the islands were missionaries, who arrived in 1821 and quickly converted the islanders to Christianity. The Cook Islands became a British protectorate at their own request in 1888, mainly to thwart aggressive French expansionism and were transferred to New Zealand in 1901. They remained a New Zealand protectorate until 1965, at which point they became a self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand.


Travelling across the South Pacific on canoes, these first Cook Islanders were excellent seafarers. Tradition has it that the first Polynesians were led by Ru from Tupua'i in French Polynesia and that they had to find new islands due to expanding island populations and pressure on resources.


During the 16th century, Spanish ships visited the islands but the first recorded landing, on Rarotonga, by Europeans (the crew of the Cumberland) was in 1814. This was not an auspicious beginning, however, as trouble broke out and many sailors and islanders were killed, including the captain's girlfriend. She has the distinction of being the only white woman ever to have been killed and eaten by Pacific Islanders.


In 1813, John Williams, a missionary on the Endeavour had made the first official sighting of Rarotonga. Later in 1821, he was to send Tahitian converts to Aitutaki to bring the message of Christianity to the Cook Islanders. In this, they were extremely successful.

The missionaries were responsible for the islanders abandoning cannibalistic practices. They introduced schools so the islanders could learn to read the scriptures, and tried to limit the influence of ships' crews over the locals. They also tried to supervise and police what they considered to be immoral activities.

When the early missionaries arrived, the estimated population of Rarotonga was about 6,500. The impact of contact with the Western world was initially devastating as disease spread. By the mid-19th century, the population had reduced by nearly two-thirds.

British Protectorate

In 1888, with the French aggressively expanding their territories in the South Pacific, the Cook Islands become a British protectorate at their own request. France's armed takeover of Tahiti in 1843 had caused alarm among the Cook Islands' chiefs.

During the 1870s, under the authority of Queen Makea, the Cook Islands enjoyed prosperity and peace and it was she, who had in 1888, secured British protectorate. The British were reluctant administrators, however, and although Queen Makea preferred British annexation, in 1901, the islands were transferred to New Zealand, who had wanted the islands handed over to them.

New Zealand Protectorate

During the World War II, a boom in the New Zealand economy called for factory workers and these largely came from Western Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau. New Zealand now has the largest Polynesian population in the world. The Cook Islands remained a New Zealand protectorate until 1965, when they became a self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand.

Self Rule

In the 1960s, New Zealand buckled to pressure from the Cook Islanders to give them self-rule. The first elections were held on 20th April 1965 resulting in the first government of the Cook Islands Party headed by Albert Henry. The special relationship, of self-governing in association with New Zealand, is recognised by New Zealand in the form of annual aid, overseeing of the country's defence and the right given to Cook Islanders to have New Zealand citizenship. (New Zealanders do not have the right to Cook Islander citizenship).

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