Legend has it that the first Polynesians arrived in The Cook Islands by canoe from the islands of modern-day French Polynesia about A.D. 1200, although anthropologists think the first of them may have come much earlier. In any event, they discovered The Cook Islands as part of the Polynesian migrations that settled all of the South Pacific. Before Europeans arrived, feudal chiefs, known as ariki, ruled the islands. They owned all the land within their jurisdictions and held life-and-death power over their subjects. Like other Polynesians, the islanders believed in a hierarchy of gods and spirits, among them Tangaroa, whose well-endowed carved image is now a leading handicraft item.

The Spanish explorer Alvaro de MendaƱa laid the first European eyes on The Cook Islands, sighting Pukapuka in 1595. As happened in so many South Pacific island groups, Capt. James Cook stumbled onto some of the islands during his voyages in 1773 and 1777; he named them the Hervey Islands. (A Russian cartographer later changed them to the Cook Islands.) Captain Cook sailed around the Southern Group but missed Rarotonga, which apparently was visited first by the mutineers of HMS Bounty, under Fletcher Christian. There is no official record of the visit, but oral history on Rarotonga has it that a great ship arrived offshore about the time of the mutiny.

More Missionaries

The man who claimed to have discovered Rarotonga was the Rev. John Williams of the London Missionary Society. Williams came from London to Tahiti in 1818 as a missionary, and he set up a base of operations on Raiatea in the Society Islands, from which he intended to spread Christianity throughout the South Pacific. On his way to Australia in 1821, Williams left two teachers at Aitutaki. By the time Williams returned 2 years later, they had converted everyone on Aitutaki.

Pleased with this success, Williams headed off in search of Rarotonga. It took a few weeks, during which he stopped at Mangaia, Mauke, Mitiaro, and Atiu, but he eventually found Rarotonga in July 1823.

Williams established churches in the villages of Ngatangiia, Arorangi, and Avarua, but he spent most of the next 4 years forcing the locals to build a new ship, the Messenger of Peace, which he eventually sailed west in search of new islands and more converts. Those of us who take a dim view of proselytizing would argue that the Messenger of Peace extracted a measure of revenge by delivering Williams to a cannibal's oven in Vanuatu. Whatever your opinion, his reputed bones were later recovered and reburied in Samoa. Meanwhile, the missionaries he left behind quickly converted all of the islanders to his rock-ribbed version of Christianity.

On Rarotonga, the missionaries divided the land into rectangular parcels, one for each family. Choice parcels were set aside for the church buildings and rectories. Rarotongans moved down from the high ground near their gardens and became seaside dwellers for the first time. All land except church and government property is still communally owned; it can be leased but not sold.

Out of the seeds planted by Williams and the London Missionary Society grew the present-day Cook Islands Christian Church, to which about 60% of all Cook Islanders belong. The churches, many of them built of coral block in the 19th century, are the center of life in every village, and the Takamoa College Bible School that the missionaries established in 1837 still teaches in Avarua. The Cook Islands Christian Church owns the land under its buildings; the churches of all other denominations sit on leased property.

The Coming of the Kiwis

It was almost inevitable that the Cook Islands would be caught up in a wave of colonial expansion that swept across the South Pacific in the late 1800s. The French, who had established Tahiti as a protectorate, wanted to expand their influence west, and in 1888 they sent a warship to Manihiki in what is now the Northern Group of the Cooks. Although the British had made no claim to the islands, locals quickly sewed together a Union Jack and ran it up a pole. The French ship turned away. Shortly thereafter the British declared a protectorate over The Cook Islands, and the Union Jack went up officially.

In 1901, Britain acceded to a request from New Zealand's prime minister, Richard Seddon, to include the Cook Islands within the boundaries of his newly independent country. In addition to engineering the transfer, Seddon is best remembered for his policy of prohibiting the Chinese -- and most other Asians -- from settling in the Cooks.

Otherwise, New Zealand, itself a former colony, never did much to exploit -- or develop -- the Cook Islands. For all practical purposes, the Cook Islands remained a South Seas backwater for the 72 years of New Zealand rule, with a brief interlude during World War II when U.S. troops built the airstrip on Aitutaki.

Sir Albert & Sir Geoff

The situation began to change after 1965, when the Cook Islands became self-governing in association with New Zealand. The first prime minister was Sir Albert Henry, one of the South Pacific's most colorful modern characters. He ruled for a controversial 13 years, during which time his government enlarged Rarotonga's airport (Queen Elizabeth II was on hand for the grand opening) and built the Rarotongan Resort (now the Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa). Although Sir Albert lost the national elections in 1978 and was later indicted for bribery, he remained highly popular. When he died in 1981, his body was taken around Rarotonga on the back of a pickup truck; the road was lined with mourners.

Dr. Tom Davis, a Cook Islander who had worked in the United States for NASA, succeeded Sir Albert. The premiership returned to Henry hands in 1989, with the victory of Sir Geoffrey Henry, Sir Albert's cousin. Sir Geoffrey's tenure is best remembered for the government-backed Sheraton Hotel project at Vaimaanga, on Rarotonga's south coast, which went unfinished after being caught up in a scandal. The project left the Cook Islands government seriously in debt. Although plans had been announced to resume work on the hotel as I write, the property has been caught up in a land dispute. Meantime, the buildings stand hauntingly unfinished.

Succeeding governments have adopted pro-business policies, and despite a dip after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, record numbers of tourists, more than half of them from New Zealand, have fueled the economy. The country has seen a boom of new resorts, motels, and bungalows.

All in the Family

The missionaries weren't the only English folk to have a lasting impact on the Cook Islands.

In 1863 a farmhand from Gloucester named William Marsters accepted the job as caretaker of tiny, uninhabited Palmerston Island, an atoll sitting all by itself northwest of Rarotonga. He took his Cook Islander wife and her sister with him. A Portuguese sailor and his wife, a first cousin of Mrs. Marsters, joined them.

The Portuguese sailor skipped the island within a year, leaving his wife behind. Marsters then declared himself to be an Anglican minister and married himself to both his wife's sister and her first cousin.

Marsters had three families, one with each of his wives. Within 25 years, he had 17 children and 54 grandchildren. He divided the island into three parts, one for each clan, which he designated the "head," "tail," and "middle" families. He prohibited marriages within a clan (in a twist of logic, he apparently thought sleeping with your half-brother or half-sister wasn't incest).

Obviously there was a lot of marrying outside the clans, for today there are thousands of Marsters in the Cook Islands and New Zealand. All trace their roots to Palmerston Island, though only 50 or so live there.

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