The Cook Islands are made up of 15 islands spread over 850,000 square miles (2.2 million sq. km) of the South Pacific Ocean. Rarotonga is the capital and the most populated island, home to the international airport with direct flights from Los Angeles, Sydney, Auckland and Papeete.
Cook Islanders regard themselves as true Polynesians, celebrating a heritage connecting directly back to the finest seafarers. Possessing navigation skills well beyond the times, the original settlers came from what is now known as French Polynesia, fearlessly crossing vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean in 800AD in search of new lands.
According to local legend, Māori explorers first arrived on Rarotonga around 500AD. Traveling across the South Pacific by canoe, they made their discovery of the islands by following migrating birds, as the long-tailed cuckoo travels between New Zealand and Polynesia every October. The great Polynesian migration began in 1500BC, when descendants of the Māori ancestors arrived by Vaka, guided by the stars.
The first written history of European exploration of the Cook Islands began in 1595, incited by the sighting of Pukapuka by the Spanish voyager Alvaro de Mendana. The islands were left relatively untouched until 1773, when the nations namesake Captain James Cook recorded a sighting of the island of Manuae. It was not until 4 years later that he came across the islands of Palmerston, Takutea, Mangaia and Atiu. Captain Bligh and his ship the HMS Bounty landed on Aitutaki in 1798, and soon after, following the very bloody Mutiny on the Bounty, the buccaneer Fletcher Christian having seconded Captain Bligh’s very own boat, sailed into Rarotonga.
1821 was the arrival of Christianity and their influence was felt instantly. Although Christianity rapidly grew in popularity and has altered the traditional aspects of islander life, the people of the Cook Islands are proud of their Polynesian heritage and to this day celebrate their Polynesian roots and continue to practice their traditions.
In 1901 a declaration was made for New Zealand to annex the country despite opposition from the traditional chiefs. Many of the islands were independently ruled by local chiefs and with no federal statutory law to decide such things. New Zealand’s governing remained in place until 1965, when the Cook Island’s essentially became an independent nation, adopting self-governing in free association with New Zealand which oversees defence.
Today the total population of the Cook Islands has grown to approximately 19,000, with the majority making the Southern Island of Rarotonga their home. Having said this, many Cook Islanders have chosen to live and study overseas, accounting for almost 50,000 Islanders residing in New Zealand. Visitors to the Cook Islands are frequently enchanted by the local’s charm, genuine warm hospitality and relaxed yet positive approach to life.
Song & Dance
Cook Islanders are renown for their distinct Polynesian singing and dancing and are arguably the finest performers in the South Pacific. Each island has it’s own unique dances that tell a story through gentle, graceful hand and arm gestures, performed to the haunting rhythm of the Pacific drum.
Traditional costumes worn by dancers are handmade and decorated with intricate detail. Women proudly wear their coconut frond skirts and coconut bras, and are adorned with shell necklaces, flowers and head dresses, fashioned with pearls, shells and feathers.