Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira
Rival of the first European Explorers
On 20 August, 1595, Spaniard Alvarano de Mendana sighted Pukapuka, in the Northern Group – the first European to sight what later would become the Cook Islands. He named Pukapuka “San Bernardo” (“Saint Bernard”).
It wasn’t until 2 March, 1606, that Pedro Fernandez de Quirós landed on Rakahanga, in the north, to gather provisions. He called Rakahanga “Gente Hermosa” (“Beautiful People”). This was the first recorded European landing on the Cooks.
Pedro Fernandes de Queirós
The British arrived off Pukapuka in 1764, and named it Danger Island because they could not land. This was a very active time in Pacific exploration with the British and French aggressively seeking to expand their empires and heighten their maritime prestige.
Captain James Cook, of the Royal Navy, was the first European to explore extensively the island group that would come to bear his name.
Cook arrived in 1773 and on September 23 sighted Manuae Atoll, in what is known today as the Southern Group of the Cooks. He originally gave Manuae the name Sandwich Island, but decided later to give that name to Hawaii. So, he rechristened his “discovery” Hervey Island (or Harvey Island), in honour of a Lord of the (British) Admiralty.
Captain James Cook
Between 1773 and 1777, Cook navigated and mapped much of the Southern Group – Palmerston, Takutea, Manuae, Mangaia and Atiu, Surprisingly, he didn’t sight the biggest (and tallest), Rarotonga.
The first recorded European sighting of Rarotonga was on 25 July, 1823, by Captain John Dibbs, of the colonial schooner Endeavour. The Endeavour was transporting the Rev. John Williams on a missionary voyage around the islands. Dibbs also reported sighting the islands of Mitiaro and Mauke, to Rarotonga’s north-east.
Cook’s “Hervey Island(s)” name was applied to the whole of the Southern Group until 1824 when the Russian Admiral, Adam Johann Ritter von Krusenstern, an explorer and cartographer, published the Atlas de l’Ocean Pacifique, in which he renamed the islands in honour of Cook. The northern group was known as the Penrhyn Islands or the Manihiki Islands).
Brutal Peruvian slave traders, known as “blackbirders”, took a terrible toll on the islands of the Northern Group in 1862 and 1863. At first the traders may have genuinely operated as labour recruiters, but they quickly turned to subterfuge and outright kidnapping in order to round up their human cargo.
The Cook Islands was not the only island group visited by the “traders”, but Penrhyn Atoll was their first port of call and it has been estimated that three-quarters of the population was taken to Callao, Peru. Rakahanga and Pukapuka also suffered tremendous losses.
The Kingdom of Rarotonga was established in 1858 and in 1888 it became a British protectorate by the request of Queen Makea Takau, mainly to thwart French expansionism.
Makea Takau Ariki
Queen Makea formally petitioned the British to set up a Protectorate to head off what she believed to be imminent invasion by the French. The British Government agreed to permit its then vice-consul in Rarotonga to declare a Protectorate over the Southern Group islands to protect pro-British islanders and New Zealand trade. The Colonial Office also decided that certain Northern Group islands should be annexed for possible future use as trans-Pacific cable stations.
The British were reluctant administrators and continued pressure was applied to them, by New Zealand and by European residents of the islands, to pass the Cooks over to New Zealand.
In 1901, the Cooks were transferred to New Zealand and, with the passing of “The Cook Islands and other Islands Government Act”, the name “Cook Islands” was applied to all 15 islands in the group.
In the early 1960s New Zealand became hypersensitive to the decolonisation fashion then sweeping the rest of the world and quickly buckled under pressure to give the Cook Islands self-rule.
The Cooks remained a New Zealand protectorate until 1965 when they became a self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand. The free association agreement means:
- The Cook Islands Government has full executive powers.
- The Cook Islands can make its own laws and New Zealand cannot make laws for the country unless authorised by government.
- Cook Islanders keep New Zealand citizenship
- The Cook Islands remains part of the Realm of New Zealand and Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State of the Cook Islands.
(The Cook Islands are one of four New Zealand dependencies, along with Tokelau, Niue and the Ross Dependency).